Half the world away
I first crossed an airport gate by myself at 8 years old, headed to Montevideo, Uruguay. The solo flight was a short one, only a little over an hour from my home in Porto Alegre, Brazil. A journey I took to join my mother, who was then road-tripping the small, South American country while on an extended break from work.
While being escorted through airport corridors and gates and attempting to have a conversation in Spanish with the airline personnel, I felt like a movie star. Instead of being nervous, as all adults in my life expected, I embraced the experience with confidence, putting my chest up and carrying my “makeup bag” with as much entitlement as any grown-up in the room.
Eight years later, at 16, I embarked on a slightly bigger adventure. Headed to the United States, I crossed the airport gate by myself once again. When arriving at the St. Louis airport, a woman and a girl — both of whom I had never met before — awaited me and welcomed me to their family for five months. I was going to spend a semester at Gibault Catholic High School, in the small town of Waterloo, Illinois, just twenty minutes away from the Illinois-Missouri border.
It was the first time I would be away from home for a long period of time and, to what seemed to be everyone’s surprise, I was once again not nervous. Why would I be? After all, I had always known I wanted to study abroad and had been preparing myself for that moment ever since when I was six years old.
Exactly two years after moving to Waterloo (I mean, literally to the day), I found myself once again hopping on a flight. This time, I headed to Qatar, where I would begin my university studies at Northwestern University’s global campus in Doha. But when arriving at Hamad International Airport, after a total of 24 hours of traveling, I did not find a warm hug awaiting me — not from my mom, or even from a pair of strangers.
I had left Brazil forever — or at least for the foreseeable future. Left my parents, friends, family, and loved ones in order to pursue a new life just a 14h flight away. Still, I was once more not nervous at all. I did not doubt my decision for even a slight moment.
Upon reflection, it seems to me that the courage I had when traveling to Uruguay, the United States, and Qatar came from a point of childish innocence. I did not fear anything because I did not know what to fear.
During my years abroad and adventures around the world, I have probably accumulated more airport tears, smiles, and hugs than most 19-year-olds would normally have. I have become an expert in security, immigration, and how to fight turbulence anxiety. Doing any airport experience by myself is a piece of cake, but one element of these travels seems to only get harder with time: the goodbyes.
On my last visit to Brazil, it was only after picking a fight with my mother, running away from a family selfie, and refusing to hug anyone for more than 10 seconds that I finally burst into tears inside the Porto Alegre airport boarding area. I refused to accept that this was a hard moment to process. Why would it be? I am a brave person, I am sure of my decisions, and I am happy with my life in Qatar.
There seemed to be no reason for me to be nervous — I had done this before. This was just me heading back to my normal university life. Well, I did not account for one thing: Qatar was now home, and it is only when you start calling a place “home” that you recognize and accept its flaws and hurtful bits.
When a place becomes home, it also stops being an escape.
And at the end, the truth is that moving abroad by yourself is harder than it seems. Reinventing the word “home” does not just mean an extended trip to an amazing place. It also means experiencing ups and downs without often having a warm hug to hold on to. It means making new friends in a different environment. It means missing out on seeing your loved ones grow and evolve.
A few days ago, when I sat and cried my eyes out while writing an email to about missing home, I realized one thing: I may not have grasped it when hopping in those planes, but moving abroad as a teenager was the bravest, greatest thing I have ever done.