Although the spring semester is just now beginning, you're probably already thinking about all the different ways you could spend your summer. You could get a summer job, intern in a far away city, stay home and rewatch every season of "Gossip Girl," or read all of those books you've been dying to read. You could also, of course, study abroad, a choice that seems to be increasing in popularity.
I'm sure you've read every reason why you should study abroad. You're pushed out of your comfort zone, you make new friends, you get to try new foods, you learn different traditions and languages, you get to visit famous landmarks and museums full of Picasso, Dalí, and Monet. Having studied abroad in Spain, Fiji and New Zealand, I agree that all of these things are wonderful and it's these things that make studying abroad my favorite part of college. Studying abroad undoubtedly gives you stories and memories that last a lifetime, and it teaches you valuable life lessons.
But to me, there are two different kinds of studying abroad programs: those that are fun and those that are fulfilling. And a genuine sense of self-discovery marks the difference between the two.
I say this because the month I spent in Spain and the effect it had on me was dramatically different from the six weeks I spent in Fiji and New Zealand the following summer.
In Spain, I was enrolled in actual textbook-based classes in a local university, and when I wasn't in class, I was out exploring the city. My friends and I spent every minute we could out looking at Picasso, walking through the park, shopping in every Zara and El Corte Ingles we could find. By the time I got to bed, which was normally early in the morning, I was exhausted. There was just so much to do — all the time.
When I returned home that June, I picked up right where I had left off. Sure, I felt more confident and independent, more culturally refined, and more adept at speaking Spanish. But nothing within had changed. I didn't experience any kind of grand revelation of self-discovery like I thought I would. I was the same me.
Now fast forward to the four weeks I spent in Fiji (and the two weeks in New Zealand). With this particular study abroad program, there were no textbooks or lectures involved. Matter of fact, there was no classroom at all. The island we were living on in Fiji didn't even have electricity.
This was the first time in my life that I didn't wake up by the ring of an alarm, or go to sleep with the sound of a TV. I woke up when the sun rose, I partook in whatever activities the Fijians were working on that day, and I went to sleep whenever I had enough of watching the midnight moon. I had finally found paradise.
But all of the snorkeling and coconut drinking and bamboo weaving wasn't what made this experience so wonderful and life-changing. These things weren't responsible for stimulating the kind of self-exploration I underwent while sitting in the hammocks by the ocean tide, as I scribbled away in my journal.
It was the relationships I formed while on the island, with both the Fijians and the Americans, that taught me the most about myself. The people I met challenged what I believed about the meaning of life, the significance of love and respect, the consequences of beauty and friendships. They made me doubt. They made me believe.
When I came back home from Fiji, everyone noticed something different about me. I was quieter, happier, and more at peace with being still, in one place, by myself. It was hard adjusting. I didn't want my cellphone back. I didn't want the overwhelming energy America wanted to surround me with. I no longer felt the need to ride the roads and share what I was doing on social media. Everything felt so unimportant, so insignificant.
Studying abroad in Fiji gave me fulfillment. It wasn't just fun. It challenged and changed me in ways only an experience that deprives you of all your comforts can do. Hopping on a plane and living in a big city in a nice hotel or house isn't truly stepping out of your comfort zone. It rarely gives you any permanent sense of direction.
This summer, if you want an experience that is truly life-changing, consider studying abroad in an environment that is in no way familiar to you. A program like this may not apply to your major — I didn't receive any credits toward my major — but when else after you graduate will you be able to experience this kind of self-discovery?
It's true that some of the most important things to learn can only be learned outside of the classroom. So this summer I challenge you to put aside your fears, put aside what's easy, disregard what makes sense, and take the plunge into the great unknown.