A Letter to my Freshman Year Self

Abyssinia Lissanu
September 14, 2016

September 14, 2016


Dear Freshman Year Abyssinia,

Welcome to Princeton! I know that walking onto campus feels like one of the scariest, most exciting experiences in the world. Although you’re nervous, I can definitively say that the next four years are going to be some of the most fun, challenging years of your life. Over this period, you will be transformed from a small town, Ethiopian-American girl from Kentucky, into someone who has the chance to travel the world and live in so many different places—and you’re going to have an amazing time.

When you are a sophomore in college, you will have the chance to apply for a study abroad program in Barcelona, Spain. You will be initially interested, but nervous about moving to a country where you have never lived before. Regardless, you will push past your trepidation, fill out the mountains of paperwork, and get on the plane, all the while hoping that this leap of faith will be worth it. I promise it will! You will have one of the best semesters of your whole life, as you adventure, learn, and grow to your heart’s content. There will be hard moments—when you cry thinking about the turmoil in the U.S.A. in fall 2014, or you miss home, or you get frustrated by cultural differences. But it will never stop being worth it. Your Barcelona Babes, a friend group that spans different universities, backgrounds, races, and ethnicities will become some of your closest friends, ones you visit throughout college and afterwards. Your mind will be broadened by the rich history, culture, art, and food of Barcelona, and you will be stretched to become even more independent and self-sufficient, in another language (!). But most of all, you will look back on your travels in Spain, both the trips within the country and the trips outside to Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, and Morocco, as some of the most special times in your life.

Junior year will pass, and though you worry that your memories of Barcelona will fade, you remain resolute in your desire to return. You will decide to write your thesis on immigrants and refugees in Spain, as well as the relative lack of political and private xenophobia in the country, issues which are of deep personal and academic interest. You will even be ecstatic about writing your IRB applications and thesis proposals, because that means you are just one step closer to another enriching adventure. And, during the summer before senior year, the travel bug will bite you again. At a networking event, you will be convinced by a Princeton alumna that applying to the Princeton in Latin America fellowship (PiLA) will be a great decision, and that you should try to postpone your graduate school plans for a year to live abroad and challenge yourself even more.

One day in November 2015, you will get the amazing news that you will be returning to Spain. No longer nervous but now filled with excitement, you return back some months later to conduct interviews with politicians, immigrants, and refugees, marveling at how your semester abroad experience has come full circle. And even while you are in Spain in January, you will continue to send off materials for PiLA, prepping for interviews with organizations in Peru and Costa Rica. You begin to envision a future for yourself in Latin America, living abroad for a year in such a completely new context, and smile to think of how this experience can build upon your love of travel and challenge that you first ignited during study abroad.

Graduation will come, faster than you will like, and you quickly realize that the theoretical dream of moving to Latin America as a PiLA fellow is going to come true. You will call your mother, screaming with joy and excitement, when you get your job offer, and you will instantly begin looking up flights to Costa Rica after you have made your final decision. The summer after graduation will not be full of lazy days, but rather as much packing as possible, as you once again fit your whole life for one year into two suitcases and a backpack. Then, impossibly enough, the day will come when you head to the airport and off to San Jose, Costa Rica—again, another country where you have never been before, but this time without the fear of failure. 

Your year abroad will be full of challenges and happiness, in almost equal measure, just as you had expected. Working at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress will allow you not only to build on your professional and academic interests in human rights, Latin America, and immigrant/refugee issues, but will also permit you to see how an international NGO really operates. You will navigate all the recent graduate challenges, complicated even more by the language and cultural barrier, and finally find your apartment, your gym, and your favorite coffeehouse. You will do inspiring work, from interviewing women prisoners who have been incarcerated on drug trafficking charges to writing reports on citizen security in Belize. And your coworkers will teach you so many things—about kindness, about how to operate through legal red tape, and about how to operate professionally as a representative of this organization. You will make mistakes and have to adjust to working year-round (as opposed to just a summer). But once again, it will never stop being worth it.

Your time with Princeton and beyond will make you a more independent, competent, and worldly person, one whose perspective is much broader than the rolling hills of Appalachian Kentucky. Your Spanish will finally improve, and you will meet some of the most interesting and passionate people in your life along the way. And you will be able to see how your life changes and grows, from the small step to study abroad in Barcelona to the large leap moving to San Jose for a year. You will experience so many wonderful things—I can’t wait to see how it unfolds!

Good luck,

Abyssinia Lissanu’16 *21

Biography: Abyssinia Lissanu’16 *21 is a recent Princeton graduate, who concentrated in Politics with a certificate in Spanish Language and Culture. She is a recipient of the Scholar in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI ) award, and as such will receive her Master’s in Public Administration with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, beginning in fall 2017. She is currently living in San Jose, Costa Rica as a fellow at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress with Princeton in Latin America (PiLA).