Junior year of college, I made a life-altering decision. I chose to spend a semester away from my friends, school, and home in the hopes of finding something new, invigorating, and worthwhile. What I got in return was all of that and so much more.
I knew that studying abroad would change my life. I knew, because so many people told me it would. I knew that I would make new friends, see awe-inspiring places, try new foods and experience different cultures. What I didn't know was the impact these experiences would have on my world view, my self-image, and my hopes for the future.
That semester was the best of my life. It was filled with laughter, friendships, exploration, and pure bliss. I met so many people from all across the globe--my tiny apartment itself represented individuals from three countries! I was making lifelong friends that were outside of my little slice of North Carolina, and those are friendships I still cherish to this day.
I learned so much in my little time there. Four months seems like a lot at the time, but in the grand scheme of life, it's a blink of an eye. Fortunately, the lessons I learned stuck around a lot longer. Here are some of the most important life truths I discovered during my time in England:
1. Traveling makes you lose sight of who you are.
People always say you should travel in order to "find yourself." I used to think this was true. After studying abroad, my views on the matter changed. To me, this statement is a mere cliché that sounds deep yet doesn't really mean anything. My interpretation of what people really want is this: they want to see what their personality and actions reflect once they remove themselves from any external influences at home and place themselves in a novel environment. Sure, you learn a lot about yourself when living away from home in a country you know slim to none about and know no one in. But that too, in itself, is an external influence.
I am not the same person at home as I am when I travel to foreign cities. And there's no way that I can be, because the pressures, the responsibilities, the environments are all different. After my time abroad, I started to think that being home in the midst of all this "stuff" was barring me from being the individual I "truly was." That notion depressed me. I started to anxiously await my next trip while simultaneously reminiscing on my previous ones to the point where living in the moment became difficult to do. And all of this finally made me question who I am. Was I the girl who lived a carefree, bold life abroad gallivanting from city to city exploring the world, or was I the psychology major who wanted to go to grad school and land a solid job? The answer, I know now, is both. The uncertainty helped me grow, it opened my mind, and changed my perspectives.
My travels bred openness and non-judgment. They changed my narrow frame of future possibilities into a vast field of unlimited options. I didn't "find myself," rather, I lost sight of who I was.
I still don't know who I am, because my thoughts, ideals, and notions about the world are constantly changing.
I'm constantly changing. In that perspective, how could I be just one thing?
2. There's no need to be shy because no one really cares what you do.
A lot of my friends now won't believe this, but I used to be shy. Extremely shy. I wouldn't even want to order my own food because the notion of talking to strangers gave me anxiety. If I made a slight transgression in public or embarrassed myself in some way, I would berate myself continuously throughout the day because I was so convinced people were judging or laughing at me. College changed that, a lot, because I learned to live on my own. But studying abroad is what really showed me that these little things in life don't deserve the importance we give them.
You can only be so shy when you're living alone in a city in which you know no one. Paradoxically, this invisibility is exactly what I needed in order to let down my walls. I was only there for four months and no one knew who I was. The anonymity gave me a freedom that was so liberating. Suddenly I was the bold, outgoing one. I talked to people everywhere--the random hostels I stayed in, bars at night, restaurants, stores--and the effect was magical. People were so nice, I made friends across the globe! I was constantly embarrassing myself, I couldn't help it. I didn't know the local customs of each place I visited and I often didn't speak the language. I made so many embarrassing, silly mistakes. But the beauty was that I realized that no one cared.
And since no one else cared, I figured there I was no reason I should either.
You make a mistake? The world moves on. You embarrass yourself? The world moves on.
You should constantly be who you want to be because there is literally no one to impress. Let go of the walls you have built up in your head and grant yourself the freedom to be whoever you want.
3. Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, including your own.
Growing up in the ol' US of A, I had more than my fair share of American pride. I own at least five articles of clothing with the American flag on them and would talk about how much I loved 'MERICA any time of day. Don't get me wrong, I still love my country and have a large amount of pride in its accomplishments, but studying abroad showed me that there are aspects that need to be worked on.
