Re-Orienting Abroad: ‘Packing Light’

"Berlin" by Risaburo Kimura. Part of "Portfolio of Twenty Cities," a collection of silkscreen prints added to the Mead Art Museum collection in 1986.

We live a life of constant crisis. Moment-by-moment, day-by-day, we’re defined by an endless series of conflict. I brought my identity crisis with me to college. And unless you were an extraordinarily self-assured 18-year old, you probably did too.

Known for his theory of psychosocial development, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson is famous for having coined the term “identity crisis.” His theory asserts that at any point in your life, you are in the midst of one of eight major stages of accumulative maturity. At each stage you confront a new, significant challenge–a “crisis”–that you must “master” in order to advance to the next phase. Each stage is characterized by two conflicting forces that, once reconciled, result in an earned “value” that helps define you.

Although this progression sounds like the plot of a 90s video game (beat the boss to level up!) it’s not difficult to see its applications. From ages 5-12, you battle through “Industry versus Inferiority,” when you use successes in primary school, competitive sports, and basic art to gain a general sense of “competence.” You’ll spend much of your middle-aged life in a generativity crisis, or the struggle to make your life count for something greater than yourself.

But when we leave home and head to college, we’re at the peak of our identity crises, the binary conflict between individuality and role confusion that confronts the questions “Who am I?” and “Who can I be?”

At a highly selective school like Amherst, the question lurking at the back of everyone’s head, though only rarely vocalized, is “How did you get in?” The college application process forces high schoolers to “brand” themselves, to pretend to have their lives figured out in order to angle themselves correctly to an admissions committee devoted to admitting a highly diverse student body. This imbues students with a hypersensitivity about who they are and, worse, why they’re valuable to the institution. According to Erikson, it’s perhaps the least appropriate time for this.

I’m not decrying the system – these are the rules of the game and there’s no way around them. This model’s as effective as it can be when the goal is recruiting a diverse but qualified student body. The problem, then, is not in the application and selection of students. It’s that after all the admissions letters have been delivered and all the matriculation decisions made that we bring that heavy baggage—that heightened sense of “Who am I?”–to school with us. I expect it’s a similar story at our peer institutions, but at Amherst we’re always thinking about what we contribute to the school’s proud tradition of “diversity,” the special “catch” in our application that made us stand out in the Admissions Office. It seems you’re always within earshot of a conversation detailing anecdotes, fantastic or banal, about pre-Amherst life. In my Fiction Writing course last semester, the majority of student-written stories were thinly veiled first-person narratives, half-fictionalized for the sake of the assignment, but still limited (yes, limited) to a personal experience. I was no exception; I may have been the worst offender.

There’s a fine line between a past that defines and a past that haunts.

At twenty years old, according to Erikson, my identity crisis should be just about resolved, placing me in the thick of “Intimacy versus Isolation: Can I Love?” I feel that this distinction is appropriate. I’m no longer troubled by the “Who am I?” question, a conspicuous contrast from two years ago when I was just starting my college career. It’s not that I can answer this question now. It’s just no longer a crisis.

Concurrent to the Class of 2017 Orientation this year was an orientation schedule for my study abroad program in Berlin. As with the programming I did two years ago, I was supposed to attend tours, mixers, and academic discussions around the city. There was a similar excitement buzzing among the 150 other students in my program, all meeting each other for the first time. Questions such as “Where are you from?” and “What are you studying?” echoed the small talk of those first few days of freshman year. “Are you doing FOOT or CEOT?” found an analog in “Are you going on the Copenhagen or Paris excursion?”

But, unlike my freshman orientation in 2011, inquiries about expository, background information ended there. In a city that’s carried its identity crisis far, far past its adolescence (“Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being”) it’s evident that the extra two years of psychosocial development has resolved a lot of the who-am-I angst in my peers here.


I’ve not stalked Facebook profiles of any of my new friends–and neither have they—past the day we met in August. There’s a general consensus that the minutia of the lives we left behind at home don’t really matter to the relationships we’re cultivating now. No one cares what my high school looked like, or what kind of parties I went to, or who my college friends are. I’ve been quiet about my past, and so have they. Coming from an institution brimming with students obsessing over their contribution to the abstract notion of ‘diversity,’ this has been a totally novel, totally refreshing way of interacting with other people my age. It feels like a more genuine way of getting to know one another. We’re comfortable enough with our identities, and how our pasts inform them, to instead look ahead to our future together—albeit a future with a 5-month expiration date.

I’ve been gradually unsubscribing from all the Amherst listservs I’m on. If I could, I would remove myself from the “ALLSTUDENTS” group–I really, really don’t care that the Lives of Consequence campaign is being celebrated this weekend—because the goings-on at home don’t affect me in Berlin. When Amherst students go abroad, we technically un-enroll from the institution, meaning that right now I’m a student at Freie Universität Berlin, not Amherst College.

The most cited piece of advice from students returning from abroad is always “PACK LIGHT.” I’ve heard countless stories of tearful encounters with airport employees over the strict 50-pound weight limit imposed on pieces of luggage, but almost everyone ends up being happier for it. By leaving most of your belongings behind, you select only what’s most relevant for your terminable stint away, temporarily freeing yourself from the anchors to that place and time. So too should student travelers leave their emotional baggage, and with it, the bulky weight of the past, at home. I’ve left mine, and hope to continue enjoying this fabulous buoyancy—this vertigo of the spirit—until my return.