I knew at the beginning of my sophomore year of college that I wanted – no, NEEDED – to study abroad at one point in my undergraduate years.
Flash back three years ago, to September 2009.
I had just returned from an international volunteer trip in Concord, NH in August. It was my first time being in such a community, meeting people from other countries, and I knew I needed more. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to participate in another project since then, but this instilled something in me that created the desire to study abroad. I wasn’t able to go until the last semester of my senior year, and while I’m glad I was able to squeeze it in at the end, I only have one regret: that I didn’t get to stay for a whole year, or have the time to study abroad again.
You’ve probably heard this all before. Everyone cites the same reasons for wanting to go abroad, and this is why they show up over and over again – they’re all true.
Here are my reasons in no particular order:
To practice a foreign language
I had studied Spanish all throughout high school and for two more quarters in college. I had a firm grasp of writing and grammar, and my reading and listening comprehension were up to par for the amount of time I had invested in learning a foreign language. But I was still lacking in one key department: speaking skills. I knew how to speak but always hated to because I didn’t like hearing my American accent. Yeah, yeah, everyone has one, but it still sounded terrible to my ears. When I first landed in Madrid, I didn’t eat much because I was terrified of ordering in restaurants or asking for help, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t speak well. When I first took the metro home in Barcelona, I couldn’t find my way to the main street I lived on. I practiced the words ten times in my head before feeling confident enough to say them (a simple “¿Dónde está Passeig de Sant Joan?” even had me flustered), and then it took another ten minutes to pick someone who looked patient enough to talk with me. Living in Spain forced me to get over my fear of speaking. My host mom didn’t know a single word of English. My Spanish class had a strict rule about speaking only in Spanish. The older generation didn’t know as much English as the younger generations. All of these factors meant I had no other choice but to stop feeling self-conscious about my accent and speaking abilities. Before the semester ended, I actually felt PROUD that I could converse with locals without over-thinking or worrying. It’s a great confidence booster when a a local compliments you and wants to know how you learned how to speak Spanish so well!
To experience another culture
Adjusting your life to follow within the norms of another culture causes you to appreciate — or question — your own background. From eating a late dinner, to running in to teenagers coming home at 9am on a weekend, to colliding with multiple protests and even witnessing a general strike throughout the whole COUNTRY, to dealing with smaller sizes for…. well, everything, to seeing the smallest news story relating to your own president on the local news, to analyzing the way your home country is run… being the one out of your element will cause you to examine yourself, your country, and your cultural norms through another’s eyes.
To travel, explore, and learn about the world and its history
There’s nothing like standing in front of amazing works I learned about in Western art history, visiting the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam where she went into hiding, standing where the Berlin Wall used to be, or seeing up close the massive iron structure that is the Eiffel Tower. Traveling brings you closer to everything you’ve ever dreamed about.
To gain freedom, independence, and personal growth
Traveling changes you, simple as that. It opens your eyes to the things you didn’t even know you were clueless about. It’s a chance to get out there and prove what you are made of when on your own. It’s an opportunity to see a life different from your own — maybe in a good way, maybe in a bad way, but I hope it’s the way that makes you reevaluate what you have.
To meet new people
I studied abroad through an independent program for students in the US. This meant that just within my program, I was already meeting people who could teach me something new about their way of living. I made friends from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, New Jersey, Colorado, Texas… and that doesn’t even begin to cover it. I attended Spanish class with other international students from China and Brazil. When traveling, we met people from Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, Venezuela, Sweden, Germany… the list is endless. Everyone has a story to tell, and you can be sure that you’ll always be learning from those around you.
To be surrounded by everything beautiful
Okay, I MAY be a bit biased against the (architectural) beauty of Southern California, but personally the cookie-cutter format of my university’s surroundings just did not do it for me. How can it compare to having class in a building that looks like this?!
Or what about being within walking distance of a something that looks like this:
Come on, now. Barcelona > Irvine any day.
To take a break from monotony
When or where else can you stumble upon Roman tombs on your way to class? Visit a labyrinth in a park in your downtime? Watch a soccer game in the largest stadium in Europe, Camp Nou? Every day is an adventure.
The best advice I can give about whether or not to study abroad: do it.
It’ll be hard, but it will be worth it. (Remember: “Nothing in life worth having comes easy.”) There will be difficult moments, like when you feel unbelievably lonely and miss everyone back home, the first time you find yourself seriously lost, making a cultural faux pas without knowing, wanting to give up and go home early… but there will be a lot of good, proud moments too, and these outweigh the bad — the first time you reply to a local without having to think about how to form the words before speaking, when your feet start walking without being told where to go, when you first conquer your fears and try something different, when you can help someone else who is lost.
My trip abroad was filled with a lot of “firsts” but I hope not many “lasts.”