What Studying Abroad Does (and Doesn’t Do) for You
The Twenty-Something Transition
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012
Updated: Friday, January 27, 2012 20:01
One of the major decisions an early 20-something has to make in college is whether to study abroad. When asked to describe their experience abroad, returning students usually claim that it was "amazing" and "life-changing." Although studying abroad is both of these things, it's this way for some unexpected reasons. It's the little things — the experience of actually living in another country — that make studying abroad worth it.
First, travelling is not the same as living. Most students are under the impression that going abroad is akin to a four-month vacation. Other students elect not to study abroad at all because they claim to be "well-travelled." Although a portion of studying abroad can include travelling to other countries outside of your home base, the vast majority of the time is spent adjusting to normal life in another country. There's a lot more that goes into living in another country than being a tourist in it. Public transportation must be mastered, food labels deciphered and laundromats found and used. These mundane tasks are important, however, for discovering cultural differences.
Studying abroad can be a very uncomfortable experience, and it's supposed to be. You're told when you leave that you should anticipate culture shock before you experience assimilation, and most students leave the United States with the expectation that they'll feel entirely at home by the end of their program. But this discomfort isn't gone after the first few weeks. Discomfort exists throughout the entire experience; it's occasionally discouraging to be pointed out as American, or to get lost in a city with which you thought you were completely familiar. This discomfort is entirely normal, however, and is beneficial to the overall experience. If not for these occasional moments of discomfort, it would be far more difficult to embrace the host culture as one distinct from your own.
The "studying" part of studying abroad is often not the only priority for students. And it shouldn't be. Although there's a lot to be learned from the classes taken while abroad, much of the learning takes place outside of the classroom. In the very act of travelling from country to country, learning takes place while trying to navigate a foreign city or to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English. There are museums to visit, plays to see and different foods to try. Although your classes will take place at your host university, the country or countries that you visit will be the places you learn the most.
While making foreign friends is important and a nice way to get another perspective on a foreign culture, you'll make American friends while studying abroad, too. It's even possible that you'll meet people from your own university that you didn't know before your departure. Going abroad should be about meeting all kinds of people, American or not. Not only will you have friends scattered across the globe, but you'll also have friends across the United States, from California to New York.
Finally, study abroad is not only something you enjoy; it's something you survive. Living abroad is a challenging experience, but it's one that you'll be incredibly proud of yourself for completing. There are definitely times of homesickness and frustration, but the times spent making new friends and discovering foreign places far overshadow any struggles. Completing a semester abroad can be very important for a 20-something. It not only opens your eyes to a different part of the world but also makes you more appreciative of your own country and excited to return back to the Hilltop.