Cultural Experience | Europe

5 Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Studying Abroad

I dare you to take a trip beyond your comfort zone and tell me you haven’t changed after it.

By Jessica Smith, College of William and Mary

You see it on Pinterest all the time. Cute images of Europe or a sunset paired with a quote about how you haven’t lived/learned/loved until you’ve traveled. Well, I’m here to agree. Simple, right? Traveling truly changes the way you see the world – literally and figuratively. I dare you to take a trip beyond your comfort zone (whatever that may be) and tell me you haven’t changed after it. Since my first abroad trip in high school, I’ve been bitten with that travel bug and have learned quite a few things along the way.

Here are just a handful.

1. Change is a good thing. But really. Every time I’ve embarked on a new trip, I’ve always been a bit nervous. When everything is new and you’re not sure what to expect, it can be a bit nerve-racking. But whether it was my mission trip with Operation Smile to Colombia or my eight-country study abroad voyage with Semester at Sea, I’ve always walked away with The World: new best friends, life-changing experiences, memories I’ll have forever. You name it. So, now I’m excited by the nervousness, the inevitable change that comes with each plane ticket. Studying abroad has made me a firm believer in many things (as you’ll read on), but definitely in the idea that we only learn from change. The habitual and the routine do not force us to think or see differently. I also believe studying abroad has even caused me to look for new ways to change up my own life – from deciding to intern in NYC to planning a hot-air balloon ride this September. Change is definitely a good thing.

2. Be alone… but not all the time. On Semester at Sea, we all formed our friend groups pretty quickly. And while I’m not complaining, we did find ourselves together pretty much 24/7, as we traveled in port by train, bus, and foot. One day in Rome, I decided to take a walk in the area around our hostel. Alone. My travel mates seemed a little hesitant at first, but I assured them I would use all the common sense I had and I wouldn’t be gone more than a few hours. That walk was seriously one of the my best memories from the summer, really feeling “free” and as if the whole world is at your fingertips. Corny, but true. Sometimes just experiencing life as it is, and not always making it about the sights, can be just as eye-opening.

3. Less is more (except when you’re taking pictures). Obviously, when it comes to packing for your summer or semester abroad, less is always more. I’m still figuring this out, as I’m just noticing I’ve worn the same pair of sandals all summer (and may or may not have brought way more shoe choices to my small NYC apartment). When it comes to traveling, you’ll repeat your most comfortable, easy-to-wear pieces and leave the heels in the suitcase. When it comes to life, living clutter-free can reduce stress, while also reminding you to appreciate the little things – the little things you already have. Now, when we’re talking about my 1,000+ uploaded pictures, well, that’s a whole different story.

"Winging it" still involves a little research.

“Winging it” still involves a little research.

4. Find a balance between planning and acting on a whim. I was definitely the planner in our group – the one who was always on Wikitravel during class or getting the travel books from the library. I learned that I love to plan to the most minute detail, figuring out how exactly we’d get from the hostel to the ferry to the church, etc. And when we were in certain ports, planning was crucial. How else would we be able to see everything in Rome or Istanbul in just the three or four days we were given in each port? But in those lesser-known places (two of my favorites ended up being Dubrovnik and Lisbon), just roaming around was the best way to explore the area.

5. Keep in touch. It’s a lot harder than you think. As I already mentioned, when I was studying abroad, I was with my best friends 24/7. It was awesome, and I definitely took it for granted. After spending 66 days together, traveling to eight different countries hip to hip, we are now in completely different states (Maine, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia), all separated and only connected through text messages and social media. When you head back to campus, it’s all about talking to and about your study abroad friends, but as time goes on, those connections are harder to keep. School work piles up, your college friends are actually the ones you’re hanging out with, and those best friends you traveled all of the Mediterranean with become just your profile picture. My best advice is to make the time. Not doing anything over Winter Break? Drive six hours to see a friend. Skype. These are the relationships worth keeping (and working for!).

You traveled the world together. Now, it's time to keep in touch.

You traveled the world together. Now, it’s time to keep in touch.



Jessica Smith

College of William & Mary | 7 stories

Jessica is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, VA), studying English and Film Studies. In addition to writing for The College Tourist, she is interning in NYC for Rent The Runway. In 2012, she studied abroad with Semester at Sea, traveling to eight, different countries along the Mediterranean on the MV Explorer. Her favorites include iced coffee, live music, all forms of social media, and Mexican food.

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