What You Really Learn While Studying Abroad
By Haley Arnold of 08/31/18
5 things you’ll learn from Studying Abroad.
You hear it from everyone who’s done it: “Studying abroad has changed me”.
Whether it’s a travel vlog/blog, a Student Ambassador for the Study Abroad Office at your university, or a friend who’s gone on exchange themselves, everyone gushes about how going overseas “is the experience of a lifetime” and “helped me find myself”.
But what does that mean? How does one find themselves in a city where they’re all alone? Is it really that transformative?
I only have a month left of my semester abroad experience in Leeds, England. I came from a student town in North Texas, USA, and packing up my home life and trading it for six months on a continent I’d never been to was something I’d dreamed of before even graduating high school. I had nearly two years to prepare for the experience and imagine what it would be like, and now that my time abroad is almost up, I’ve realized that the reality of it is vastly different from what I’d anticipated.
So what does it mean when someone says they “found themselves” while abroad, and what can you expect to learn if you choose to embark on your own exchange?
Temporarily moving to a new country requires adaptability. You can research and prepare all you want, but you don’t truly learn how to navigate life in a new country until you get there.
You have to adapt to new methods of teaching, new resources to use, and new societal norms, all while trying to make friends because you don’t know a soul. Culture shock affects people in a variety of ways, but it’s inevitable. It’s hard to get into the groove of a different university workload when you’re still trying to adapt to your surroundings. But you get through it, and like most things, you come out the other side better off.
Studying abroad jostles you around a bit, is uncomfortable at times, and makes you learn to take a bit of a beating, and because of it you return home better prepared for the real world.
1. You learn more about who you are through forced independence.
It’s likely that you won’t know a single person in the country (or even the continent) that your exchange is in. I didn’t. Despite making some lifelong best friends while studying abroad, I’ve also never felt more alone. I don’t mean the lonely type of solidarity- I mean that studying abroad makes you the kind of alone where sometimes you don’t even have anyone on the same land mass to give you advice or provide help when you need it. No matter how independent you thought you were already, going overseas forces you to really learn how to help yourself. You learn how to use your resources to figure things out without texting your mother because she doesn’t know either. The trials you face independently while abroad will make everything you experience back home seem like a breeze.
2. Everything you learn while on exchange is from a foreign perspective.
You learn more than just about the language, the food delicacies, and the popular music, but about the way people think. Reading about the news through your host country opens you up to new perspectives and conflicts that you don’t hear about back home. This especially applies to your academics, as the classes you choose provide you with the potential to see things in a new light. I took a course about the EU, and I got to learn about European foreign policy from a European point of view. Had I taken the same course back in the US, I likely would have received information filtered through a very different and much more distant perspective.
3. You fall in love with things you just can’t experience back home.
Certain things exist everywhere- there will always be shopping malls and bars and coffee shops, but the most important things you find during your time abroad are the things you can’t find back home. For me, this was hiking, something I can’t do in flat Texas. I’ve fallen in love with hiking through the Yorkshire Dales just an hour outside of Leeds, through the Austrian Alps in Salzburg, and through the mountain range and monastery of Montserrat outside of Barcelona. Even the classes offered abroad can be wildly different. The University of Leeds offers a course in beer making, which is something that dry campuses in America would never offer. You learn not to get involved in the same things you do at home- they’ll still be there when you get back. Instead, you find a new passion for something you could never experience at your own university. You learn to take advantage of it while you have it, because it helps you explore yourself in ways you can’t back home.
4. Despite what your friend on exchange in France’s Instagram may show, studying abroad is not always glamorous.
My vision of studying abroad was having English tea parties with cute Tom Holland lookalikes and going to London every weekend to visit the Queen. This was not the case. In fact, I’ve found myself slumming it in certain capacities now more than ever. You can’t bring all of your things from home with you, and you’re limited in how much you can buy because you’ll have nowhere to put it when you leave. No one warned me about the weight gain because you’ll want to try all the different foods and party all the time.
Money becomes more important than ever and more scarce than ever.
I got stranded in an airport for three hours because I’d spent too much money and my bank froze my card, and got used to eating 50p canned macaroni for dinner because I kept going over budget.
Trying to find the balance between saving your money to see the world and using it to actually enjoy your experience in your host city is nearly impossible. Unless you have a Kardashian-level budget, you’ll realize that backpacking isn’t as glamorous as you thought it’d be, and that not every experience is going to go swimmingly.
But that’s okay. You’re supposed to have a few (or more) bumps along the way. One day you’ll look back and laugh at that time in Amsterdam you had to wash your pants in the sink with hand soap, or the time you got chased out of a German supermarket for going out the wrong exit. You’ll learn that your resources don’t define your experiences and that you don’t need luxurious vacations to have the time of your life.
5. Most importantly, you learn to find adventure in everything.
You’ll realize that you don’t need to spend all semester in the heart of Paris or Rome to find magical opportunities and unparalleled beauty. Every city holds something different from the last, and with each day comes the potential to find something new. I’m still discovering more of Leeds and I’ve already been here for over four months. Your time abroad will fly by, so learn to appreciate every day you have, because people aren’t lying when they say it’s the experience of a lifetime.