Alina Clay: Realizing My Potential Abroad

panoramaWe’ve all heard those stories of “how I found myself” or “who I really am,” right? You might find them enlightening or thought provoking, or perhaps you consider them uninspiring and unoriginal. In any case, I’m going to try my best to convey what I’ve learned while studying abroad, and how this has evolved in how I think about myself, those around (and not around) me, and my future.

We experience self-growth in different ways and at varying paces, and it can hit us rather unexpectedly. For example, perhaps you were reading your worn-down copy of Pride and Prejudice for the fifth time, or jamming along to Adele’s new album (or any of her albums, really), or having that late-night coffee chat with a new friend from class. But whenever and wherever it happens, processes of self-growth can lend us a source of inner strength that can then empower us to pursue the loftiest goals, the mightiest ambitions, and the most imaginative dreams. It can be what anchors you, guides you, and propels you forward.

My self-growth, which has unveiled to me my potential, occurred gradually while being a U.S. exchange student at the University of Tartu in Tartu, Estonia.

Alina with Villem

Casually posing with the Student Days’ mascot last autumn, right before my dear friend Elisa (on the right) and I received the best (and free!) pancakes.

To start, I come from the southern region of the U.S. and have lived a large chunk of my life pretty much sheltered, seeing more or less the same faces growing up and believing that maybe, just maybe, I was destined to stay in this one comfortable place, working and living around those who had known me since I was a giggly, boisterous toddler. While not a negative vision, I now realize in retrospect that I shortcut my expectations of myself and my future because I did not believe in myself nor saw the potential I harbored deep within to risk and reach for the uncertain, the unfamiliar, the unknown.

Last August marks the start of my journey when I flew off alone to Estonia, missing my connecting flight in Houston and later not having my luggage during my first two days in Tartu. I cannot pinpoint an exact moment or specific event that sparked my self-evolution process, but it has been one that has altered my perspective toward who I am and what I am capable of doing and being. This process has been exhilarating and scary, fluid and messy. It’s been interwoven with a myriad of familiar and unfamiliar faces, travel destinations, emotions, knowledge, life lessons, and mistakes from both my past but especially my time abroad.

What I can now mention are some of those layers that coalesced while being abroad and initiated this self-realization. Namely, all that it took for me to live virtually independently in a foreign country for an extended period of time. And by “all that it took,” I’m referring to the immeasurable levels of emotion, stress, time, energy, questioning, language barriers, uncertainties, mistakes, and successes that accompanied the novelty of arriving to Estonia.

Alina at the Ahhaa center

Trying to be adventurous by biking along a wire at the famous AHHAA Science Center.

I quickly discovered I had to decide whether to accept the challenges that study abroad naturally poses, whether to take and embrace each high and every low. I was given little instruction and lamentably no prescriptive formula to magically ensure that my time in Estonia would be worthwhile, memorable.

Yet I think that my time away from home grew to become more meaningful each day, providing a sturdy foundation for me to finally realize this inner spark of potential. It certainly included asking the bus drivers repeatedly which stop was Riia Street (it’s actually embarrassingly close) as I was stressed out about retrieving my residence permit; stumbling in speaking Estonian to order just one coffee at Werner (before learning that ordering in English is completely acceptable); and setting personal phone reminders to put on my reflector when outside at night.

It also included the times I frantically ran around the sprawling city of Stockholm as I could spend only eight hours there before returning to the ferry, as well as getting seriously lost on the metro in St. Petersburg on the way to meet with a much beloved teacher. I also can’t forget gradually befriending Estonian and international students, tromping up Toome Hill ten times a day to reach my classes, and watching in awe as Estonians of all ages embraced their culture by dancing to traditional folk music in Town Square.


Relishing being surrounded by shelves and shelves of books in the wonderfully cozy Raamat on Rüütli Street.

Amidst encountering every profound and mundane moment of studying abroad, I find that I’m fascinated with the development and people of this region of the world. I grasp now more than ever the sheer expansiveness of the world around me, that I am but one miniscule dot roaming around and trying to determine what I’m supposed to do (and when and where and why and how).

Here in Estonia, I’m continuing to learn what I love, what I don’t like, who I want around me, where I want to go next and for how long. Above all, I’m convinced with every passing day that nothing should nor will stop me from dreaming big, from devising seemingly unattainable goals. The past several months have helped me to discover my inner potential, which has conveniently been nestled cozily inside of me all this time. It’s a multilayered, evolving manifestation of all the challenges and problems I’ve overcome, the values I’ve established, the skills and knowledge I’ve developed, and the emotions I’ve faced at every point along the way.

Alina at the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn

History here in Estonia is very much alive, and visiting Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds was the fiercest reminder of this.

Asserting that I have recognized my potential might appear cliché or ambiguous, and its implications and overarching meaning are not altogether clear to me, either. What I can say at this point is that I imagine within me this tiny gem, this animate object that shimmers if you really squint your eyes and look closely – there, it’s there. It cannot be stolen, it cannot be permanently compromised. It at times can falter or flicker, but my potential is immortal and grows stronger and brighter each day.

My potential carries me when I need to be held and shoves me forward when I need to be pushed. In retrospect, I understand that this potential was merely waiting to be recognized, waiting patiently for me to come to it, caress it, and coax it gently into awakening.

While not daring to cross into the realm of dreaded didactic prose, I believe to my very core that every individual that roams this planet harbors this at times elusive thing called “potential,” and I also believe that recognizing and embracing it can help to steer and motivate you through life. However we envision it and its impact to be, potential is, in my most humble opinion, staggeringly empowering and beneficial in guiding each of us along across the turbulent course of our lives.

This entry was posted in Estonia, Student life, Tartu and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.