Maintaining My Recovery While Studying Abroad

Imagine stepping off of a plane in a foreign country, not speaking the language and feeling so much excitement and fear at the same time. No amount of planning could prepare me for what was to be my life for the next four months.

As I got in the taxi taking me to my new home, I felt the anticipation. I was forced to be in the moment, mostly because the driving was insane. I felt like I was in a real-life Mario Kart race — but not in a fun way. I walked up the 10 million stairs to my apartment door and spent 20 minutes trying to figure out the skeleton key. I finally made it in, and fear engulfed me: What was I thinking? I can’t handle this amount of change and unknown! I felt so alone and lost.

The next four months were a wild ride. I was able to use the tools of recovery to create an unforgettable experience. My goal here is to share what I did to make my trip successful and to keep myself from falling into old habits while I was there.

Kayleigh Hegarty in Prato, Italy, in 2016.


Omaha, Nebraska, is my home. I grew up in a family of recovering and active alcoholics. Most of my childhood was immersed in recovery. I had my blood family and a plethora of “aunts and uncles.” They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I had an amazing one.

When I was about 15 years old, I was introduced to alcohol, and it was amazing. All the anxiety and fear I had collected over the years were gone after a few drinks. Over the next seven years, I chased that instant gratification in any way I could find it. I became the party girl, and I was pretty good at it.

I made it through high school and started college. After one year, I realized if I focused less on things like work and school, I could focus more on what’s important, like partying. It went well for a short while — a very short while.

At 21, I was a college dropout with no car, a criminal record and no desire to live. Twelve-step meetings were highly suggested to me by my family and the court system. I showed up (after kicking and screaming a bit), and my life was turned upside down. I was once again engulfed in a village that was teaching me how to live a happy and sober life.

Kayleigh Hegarty took this picture in Verona, Italy, while studying abroad.


Traveling abroad was always a dream of mine. When I was 18, I got the opportunity to go on a 12-day European trip with my senior class. It was amazing!

It became my goal to go back to each country and spend more time there. That dream was quickly drowned out by drugs and alcohol.

After getting sober, the dream was still there, but I was busy cleaning up my past and learning how to live in recovery. So my dream went on the back burner.

I went back to school when I was about three years sober. Starting out at a community college, I obtained my associate’s degree. I was working hard and had finally accomplished something in my life. With still little thought of traveling, I started at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

I had heard some friends talking about a recovery community on campus prior to becoming a student. I had been sober for a few years at this point, but it was really nice to not only find individuals who were in recovery but also individuals who were in school and dealing with the added stresses of that. Through this community, I was able to connect to my campus and be a part of something.

While working at one of the student fairs, I saw a booth for studying abroad. All of the sudden, I realized that I could work on school and travel abroad. What a crazy concept, right? I hadn’t met anyone who had done this in recovery. Either they studied abroad before recovery or did not stay sober when they went.

Luckily, I now have the experience of going and coming home sober. Here was my path and how I accomplished that.


Prior to applying and picking the school and country I was going to go to, I researched what recovery was like there. I decided on an art school in Florence, Italy. The program was perfect for my academic goals, and I found that they had English-speaking 12-step meetings.

The first, and possibly most important, step for me was to set up a support system. My normal support system at home is large, and it is simple to keep myself accountable. But this support was 5,000 miles away, and I needed to build something while I was in Italy. Within days of being there, I told my roommates that I was sober and why I was sober, and I asked them to help keep me accountable. I went to my school’s dean and told him that if anyone in the school was struggling with keeping sober that I could be a resource. I went to those 12-step meetings and worked with newcomers and shared my experiences, good or bad.

A few weeks into my adventure, I met an American couple visiting Florence from Vicenza, Italy. We found we were all in recovery. I definitely crashed their vacation and made a connection with them throughout the weekend. A couple of weeks later, they invited me to come up to Vicenza for Thanksgiving. I took them up on their offer and spent another weekend exploring another part of Italy with people in recovery.

Although the friends I was making were great, I was praying to meet more sober people. I knew I couldn’t spend every night going out and needed to find people “like me.” I also had to stay aware of my surroundings. I found that, at least in Italy, not drinking is not the norm. At some of the American bars and restaurants, they had nonalcoholic choices other than soda or water. But at most of the other places, if I ordered a nonalcoholic drink, I was looked at like an alien. I was constantly having my friends taste my drinks prior to taking a sip myself.

I think the best part of being sober while I was there was the fact that I could take in the whole experience. I didn’t have to worry about being too hungover to wake up early and go on a trip, and I could remember every bit of it. I didn’t have to be the walking stereotype of the American party girl. I didn’t have to spend my money on getting drunk or high, which meant I had more money for traveling and shopping. I didn’t have to worry about being too drunk and ending up in unsafe places.

Traveling abroad sober was one of the most terrifying and rewarding things I have had the chance to do. I was able to use all the tools I was given in recovery. I couldn’t rely on hiding in my fellowship and was forced out of my comfort zone.

I think it is important to prepare for your trip but also remember to let go of expectations. I felt like every time I thought I knew what I was doing, I was wrong. I wouldn’t change my experience for the world, and I recommend studying abroad to everyone, especially people in recovery.

Written by Kayleigh Hegarty

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