Ryan Schaller, International Studies and Romance Languages major, on the Sciences Po Paris program.

2018 has been a big year for the LGBT+ community. In spite of, or perhaps in response to, a homophobic administration, films like Love, Simon and music artists like Troye Sivan have been launched to the forefront of the public sphere. Even during the Winter Olympics, America couldn’t help but fawn over Adam Rippon and his undeniable love for Reese Witherspoon. And while 2018 has made enormous strides for the LGBT+ community as a whole, it’s also been a big year for me. This past January I left my sense of comfort in Ann Arbor and boarded a plane headed to Paris, France. Choosing to study abroad subsequently became one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and the experience propelled me to positively reflect on my own mental wellbeing and self-awareness. In other words, at the risk of sounding like a well-recycled cliché, spending a semester abroad gave me the chance to finally accept the human I am. 

Prior to arriving, I had always romanticized Paris and its many wonders, both those in plain sight and others more hidden beneath the metropolitan surface. Growing up, I spent hours dreaming of the city. In my sleep I walked the city’s cobblestone streets and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle and shine. I imagined writing my debut novel in Hemingway’s Café de Flore and getting stranded in a Parisian spring rain. Even after arriving, despite so much buildup, la Ville Lumière met my expectations and then some. Paris left an indelible mark on my character, and it was ultimately in this same transition from French dream to Parisian reality that I underwent my own metamorphosis. 

In college, coming out was the first step in my healing process. I remember sitting in my mom’s car almost two summers ago, uncapping the carbonated beverage that was my closeted homosexuality. The act of coming out was immensely cathartic, but it still wasn’t enough. Afterwards, I still felt plagued by a shadow of self-doubt. Was I acting too flamboyant? Did what I choose to wear make me seem too gay? Sophomore year of college was like picking up the pieces of a scattered and broken teenager. It was the first time I truly felt supported and accepted by a loving circle of friends and family. Nevertheless, despite putting these pieces back together, to loosely quote Lady Gaga, I could still see the cracks in my reflection. 

In stark contrast, studying abroad was like throwing the mirror out the window. Faced with such a new environment, I began to let go of all the negative baggage and start over, so to speak. At school, I was making new friends who didn’t necessarily know my backstory. We bonded over our shared present, and not by a common history. I was speaking French all the time and finding new and unique ways to express myself. I was taking classes taught by French professors and learning in a truly international context. 

Not even just school, but Paris and Europe more broadly presented me with an opportunity to fully embrace myself. I stopped trying to put on an air or act in a certain way, I was just being me. I felt freer, no longer weighed down by preexisting notions of how I should behave or act. If I wanted to wear a fur coat to a nightclub, then I did. If I wanted to whip around a shoulder-length green wig in Dublin, then who cared. If I wanted to see Lana Del Rey perform in Barcelona, then that was my prerogative. I stopped worrying so much about what other people might think and started asking myself what made me happy. 

Europe taught me to indulge in the present. I felt happy and carefree going through my daily routine and exploring nearby cities on the weekends. In and outside of Paris, I took risks and gambled on high-stakes adventures. For example, in the French Alps I decided to go paragliding on a whim. I faced a fear of heights and leapt off a cliff with nothing but a parachute and a middle-aged Frenchman strapped to my back. As silly as it sounds, moments like these taught me a lot. I remember hearing once that courage isn’t living in the absence of fear but acting in spite of it. Some parts of me might still be afraid of judgment or homophobia, but I no longer run or hide from the fear. I’m capable of tackling the hate head on. Whether it was soaring through the Alps or taking a full course load in a different language, I constantly challenged myself in Europe. I learned that if you play it safe, you might end up happy, but you’ll always wonder if there’s more. At the end of my journey, I’m finally done shying away from risks and giving in to hesitation. 

Europe also helped me mature, albeit without sacrificing my sense of fun in the process. Ironically enough, Paris made me see my home through a whole new lens. As a foreigner in France, I was forced to think more about my identities. What does it mean to be an American or a student or even a gay man? It took going out of the country to reflect on what my place was back home. I think more than anything I loved watching these two worlds collide; American and French, home and foreign. For example, when I got homesick I would listen to Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide is a song that never fails to make me think of my mom. In March, I even found a French adaptation of Grease. Some of the songs were kept in their original English, but it was amazing to see most of the musical translated à la française. 

On a similar note, for me thinking about home is usually bittersweet. Sometimes I fault myself with harboring resentment for the places or people that initially made me feel like an outcast. I used to fall victim to letting certain emotions overpower others. I would let feelings of shame and anger take the place of joy, laughter and love. Europe helped eradicate this imbalance. Where previously I often rejected the places that made me feel like I didn’t belong, Paris helped replace rejection and bitterness with newfound appreciation. Like a French adaptation of an American musical, I’m starting to reconnect old spaces and remix familiar songs. I’m eternally grateful for my roots and the opportunities I’ve been given and I’m extraordinarily lucky that Paris helped me recognize this fact. 

Lastly, I don’t think that this phenomenon is entirely unique to Europe or my experience alone. I think that study abroad in general engenders an immense amount of self-reflection. The act of leaving everything behind, stepping out of your comfort zone, if even for a semester, prompts serious thinking. Without the structure of an established life back home, you’re left with yourself and yourself alone. You can either choose to love that person with all your heart or wage a war of ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs.’ In my case, I chose to lay down my arms and give in to utter self-love and acceptance. As humans we’ve all been given one life to live, and it’s a disservice not only to ourselves but to the rest of the world if we don’t live that life authentically. Like RuPaul famously says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” 

All this being said, one last question remains: what’s next? How can I ensure that I’m able to take this happiness and self-acceptance with me when I go back to Michigan? Once the plane sets down in Detroit and the European semester ends, how do I carry over this burgeoning sense of self? 

For me, the answer revolves around a mindset change; maybe I’m not exactly sure of where I’m heading in life, but I’m sure of the person that’s taking me there. Europe may be gone, but the memories I’ve had here will last a lifetime. The Paris that I had dreamt of for so long now holds a firm and unbreakable grasp on my memory. Though I may physically be back in the States, regardless of audience or geographic location, I’ve learned that no one can take my identity away from me. At long last, I feel both confident on the inside and out; I’m proud of where I’m from and the person I’m growing to be. Thank you, France for showing me that change is incredibly powerful and that self-love is fundamental to happiness. From this moment forward, I’m going to be nothing short of unapologetically me.