It’s the classic stereotype. Students from top-50 universities in the U.S. who take a semester or two overseas don’t do anything worthwhile.
I’ve seen it all over the Internet: 20-year-old white girl studies abroad and suddenly thinks she’s cultured. Clubbing, taking advantage of the under-21 drinking age, and rendezvousing with foreigners are all Americans know how to do in Europe. And then, in four months, we come back loaded with filtered Instagram photos of our fancy cappuccinos in European coffee shops and far too many selfies with famous statues and tell everyone how, quote, “Study abroad was amazing.”
The truth is that a lot of American college students embark on the study abroad journey for no particular reason except that they want to experience living in a different country. To many people, this isn’t a satisfying enough reason.
Well, there is no right or wrong way to “do” study abroad, and even if you haven’t volunteered in shantytowns in India, joined the Peace Corps, done research in South Africa or taught English in rural Morocco, there is so much to be learned on the living abroad experience by simply living abroad.
In four months, I’ve been to five countries: Spain, Italy, France, The Netherlands, and Morocco. I am, however, not claiming to have completely fulfilled all the requirements of the multifaceted definition of “being cultured” – whatever that may be.
I am not claiming that I entirely understand what it feels like to live in an underdeveloped country and the concept of privilege, nor am I claiming that I have become completely fluent in a different language. The only thing I knew about my trip was that I was going to Madrid to study at Universidad Carlos III, and then I left the rest up to chance. And the things I have learned, while seemingly non-catastrophic or life-altering, are things that I am positive I will carry with me for a long, long time.
1. To be more sympathetic towards people who don’t speak English
I studied abroad in Madrid this past semester, and people in Spain are notorious for not knowing English that well. On day one when I moved into my residence, I met a woman who immediately began explaining the rules of the residence in rapid-fire, almost incomprehensible Spanish.
I’d studied Spanish for six years, but I knew I was in trouble. Keeping up with native speakers was far more challenging than I expected.
I was eternally grateful for those Spaniards who were patient with me as I struggled to completely understand every word they said and attempt a coherent response thereafter, and I was mortified in front of those Spaniards who were impatient and simply stared at me, clueless. My emotions regarding my communication attempts were extreme: elated or humiliated.
I’ve learned that it is so important to be overly compassionate towards people who don’t know the native language of a country yet because they really, truly, are trying their very best. Even if their very best sounds horrific. I will definitely have more sympathy for immigrants or other people living in the United States whose English may not be perfect yet.
2. That there is more fluidity to the word “normal” than people think
It’s easy to feel like your home country does things the “right” way and the rest of the world simply skew from that designated level of normalcy. By that, I mean the “right” politics, the “right” way of life, the “right” kinds of necessities, the “right” kinds of entertainment, and more. However, I met and befriended people from all over the world on this trip (The Netherlands, England, Germany, South Korea, Morocco, and Switzerland, to name a few), and things truly are different in other countries.
This might not seem like news, but you never really know this until you travel for the first time and are forced to answer such basic questions about things you never thought you’d be questioned on: your government, your customs, your values, your reasoning behind things, and your very being.
There are people on this planet who exist under completely different everything, and it’s their normal. I gave a presentation to a class of Spaniards on Obamacare and found myself answering questions about why America is so focused on the individual (“Work hard and be the best” is the American mantra) and why Europe is more about the collective. And which mentality is better.
I visited Amsterdam and saw legal prostitution and marijuana. In Spain I would have dinner and begin my evenings 3 hours later than I did in the United States. I experienced a school system where a professor and I discussed the final grade “that I deserved” at the end of the semester because we had no tangible grades for the class. This lack of true normalness is even a reality inside the U.S., among my own friends, when we talk about things as simple as what we were/weren’t allowed to do as kids and the kinds of music we all listen to. As long as the human race flourishes and free thought is allowed, a single definition of normal cannot exist.
3. How to successfully navigate without Google Maps (and survive in general without top-notch means of technology)
I got my iPhone stolen about three weeks into my study abroad adventure. This meant I was forced to either a) only use my Spanish flip phone that was designated for phone calls for the next three months or b) buy a new smartphone. I chose b because my parents would have multiple heart attacks if they weren’t able to talk to me on Viber whenever they wanted.
My budget was tight and I wanted the cheapest plan possible, so I ended up buying a terrible pay-as-you-go smartphone that froze often and ran slower than Windows 97. I didn’t have the luxury of unlimited data like I have here in the U.S., so I had to be cautious about not exceeding the limit.
The slowness and the limited data meant that I couldn’t really update social media nor could I have lengthy phone calls, so I was able to actually appreciate my surroundings without feeling the need to refresh Twitter or Instagram (or even post on it) every ten minutes.
As members of the 21st century, we don’t know how good this feels until we’re forced into it and it actually becomes nice. Navigation, though, was difficult, since the Maps application on the phone was glitchy and always twenty minutes behind in accuracy when it tracked my walking steps. I used a regular map, really getting to know the roads of Madrid and every other city I visited (which definitely meant getting lost) and committing them to memory.
4. How to be alone
Studying abroad gets crazy. During some weekends, the friends you hang out with all the time travel without you on previously planned trips. Sometimes you’re left waiting in the city center for late Spaniards before a night out (the Spanish enjoy being late!). Sometimes you want to visit a city or a landmark or a museum and your friends don’t want to. Sometimes you’ll need downtime from a hectic weekend, especially in Spain where it’s normal and preferred to stay out until 6 in the morning. And sometimes, while your friends and family back home are sleeping in a time zone 6 hours behind you, you may become lost – physically or mentally – in this foreign place, and you won’t have the comfort of a familiar face or voice to rely on to get you out of the rut. The solution: Learn to be alone.
Some of the greatest moments you’ll have abroad will be those spent wandering and exploring by yourself. You’ll discover beautiful cafés, hidden landmarks, vintage shops, and more when you’re able to take your time and follow the narrow, winding roads that you want to follow.
It’s important to make your abroad experience your own and not be at the mercy of other people you’re traveling with. And being alone shows that you like yourself enough to be okay with hanging out with yourself, which is the most valuable thing.
5. That making these lessons last forever will be the ultimate challenge
What’s more important than the lessons learned from your experience is making the lessons last.
As each day passes farther and farther from the departure date, it becomes easier and easier to let the abroad experience disappear into the back of our brains and only seem like we dreamt it. But I’m trying to keep that from happening. I’ve already begun incorporating the lessons I’ve learned into everyday life: I’m more open minded, I read the news, I continue to not care about Twitter, and I appreciate downtime.
I’m holding onto every moment, every person, every food, and every challenge, because studying abroad was easily one of the greatest experiences of my life and I refuse to let the details slip from my memory.