I’m a big cheerleader for studying abroad. If you, your parents, or your university can find a way to finance it, GET. ON. THAT. PLANE. Immediately. Don’t think twice.
There are very few times in life when you’ll be able to drop everything and move across the world to drink, travel and meet cool people. Oh, yeah…and study. And if, like most Americans, you pick a destination in Europe, you’ll soon learn about the magical existence of something called “low budget airlines.” Paying six dollars to fly to another country while in Europe is an actual thing.
Oh, the places you’ll go….and the going will teach you countless things about yourself and the world around you. However, in addition to being a great teacher, there are many people who expect travel abroad to also be a great changer. Yes, to change who you are, what you believe, what you want out of life. For these travel abroad groupies, the trip must be “life changing” to be valid.
Seriously? Four months of partying with other ex-pats on the parents’ dime is supposed to change my worldview, alter my life philosophy, rearrange my cultural DNA? Sure, there’s great art, beautiful buildings and breathtaking landscapes in Europe. But who I am, first and foremost, was formed in my suburban community, local school and through the values instilled in me by my family. So I’m sorry, but it didn’t go through much alteration after viewing the Mona Lisa for 5 minutes amid a hoard of tourists, walking through the Vatican with slightly stoned 20 year olds, or watching the sunrise in Edinburgh after a night of drinking mysterious alcoholic concoctions, through straws, out of giant plastic fishbowls. I’d like to think I’m made of more solid stuff.
If I’m being honest, though, I didn’t always feel this way. When I left for my first study abroad experience in France, I secretly wanted to be the person who could fit in anywhere, who could feel at home in any country or culture, the chic globetrotter, flying off to Paris for the weekend. After spending a year abroad in France I was sure that I would leave with a whole new wardrobe and a liberated personality. I was convinced that I would fit into French culture easily and assume my international personality naturally. However, what I learned was that my personality and values were not nearly as malleable as I once imagined. The biggest lesson I learned while abroad – unpopular as it may be – is that who I am, in many important respects, is fixed.
In France I felt that my difficulty in finding a place within my host family, with my teachers, and in this new world was because of the anticipated culture shock. But over time, I learned that I never truly fit in there. And, I am pretty sure that I never will. However, I don’t see this as some sort of sign that my year there was a failure. Rather, in coming to understand my alienation from, and incomprehension of the French way of life, I now believe that, as Garrison Keillor once said, “some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.”
There are so many charms that one associates with France and the French: the family-oriented culture where dinners can last for hours, the noble and complex history, the small roads and quaint cottages, the un-materialistic culture, the liberté, égalité, franternité. And while the US certainly doesn’t always get it right, my most important take away after a year in France was that there’s nowhere else I would rather live than America.
I didn’t miss the fireflies until I saw the City of Lights. I never really appreciated the high school prom until I experienced a terminal ball. I now know, after hearing the same three French songs played on repeat every morning on the bus for nine months, that I’d take The Boss any day. Give me the pickup truck over the car that looks like a toaster. I choose being a kid in a family that has long conversations and short dinners.
Accepting this facet of my personality upon my return from France, rather than shaming myself for it, allowed me to have an absolutely fantastic time during my second study abroad experience in London. I visited 15 cities in Europe, had some of the most amazing food and witnessed natural and historical beauty beyond compare. What I didn’t do was reprimand myself every time things like living in a city that doesn’t have a grid system frustrated me. I understand why London doesn’t (and probably never should) function on a grid, but I prefer the order and predictability of the streets of New York. It’s a preference and as long as you keep an open mind and open yourself up to new experiences, having preferences is just fine.
No one person will ever get the same experience from studying abroad. And while I’ve come to accept the fact that what I chose to take away from my study abroad experience isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, it’s really time we stop reprimanding people for vocalizing their preferences for certain ways of life. People who study abroad and proclaim upon their return that they want to move back as soon as they can get applauded for their openness to other cultures while people who return with a deeper appreciation of their American roots get dismissed as being intolerant and wasting their time abroad. No one experience is “correct” and so I urge you to drop everything, move to a foreign land, and have whatever experience you wish.