After recently completing my undergraduate career, I have done a lot of reflecting upon my overall experience and without a doubt studying abroad was one of the most important things I did in college. Traveling is exciting and studying abroad is often described as “awesome!” “such a blast!” but it is so much more than a few months of meeting new people and seeing the sights. There are extremely valuable lessons that can be learned by spending a semester abroad.
Adjusting to Cultural Norms
There are obvious adjustments to be made such as trying local delicacies and battling a language barrier, but there are so many other cultural norms to learn from as well. One of the most prominent that I came across was timing – meal times, bed time, the start of classes – everything was pushed back in Spain. Any study abroad student will quickly learn that “going with the flow” will become their saving grace. It’s important to adjust to the local way of life and if that means eating dinner at 10 pm, be flexible and appreciate these new customs you are now apart of. After three months I still didn’t know how to properly order at a restaurant, and still got offended when the store clerk didn’t greet me and ask if they could help me with anything. But through the confusion and struggles of adjusting to new norms, you will gain patience and flexibility.
Learning a Language
Being a language student and immersing yourself in that language, above all, teaches you how to deal with failure. It’s a lot of trial and error: fumbling through limited vocabulary, trying to form pieces of second-grade sentences only to get back a blank stare from your teacher or waiter and then starting the process over again. It’s difficult to feel incompetent. But it’s a wonderful opportunity to challenge yourself and learn to overcome the major obstacles that language barriers can bring. There will be awkward conversations and comments that fly completely over your head, but those moments of real connection and understanding make all of that worthwhile. Sharing genuine laughter, or stories about childhood, or simple likes and dislikes with someone in a second language is and should be a proud moment for any language student.
Living with a Host Family
In order to feel fully immersed, living with a host family is a vital part of any study abroad experience – but no one goes into that situation feeling totally comfortable. Sharing your life and personal space with complete strangers is scary, let alone strangers that don’t even speak your language. You have no idea what to expect. There will be awkward moments, especially the first week or two – the first morning you spend half an hour figuring out how to go about tip toeing out of bed and into the kitchen for breakfast and wondering how on earth you can form coherent sentences first thing in the morning. But, eventually, you will feel like part of the family and there is nothing greater than the outpouring of love and acceptance from strangers welcoming you into their lives. It gives you a sense of appreciation for humankind. The world’s cultural barriers slowly break down in front of you and you wonder why you were ever so terrified in the first place.
Being Away from Home
As impossible as it seems, life does in fact go on at home without you. Birthdays pass, holidays are celebrated, family vacations are taken, and in the moment it’s hard to miss out. However, in the scheme of things, these events are a small trade-off for all you are gaining abroad. Spending time away reminds you how grateful you are for what you have and where you came from, and makes the end of the journey extremely bittersweet. Breaking away is refreshing and empowering and, as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder!
Above all else, it’s about leaping out of your comfort zone. It’s not all glamorous and exhilarating, there are moments of weakness, embarrassment, discomfort, but in the end you come home stronger, more confident and appreciative of all that the world has to offer.
What was your study abroad experience like? For those going abroad, what makes you most apprehensive? Comment below!