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  • Posted 7 years ago


On Studying Abroad and Mental Health

The best decision I’ve ever made at Stanford was to leave.

By Matthew Volk

The best decision I’ve ever made at Stanford was to leave.

Don’t get me wrong. Stanford is an amazing place, and I count myself lucky that I get to be here. I love Stanford, and I can’t even begin to think about graduation (perhaps that’s an essay for another day). But, as is increasingly part of campus dialogue, Stanford can also be a pretty overwhelming place, and this takes a toll on its students’ mental health.

My sophomore year definitely fit that bill: feeling the pressure of having just switched majors, I started the year off taking too many classes, stressing over psets and essays and midterms. I then got one of those phone calls that everyone dreads: my aunt was dying. I missed weeks of school to be with her and my family as the cancer slowly ripped her apart, and I began to feel the all-too-familiar symptoms of depression settling in. By the end of sophomore year, I felt like I was suffocating. Stanford felt like a mental prison, where I couldn’t get a single moment to myself to process everything that had happened. So, without looking back, I packed my bags and left.

I spent the next six months away, the first three abroad in Madrid and the three after that working in New York. I left my family and friends and didn’t see them at all over these six months. And, to my surprise, this time away from everything and everyone became the most formative of my life so far.

In Madrid, I was plopped into a house with a loving host mother who didn’t speak a word of English. I met her 4 children and her 11 grandchildren and learned about their dreams and fears. I listened to Spanish radio with them and watched perhaps one too many reality TV shows with them. I got addicted to tinto de verano, learned how to use the subway, and went clubbing for the first time (and the second, and the third, and the tenth). Thanks to the magic of financial aid and cheap flights, I saw The Mousetrap in London, I danced the night away at the Oxford Ball, and I marveled at La Sagrada Familia. I walked the street markets of Florence and felt small in Saint Peter’s Square. I made new friends and, for the first time in a while, laughed unselfconsciously.

And, somewhere in the middle of these experiences, I began to heal. I thought of my aunt more, not less. I felt happy thinking of her, remembering all the good times we’d had instead of only feeling the void she had left in my life. I had time to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life after school, what made me happy, and what grounded me.

I didn’t come back to Stanford with all the answers. I didn’t have some grand epiphany that made me a better person. But, I came back to Stanford happy, excited, and recharged. There isn’t really an answer or a message here. Mental health is not quite that simple. But, there is something to be said for leaving, taking a step out of daily life, and spending time away. Whether this comes from six months away or from five minutes of self-reflection while walking to class, setting aside time to remove myself from the stresses of daily life has made me a happier, healthier person. I hope it can do the same for you.

In collaboration with Tau Beta Pi

Tau Beta Pi is the only honor society representing the entire engineering profession across the nation. Their chapter at Stanford strives to promote academic excellence, leadership, and continued service to the larger engineering community. They host events and organize initiatives including peer mentoring, K-12 outreach, alumni panels, CEO dinners, project fairs and more. For more info, check out

Matthew Volk

Matt ('16) studied Computer Science at Stanford, with concentrations in artificial intelligence and computer security. As an undergrad, he played clarinet in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, and helped lead the human rights group STAND and the LGBTQ group Queerituality.

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