What Pixar Can Teach Us About Studying Abroad

It was ironic that there often was no working elevator.

In an antiquated university building in the heart of Buenos Aires that had seen better days, I slowly shuffled up the steps. As a student spending a full semester abroad for the first time, I carried a burden with me – not just of books and papers but of emotion as well, and it was just starting to show on my face. Warm, almost-tears welled up in my eyes in these quiet moments of reflection before class, and the cold loneliness I experienced was only emphasized by the city’s slight September chill. I was a mixed bag of feelings then and was basically a mess; I was both numb and aware of my surroundings, was simultaneously grateful for the experience and frustrated by it, and was starting to assimilate to the culture while starting to dissociate from the people trying to reach out to me. These were perhaps the earliest signs of a darker depression, resulting from a mixture of homesickness and my growing frustration with my inability to properly convey the many complex emotions and ideas I had in my head due to a then-limited knowledge of the local language.pic22753_lw

Today while I don’t sugarcoat how difficult my study abroad experience was in the beginning, my semester abroad remains one of the most humbling and challenging times in my life to date, and I was surprised to be reminded of it while watching Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out.

In a crowded theater near Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown waterfront, I settled into my seat with a quiet excitement. As a child and teenager, I grew up on a steady diet of Pixar’s classics, and Wall-E; Up; and Toy Story remain some of my favorite films today.

Inside Out, released yesterday nationwide, tells the story of Riley, an eleven-year-old who, up until the plot line begins to thicken, lives in Minnesota. As an honest, hockey-loving, and silly kid, she’s lived a happy life with loving parents, steady friends, and time on the rink with her teammates. Things suddenly change, however, when her parents decide to move to San Francisco shortly after her eleventh birthday.

Inside her head, chaos ensues. Five key characters in “Headquarters” guide Riley’s thoughts and emotions: Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and incredibly hotheaded Anger. In a time of, as one critic put it, “grotesquely overengineered sequels”, Inside Out is essentially a movie about feelings and the ones we experience while growing up and adjusting to new surroundings. Pixar’s film not only stands out for its lack of a villain but for its inventive exploration of something we all experience: change.

Before my study abroad departure, my college had projected a graphic of the emotion curve of living abroad, and I never even imagined that it would later apply to me. Maybe it was that I had never experienced homesickness before that particular semester, but looking back, it certainly did.  Without hopefully giving too much away of the film, I would argue that the same paradigm could be applied to Riley’s experience.

Like my feelings in the first few weeks of moving to Buenos Aires, Riley experiences happiness, as Joy in Headquarters, voiced by Amy Poehler, tries to make the most of the situation. However, when expectations don’t meet reality, Sadness tries to take over as pilot, and Riley’s distress mirrors that of many students abroad after the first few weeks of settling in. Part of the conflict, however, resides in the fact that Riley’s parents have asked her to remain happy, and Riley does her best to do so.

But things are never the same. Through an unexpected plot twist, Joy and Sadness suddenly find themselves outside of Headquarters, and Riley is left with only Disgust, Fear, and Anger to take control. While Joy and Sadness try to make the journey back, the team behind Inside Out takes you on a tour of Riley’s mind. They run into Imagination Land, home of French Fry Mountain, a cloud couple, and a house of cards. Similarly, we get a glimpse into Dream Productions, where the seemingly bored directors stage a series of exaggerated replays of Riley’s days as attempts to get through another night’s scheduled programming.

JOY_RenderHowever, more than these curious and funny occurrences, one of the most important lessons of the film is highlighted when Joy – who up to point has remained relentlessly optimistic and upbeat – discovers the true value of having Sadness around. Once positioned as Joy’s antithesis, Sadness suddenly becomes the hero when she is able to empathize with another character in the film who experiences a loss. While the ever-effervescent Joy is not able to cheer the other character up, Sadness does so by simply listening and sharing a similar experience. Later on, when Joy herself feels despair for the first time, she is reminded of this moment and perceives that feelings are not as simple as she had originally thought. She comes to understand that experiences and memories often are colored by multiple emotions and that it’s okay to embrace that. More so, what Pixar teaches us here is that, while we would ideally like our new experiences and memories to be pleasant, it’s also important to reflect and value the moments that challenge us or make us feel sad. Empowered by this new realization and her determination to bring herself back and Sadness to Headquarters, Joy finally concocts a plan that does, and in doing so, Riley is able to experience this new idea as well.

Though previously stifled in only having Disgust, Fear, and Anger in seat, Riley, with the help of an enlightened Joy and Sadness, concludes the story in finally being able to confess her conflicting emotions about the move the San Francisco to her parents, and I would argue that my study abroad story concluded in a similar way. Initially, I was blinded by my own negative emotions, but I took the time to reflect and understand that they would always be a part of me. My homesickness, like Riley’s, stemmed from the fact that I cared about people and a place that wasn’t accessible to me then, but over time, I understood that this was a part of the experience of moving somewhere new. It was the acceptance of this fact that finally allowed me to move on and immerse myself in the culture of my new city. Riley does the same by acknowledging the pain of moving away while, at last, opening herself up to the possibility of finding happiness with the change.

Now it’s your turn: Did you have a similar study abroad experience? What are your thoughts on the study abroad emotion curve or the movie Inside Out? Leave us a comment below, and we may feature it in an upcoming post.

Also, need more resources for moving to a new city? Check out this previous Bucket List post for tips and tricks!


“Bucket List” is a weekly series curated by Everyday Ambassador’s Director of Brand Strategy Audrey del Rosario. Every Saturday, we will feature events, conferences, and happenings that spark conversation and ignite your inner activist. To stay current with our latest posts, follow #bucketlist or #EAinspired on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.

Image Credit: Pixar.wikia.com



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