When I traveled abroad, I was surprised to see other countries so successfully doing the things I thought America did best. Our rates of infant mortality are higher than a number of other nations, and life expectancy is considerably low compared to other nations. Same goes with environmental performance and mathematics. And for a country that cites "pursuit of happiness" as one of our goals of government, we have a shockingly low level of overall life satisfaction. What?
Traveling abroad and analyzing different government systems showed me that while America has so much to offer, something is awry. There are many things we need to learn from other nations in regards to healthcare and environmental sustainability, among other things.
Ultimately, my experiences abroad allowed me to return home with an openness towards politics that I previously lacked. I became more aware of governmental policies and actively looked into political reforms.
I'm no less patriotic than I was when I left, but I have a new sense of awareness of how we can make our country an even stronger nation.
4. The more I travel and pursue my wanderlust, the less I will feel at home anywhere.
Traveling is exhilarating. It's blissful, tantalizing, and inspiring. It allows you to gain a world view you may not have previously possessed. You start to see the big picture rather than focusing on your narrow window of life like before. You experience new cultures, new places, new foods, and new customs, but you also see how much of life across the globe is the same. There are aspects of humanity that are universal, and you learn that things you thought were special to your home are actually prevalent across the globe. You also find that the things you thought to be universal are specific to your home country.
You constantly take in new knowledge but never stop thirsting for more. You also realize that no matter how much you try to learn it all, there will always be something new, something undiscovered.
The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't know.
The more places you see, the more you realize you have yet to explore.
There's no way you will be able to see all of these places because it takes time to gain something meaningful. I learned so much during my time abroad because I spent a significant amount of time ingraining myself in that society and learning about the culture and customs there. I, too, made memories and significant emotional and meaningful experiences there. Yet I was still an outsider. There is so much that I have yet to learn about that one place, but my wanderlust calls out to me to explore new destinations. And in that constant "where to next" I struggle with attaching meaning to the locations I visit.
There comes a time when you pick a place and realize that is where you belong.
Studying abroad opens the door to a world of travel and great experiences, but it limits you in another emotional, mental sense.
5. Traveling will rekindle your faith in humanity.
This world is a crazy place, full of good and bad. Media seems to often overlook the positive moments and set a spotlight on the negative. Acts of violence, shootings, kidnappings, government scandals all plague the news on a daily basis. It makes us feel a little hopeless inside, as though the beautiful world God created is falling apart.
Studying abroad helped restore my faith in humanity. It eradicated notions of prejudice and ignorance. It taught me to have faith, and it showed me kindness. So much kindness.
If I had a dollar for every time a stranger helped me out during all the travels thus far in my life, I could probably afford to put together another trip. Although no one knew me, the people were so gracious and accepting. It blew my mind how kind and welcoming everyone has been to me. Me, a random foreigner who they did not know, probably didn't speak the language, and did not know the customs. Yet I have been offered homestay, directions, food, company--I can't wrap my head around it. I felt at home in nations that were oceans away from my real home. I have met so many good people who are simply kind souls. They have inspired me to be like them and have shown me that the good in this world will always outweigh the bad.
They have given me faith in humanity.
These are some of the biggest yet often overlooked lessons I learned from my time abroad. I truly encourage each and every individual with the opportunity to study abroad, or at least travel. Along the way, you change. You make mistakes but you learn. Traveling allows you to put life into perspective. You can see that the things you often consider serious and compelling are not as important as you think. You learn to love strangers, you create ties with new regions, and you gain confidence in yourself. To new travelers, here is my advice:
Understand that this journey will be both amazing, trying, and altering. The individual you are prior to your journey may not be the same one who returns. You will learn truths about the world and yourself, some of which may be difficult to deal with. Talk to someone. Write. Having a journal is one of the best ways to understand the experiences you have. You will feel immeasurable freedom, bliss, and excitement. You might miss home. Just know that you must let go of any preconceived notions before the trip, and let yourself out of the comfort zone. Roam. Explore. Live. Keep an open mind and live in each moment. Traveling will change your life--for the best.