Standing at the Crossroads: Lessons I Have Learned Over the Last Year as an International Student – Liviu (Romania)

Someone wise told me before I left for Estonia in 2019: “So far, you have passed many exams at university, but from now on, while you are there, you must pass exams every single day.” Of course, I agreed completely with this advice, but I only got to fully understand it much later.

Living abroad is a one-of-a-kind experience and it requires a huge amount of courage (if you are an international student or you are planning to become one and you are reading this – congratulations! You are off to a great start in life!) The two years that I have been spending in Estonia have changed me completely in all aspects, as I have re-learned everything I knew about life and the choices I make. Here are some of the lessons I have learned that have impacted me the most.

You are the one calling the shots

Once you start studying abroad, your choices shape your future. Well, that sounds easy, right? It sure does, but once you realize that what you do every day has an impact on the lives of others and on the world around you, you start being more careful with the words you say, the things you do, and the decisions you make. When I became conscious of it, I was scared that I might do something wrong in the future and ruin my life. That is the moment when I had to sit back and think about what I really want from life. This is the right moment when you need to carefully choose the values you want to uphold and figure out what you want to fight for in this life. Even if you do not have it figured out now, do not panic. Everyone is struggling in the same way. And everyone will find their path.

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Plans do not work out the way you think they will

Even though you have the power to decide over your future, sometimes things do not go the way you want them to, for various reasons.

My initial plans were to study abroad in Japan in the first semester of my second year. The main reason was to conduct my research for my master’s thesis, but also to travel as much as possible in the country and maybe even get to South Korea. However, the pandemic happened exactly when I was submitting my documents for studying abroad. In the end, the Japanese university where I planned to go canceled all chances for foreign students to come. I was forced to continue my studies in Estonia, which in turn led to changing my thesis topic and my overall plans for the 2020/2021 academic year. After some time, I applied to study abroad for a semester in South Korea, but again, this plan fell through as well.

All in all, it is safe to say that plans do not get fulfilled exactly as you planned them. You will never be able to expect what is going to happen next month or next year. And for that matter, it is absolutely fine and recommended to embrace the unknown, rather than being terrified of it. Wherever you are in one year or even one month, most likely you will never have seen it coming.

My faith helped me cope with sudden changes of plans during difficult times and helped me accept anything that might come on the way. On the photo, Orthodox icon of Saint Hieromartyr Platon, Bishop of Estonia.

Work against your anxieties, not with them

Every major change in your life comes with its own load of anxiety; in my case, I had to deal with existential anxiety and with questions that I thought could and should be answered. I thought that my mind is mature enough to find the appropriate answers and handle deep serious topics, but in reality, I was wrong all along. It took me almost a year to realize that examining anxieties produces a never-ending cycle of doubts and unease, as well as the fact that some questions do not need an answer right now, or even at all. Stick to your goals and do not let any anxiety bring you down.

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Do what you can

This is closely tied to the previous one. Learning to accept that you have limits, and you cannot do everything is humbling and shows how little control we have. This became especially true after the pandemic started. I learned that there are things that I can change, and for which I have a choice, and things for which I need the wisdom to realize that perhaps I cannot do anything about them.

Do your best in everything, but do not go overboard. Always celebrate small successes and breakthroughs and do everything gradually. Being reasonable about your limits and knowing that you cannot be perfect in everything is the major requirement for achieving inner calm and real progress.

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Family is strength

My family has always been sticking together, no matter the times. Having a loving family back home can really make a difference. Whether I feel good or bad, whether I fail or succeed, I know that I can always call my folks back home and talk about the things I am going through. Sometimes, I wish they were here with me, seeing all the things I see and do the things I do in Estonia.

Whether you have parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, and aunts, cousins, spouses, or lovers back home, keeping in touch regularly with them helps you and them stay on the right track. The familial relationship is the deepest and most meaningful out there. So, go ahead and call your folks; send them a message, ask them how they are, write them a letter or send them a little package with Estonian goodies. Such gestures matter so much, and they can ensure that the connection between you is sustained.

My brother and I, taking a selfie on my first holiday home, after my first semester in Tartu. Bucharest 2019.

Friendships are like air

You might be an introvert or an extrovert, you might be afraid of speaking in public or of interactions with people; it does not matter. You need true friends.

Perhaps the most terrible outcome of the pandemic was the social isolation part. I never knew how important it is to regularly meet people, look into someone’s eyes and talk about things you both enjoy. I learned that I took social interactions for granted and never realized how much I would not suffer due to the absence of contact with friends.

This is a hard truth, but our time here in this life is limited for all of us. That is why you must try your best to be kind and have patience with everyone you meet. Check on your friends, see how they are doing, encourage them, and most importantly listen. There is nothing like someone making time for you just to listen to what you have to say.

One of the most awesome groups of people I have met: the ISA team. December 2020. Photo credit: ISA

Love is the greatest teacher

If a student wants to live true student life, then they must let love find its place in their hearts.

Perhaps the greatest change that I felt was learning how to love and letting love teach me along the way. Amidst all the world chaos and anxiety, I was able to meet the girl I had always been waiting for. We stuck to each other during tough moments, and we grew more patient, more altruistic, and more caring. The fact that we were both from totally different cultural backgrounds proved to be a rewarding challenge. She offered me the sense of hope and the ability to dream again during times when I felt completely down and anxious. 

I would not advise anyone to look for temporary companions, but I do advise you to search for that love that gives you comfort, makes you forget about yourself and reveals the true nature of your heart.

My girlfriend and I, together in a drawing made by her. August 2020. Made by @i.m.kiko

Although last year was the hardest in my life, I can also say that it was the best because my life turned out to be so much better than before. The fact that I was here in Tartu, along with all its people, helped me stay on the path to become a mature adult. I consider Estonia the place of my maturity baptism, where I started the real daily life exams. The last and most important lesson I have learned is that only by challenging yourself and facing internal or external struggles you can become the person you have dreamed to become since childhood.