Pictured above, Marisa Mata reflects on her London study abroad experience.
~ By Marisa Mata, a third-year English major who took part in 2018 London Program study abroad
We were dancing and the music stopped. Everyone in the room started to countdown from 10. Lights flashed. Balloons and confetti fell from the ceiling. It was New Years. And we were in London.
Almost a year earlier, I was sitting in the Henry Madden Library with local author Armen Bacon — one of my literary and personal heroes — who had offered to go over some of my writing with me after I met her at a book signing and gushed about my childhood dream of being a writer.
At one point, we stopped talking about writing and she asked me about my experience at Fresno State.
I said, “I think I’ve found where I fit in and I really enjoy it, but there’s something else I want to do. I really want to study abroad.”
I’d been thinking about it since I was a freshman, but never really thought it was possible. Even talking about it then, as I neared my third year of college, it seemed unrealistic.
Fresno was all I had ever known. I was born in Fresno. Raised in Fresno. Never left for more than a few days at a time.
I talked about people who traveled, visited other countries, as if they were a lucky few and I wasn’t destined to join them — people who traveled came from happy homes, had parents with stable jobs, weren’t working their way through school. People who traveled weren’t like me.
“You’ll go,” she said. “You’ll do big things. Most people who experience difficulties do.”
Ten months later I was on a plane for the first time, on my way to London.
While Fresno has farmland, tract homes and shopping centers, London has pubs in alleys decorated with flowers and strings of lights, architecture with history, towers and domes, and a long winding river. Fresno has its heat; London, its rain and gray skies. Fresno has freeways with five o’clock traffic; London has its underground that says to “Mind the gap.”
London doesn’t resemble Fresno in any way — but I didn’t find this unsettling. I even took comfort in the differences, especially those concerning art.
Looking at famous paintings in textbooks is one thing, standing a few feet away from the works of Da Vinci, Monet and Van Gogh is another. Reading Jane Austen and Shakespeare for class is different from seeing their handwritten first drafts. Keeping Coleridge and Keats in mind as you write is different than sitting and writing beside their memorial in Westminster. You feel closer to your people. Closer to home.
I used to have a hard time calling Fresno home, and wanted to leave as soon as I could. I started writing when I was 7 and spent most of my life thinking I would leave Fresno for college, to make it as a writer.
I thought I’d missed my chance when I started my first year at Fresno State. But it was here I began to believe in my writing like never before.
It was here I knew it was possible to be a writer, as I saw others, who were like me, doing the things I’d always dreamt of doing. It was here I learned about Fresno’s tight-knit community of writers, who’ve become my family and finally made Fresno feel like my home.
We had a flat in Farringdon with a big window from which you could see cars and people passing by. In the weeks we were there, I found I fit in well with the people and pace of things. It was easy for me to think of our small flat, of London, as home.
When a few friends and I went to Paris for a weekend, I also felt at home there — walking down streets lined with flowers and cafés, listening to people speak a language I’d spent years learning.
Something about it spoke to me in a deeper way than London did. Than Fresno did. And I started to wonder what it means to be at home. If it’s really a place. Or a person. Or a feeling. If it’s something different for everyone.
I first wrote about this during our last week in London, in a letter I sent to Armen. I wrote about home and writing and how going abroad made me feel like a new person.
I was standing beneath the Eiffel Tower, waiting in line to make my way up. Every so often, extra lights came on and the tower sparkled against the night sky. A mother and daughter stood beside me. The mother asked her daughter, who looked about 6, what they were going to see once they got to the top.
“The world!” she exclaimed in such a way it was hard to think otherwise.
We were going to see the world.
I was seeing the world.
There was a feeling I got as I looked out at Paris from the Eiffel Tower. It was the same feeling I had during the countdown on New Year’s Eve and again as I flew back to Fresno a week later. I could feel a change had taken place. Something inside me had shifted, making me grow, opening a world within myself full of adventure and art and the desire to keep experiencing new things.
Something about it made me feel closer to my friends and family and my city, all of the unique beauty it has to offer that I used to take for granted.
It gave me a better sense of what home is — that a big part of it is something I carry within myself, allowing me to connect with new people and places. It’s something I create in my writing. And it’s something I want to share with others, both in and out of Fresno.
It made me believe what Armen wrote to me in response to my letter: “The universe is calling you. It’s. Your. Time.”