5 Months in 5 Quotes

“5 Months in 5 Quotes” is a summary of Igor Aksentijevic’s experience in Oxford, Mississippi from August – December 2013.  The second installment of “5 Months in 5 Quotes” about his spring semester experiences will be released in May.

Month 1: August. “Always take the road that frightens you most for it is indubitably the best way to grow.”Marina Abramovic

AUGUSTIf you ask my friends whether they would ever study abroad or not, the majority of them would get back to you with a negative response. In fact, the majority of students in the world would react the same way. It is natural for people to enjoy comfort and spend most of their lives buried in one place. It is shocking how few people travel, let alone spend half of their year far away from what they call home.

I, however, have always been attracted to the unknown. An insatiable thirst for knowledge has always been my greatest motivation. There is something seductive in following the path you have never taken before. It can mean that you are, indeed, flirting with danger, but one should challenge oneself to see beyond imposed boundaries. If you manage to get the clear picture of what you can achieve – or become – once you take that path, you will forever be grateful for opportunities and chances that you discovered along the way.

When I was told that I would be studying in Mississippi, my world froze for a single moment. It was not the excitement and joy that filled my heart, but rather worry and disappointment with the location. Days passed until I finally found myself in the moment of appreciation of what I have been given: fear turned into a drive that pushed me into the real world. I would never be the same again.

Month 2: September. “Freedom is an internal achievement rather than an external adjustment.” Powell Clayton

SEPTEMBERAdapting to “the new” is everything but easy. For example, when people learn that you are going to be away from your home country for a long period of time, they instantly assume that you are mentally prepared to find comfort. Let me tell you: IT’S A MYTH. Take it from a guy who had already spent a year abroad prior to doing an exchange in college. It is always different and each time you do it – it feels new again.

My first two weeks at Ole Miss were exciting, but surely uncomfortable. I missed my mother’s food, my sister’s house on the coast and my dad’s humor. I missed my friends and my dog. Everything that I was familiar with was suddenly gone and the whole thing felt like a mistake of personal choice.

It was not long after that I found my comfort. To be honest, it was mainly because of the people that I had found home in, but also thanks to an inexplicable inner voice that had been telling me to cherish the experience and be thankful for being given this chance. I thought to myself, “What is something you can do here in the South that you might not possibly be able to do elsewhere?” I started visiting blues bars, traveling to places such as New Orleans and Houston, and doing inside research on topics such as racism and segregation – both of which are still shockingly present in Mississippi.

One of the major lessons that I have learned from this experience is that what we call home consistently follows us everywhere we go. We always carry our morals and our upbringing with us. Our culture and tradition is something we can never escape from, and a piece of national mentality remains stored in the back of our minds. For me, that revelation was calming. It filled me with inner peace and told me that no matter what I did or where I went, I was shielded with certain security at all times.

Month 3: October. “I’ve always preferred cities to towns. Big cities allow you to constantly reintroduce yourself.” Patti Smith

OCTOBERI was not built for the American South. I am your typical European city boy who cannot imagine living without corner cafes and late night walks along medieval streets. This is one of the reasons why I love New York City and Boston. Both of these northeast cities offer a somewhat European lifestyle. I always have a good laugh with my southern friends who tease me, saying that I am “as far as you can be from a country boy.”

I really enjoyed exploring the Southern culture with my international friends. Although not my favorite place in the world, Ole Miss definitely gave me a close insight into what the South is – mostly – about. Most of the stores close in late afternoon hours and “clubbing” is over after 1 am. This was devastating at first, but I managed to adapt to the slow and – to some extent – secluded culture of the South. People enjoy staying in their giant houses in the middle of nowhere, rather than going out. I am quite sure that taking a walk is on the list of American urban legends since driving absurdly short distance seems to be one of the favorite activities. At first glance, it is all about sorority culture and football, but I ended up realizing that Southern people were quite hospitable and just enjoyed having a good time. It would have not happened had it not been for nice Southern families and friends that I got a chance to meet in Oxford.

Month 4: November. “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

NOVEMBERStudying in the American South gave me an insight into the “real America.” It changed my perception of the U.S. and how the country functions today. Being an international relations major, I got a chance to thoroughly examine American political institutions, foreign policies and the collective mentality of Americans.

I consider myself to be a socially aware individual and this self-consciousness made it difficult for me to be blind to what is going on in the contemporary United States. On one occasion, I visited Houston, Texas with a friend from the Netherlands; we were both left in distress after seeing numerous beggars and children whose sleeping area was located in front of a skyscraper in the business district. A resident of a wealthy neighborhood nearby told us that she “has never seen the ghetto,” which was quite ironic given the fact that it was situated in her backyard.

Similar encounters made me appreciate facilities and benefits that my home country offered. Americans have no free healthcare nor are they granted a free education. Moreover, simple medical check-ups can cost you thousands of dollars. Don’t let me start with a college education that you can forget about unless you can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars EACH YEAR. So guess what? If you are sick and poor in the U.S., it’s bad news! I am speaking about masses, not the privileged or exceptional individuals. My job as a social critic is to put these issues under a microscope and analyze them. This is one of the reasons that I am grateful to be studying in Mississippi, America’s poorest and most racially intense state.

I am aware that America is still the land of opportunity and for an educated, informed and healthy individual as myself it is a dreamland. When you study culture and social matters, however, the first thing you are taught is that exceptions are solely taken as examples to follow and admire, rather than to observe the majority through.

Month 5: December. “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”Tim Cahill

DECEMBERI genuinely believe I have made lifelong friendships in Oxford. In the beginning, I thought to myself, “People come and go. This is reality and you can do nothing about it.” All the worries, however, pale in comparison to what you learn as the semester goes by.

You learn how to be more independent and to be on your own. You learn that distance strengthens true friendships, even if you don’t Skype that often. You get introduced to a whole other world that could not be more culturally different from what you’ve always known. You get to embark on adventures that you wouldn’t have a chance to experience unless you were an exchange student. You confront challenges that steel your character. You learn that patience results in achieving greater goals. You get to visit places that you might have, or might have not, only heard of before. You get to taste food that you never knew existed. You discover new joys of life.

Most of all, you learn that people are people. Regardless of their ethnic background or skin color, they are facing the same issues that you are. No matter their nationality or traditional customs, they are finding ways to establish a common tongue. Despite language barriers, they are learning to communicate through emotions and deeds of kindness.

One of the first things that caught my eye while walking through the Ole Miss campus was the monument of James Meredith that had the word “courage” engraved on it. At that moment I realized that I was courageous. We all were. Leaving everything behind to indulge in an experience that would change your life forever is definitely an act of courage, although the majority of exchange students don’t look at it in that manner. You are enjoying life abroad, but always remembering that you will eventually return home. You learn that the journey to the outside world  brings about an even greater journey – the one from the inside, the road to oneself.

Igor Aksentijevic, Montenegro, University of Mississippi

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