Looking Back, Looking Forward


How a semester abroad helped me come to peace with my first three years at Harvard. 


It’s strange to be back in the US and at Harvard after a semester of studying abroad in Vienna, traveling around Europe, and working at a summer internship in Armenia. Studying and working abroad has so many wonderful advantages that I know I won’t have to explain to most Harvard students.* Yet, my study abroad semester taught me more than I ever hoped. A chance to reflect on my own, my parents’, and my continent’s past and present has helped me view my first three years at Harvard with a healthy mix of confidence and criticism, instead of anger and false explanations for silly mistakes.


I studied abroad in Vienna because I wanted to reconnect with my seemingly forgotten childhood in Budapest, and my relatively newly found identity as a European, rather than just a Hungarian. Although I was born in Budapest and I went to elementary school as well as part of high school in the city, I’ve been living in the US for almost six continuous years before deciding to study abroad. I love Vienna because it’s like Budapest, except for being fancier and cleaner. The Danube makes both cities come alive, whether blue or gray, cold or warm. Although our languages’ roots have nothing in common, they sound strangely similar. A friendly hello is “Servus!” in Austria and “Szervusz” in Hungary. A joke, however funny or dumb, is “Witz” in German and “vicc” in Hungarian.** And I could go on.

A semester studying abroad gave me a chance to slow down. Instead of trying to do everything more and better, I thought about why I want to do the things I do and why I don’t want to do other things. I thought about what I didn’t do so well in my first five semesters and what I really wish I had done differently. Then I convinced myself it doesn’t matter what I should’ve done differently and better, and that I have one more year to learn and do a lot of things the way I want to do them. I thought about the fact that I should’ve had these conversations with myself a long time ago. Then, I convinced myself that it’s totally fine and was grateful that at least I’m thinking about these questions now.


Studying abroad also made it possible to travel on the weekends. My first weekend in Berlin was perhaps the most eye-opening and magical three days of my life. Eye-opening and magical in the way that being suddenly dropped into the setting of your favorite childhood cartoon is. My childhood was filled with my mom’s stories about growing up in Communist Hungary. While the stories were always extremely critical of the era, for me, the memories seem simpler and lighter. Stories of her singing songs about Lenin in the car during road trips, or silly stories about the absurdities of the Pioneer Movement revealed her fascination for the past and that past’s impact on her and the world and became, for me, some of the most defining moments of my childhood.

Berlin made these stories and songs come alive and satisfied my desire to understand this integral part of the 20th century a tiny bit more. Berlin remembers the dark side of history in a way few European cities do because it really must remember; the pieces of the Wall watch over the city and, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe stands silent but strong. Yet, the wonderful present culture of music, language, and food show that the focus is on the future. And for reasons even I don’t fully understand, seeing this inspired me to reflect on the past and focus on the future as well.


I can’t change the past, but I can learn from it, analyze it, and move forward more confidently. This is an obvious lesson that I learned a long time ago. But as obvious as it may be, the past few months abroad have taught me that this applies to my four years at Harvard as well. It really is okay for college to be a transformative four years. And it really is okay if that transformation means many small mistakes. Why am I telling you this? I guess I hope that anyone frustrated with class choices, concentration choices, internships, friendships, and relationships at Harvard learns from this confusing story of cities and stories, cities and stories which helped me to look back, and then look forward.


Anna Papp ’16 (annapapp@college.harvard.edu) is excited for the challenges of senior year and is always happy to talk about studying or spending time abroad.


*Oh, but if you do have questions about studying abroad, please do reach out to me or other Student Advisers during drop-in hours at the Office of International Education.


** Pronounced the same!