Study Abroad: (Not) a Once in a Lifetime Experience
Can studying abroad become an addiction?
By Kalyn Franke, University of Pittsburgh
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” people say. “What a dream come true.” Oftentimes, the idea of spending a semester abroad is not only regarded as a learning experience, but a “chance.” It’s your chance to see the world. It’s your chance to live in a foreign culture. It’s your chance to travel, to meet new friends, to find a sense of independence. But what if we stopped listening to society’s notion that we only have one chance? What happens when study abroad becomes a habit, a lifestyle?
Like every college student who was raised on a few too many Mary Kate & Ashley travel films (Passport to Paris, anyone?), I always had the vague notion that I would study abroad. Not only did it seem adventurous and glamorous (an idea quickly debunked by my first discount airline experience), but I also knew the independence of living abroad was something I craved.
As I turns out, I am an addict.
I first studied in London in 2012, the second semester of my sophomore year. The plan was to explore London for four months, take 100+ pictures of Big Ben that all look generally the same, try an English accent, and return home with hundreds of stories and funny new words to share. I did all of that and more, but, as usually happens to study abroad students, was devastated to be returning to the States when the program finished. I was depressed, irritable, and couldn’t think of anything other than how much I wanted to be back across the pond in a city I had come to call my own. I assumed that I was simply going through the well-documented symptoms of reverse culture shock and would be back to loving life in America in no time.
To this day, I have never gotten over it.
Back on campus at the University of Pittsburgh, I applied for an internship at the Study Abroad Office, where I got to spend months working with students who were in the beginning stages of spending a semester abroad. Unbeknownst to my friends and family, I was submitting my paperwork for another semester abroad right alongside the students I was counseling.
In 2013, I left for another semester in London as an exchange student at University College London, where I focused on learning about UK university life, taking classes like ‘Fairy Tales & their Origins’ and soon realizing that British students have a strange affinity for wearing costumes (‘fancy dress’) and never actually showing up to lectures (no judgment, but, still, why am I the only one here?). This time, I got involved in the city from the inside. The lines between tourist and resident were fading as I began to speak and act like I truly belonged. Nothing made me happier than knowing the answer when being asked for directions, and I followed local news instead of being concerned with the recent happenings at my home university.
At this point, it would have made sense to most everyone else to call it quits on London. I had been more than fortunate to spend a total of ten months in a foreign city, experience life in the UK, and travel to other parts of Europe. I lived the dream twice over, and maybe it was now time to come back to reality.
So, naturally, I applied for another semester in London. After a summer in America, I was back on a too-crowded plane over the Atlantic. Except, this time, I didn’t have the feeling that I was traveling to London or studying abroad. It is difficult to explain to my family and friends why I was so compelled to return to London town, but this city had now become a comfort to me in a way no other city had. This was a place that I had explored and discovered at my own pace. This was not a city I was “stuck” in, but a city that I actively sought out. To me, London is possibility. It is growth, and excitement, and independence. It is home.
Throughout my time abroad, I have heard almost every criticism in the book. “Why would you go back to the same place?” my friends would ask. “What are you running from?” my mom wondered aloud. I sacrificed both financially and academically (giving up a double major, minors, and various opportunities) to spend three semesters in London. In spite of this, creating my own study abroad journey has been, and will always be, one of the best decisions I could have ever made.
The most important thing that I have learned (besides how to convert British pounds to American dollars in record time and not even cry over how expensive London is), is that your life is what you make of it. Do you have to spend three semesters studying abroad? Nope. Do you have to spend just one? Not at all.
While there are obvious obstacles and factors to consider when deciding to go abroad multiple times (unless a money tree grows in your backyard, in which case, call me), it’s essential that the heart of the decision is where you want your own life to go. Just because it is ‘typical’ to only take one chance, get greedy. Take more. Do more. Follow your own path. It may lead to one semester abroad or a lifetime of travel. It may include Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, or South America. It may end up being a journey to your own backyard. But whatever it is, and however you do it, don’t be discouraged or intimidated by the idea that you shouldn’t take more ‘chances’ than your allotted share.
The only thing we have one of is a life. How you choose to spend it, however, is up to you.