When you start thinking about studying abroad somewhere, it's just a far away dream. You send in your application and fill out all the paperwork, and then you sit there, imagining yourself climbing mountains and seeing monuments and taking amazing pictures, all while a Bruce Springsteen song plays in the background.
You wait nervously to see if you'll get in, reasoning and rationalizing in a different direction each passing day, until the email finally comes and you realize that you've been accepted.
It's such incredible news and you're so excited, and this new internal clock appears inside your brain, counting down the days until you leave. Which conjures up a combination of overwhelming excitement and horrifying stress every time you realize how fast the day is approaching and how little you've actually packed.
And then the day comes, and you begin your journey with a combination of fear, exhilaration, eagerness and possibly jet lag.
You explore, experience new things, have new adventures and make new friends. You learn a ton, eat even more and bring back enough souvenirs to give to everyone you know, even if most of them are really for yourself. And before you know it, it's time to go home again. Whether you've been there a week or a year, you'll comment as you get on your plane that it seems like you've only been there for a moment.
And that's the sad moment when your experience is over, and you have to come back and tell every person you see the same story about how amazing your trip was, all while silently wishing you were still abroad and not just talking about how incredible it was.
Eventually, someone will probably ask you to reflect on the experience, and to tell what advice you would give to someone who is considering studying abroad. And you'll realize something.
You went abroad expecting to learn about people who are very different from you. You expected to learn about their culture and their country, and how the things they do make them so very different from you, but also so very similar. You expected to learn some history, and to realize that less separates you from the people of the past than you think. And if you did it right, you did learn all of those things.
But even more than that, you'll realize that those weren't the most valuable things that you learned while you were gone, and those aren't the reasons you'd gush to anyone who asked about the importance of going abroad.
You'll realize that the most valuable thing you brought back with you was not a memory or a souvenir, but a deeper knowledge of yourself, and a better understanding of who you are and how you fit into the world around you. And when people ask your advice on the subject, you won't weigh in so much on destinations or places to eat, but you'll stress taking chances and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone because you've learned that the only way to know what you love is to try new things, especially when they scare you. You'll think of when you did something terrifying for the first time, and you'll remember the people who were holding your hand while you did it, and cheering you on every step of the way.
And when you say you've left your heart somewhere, or that a part of you remains back in the place you were when you discovered parts of yourself you never knew existed, you'll know that it isn't just a way to say you had a good time.It's how you express that while you were out in the world getting to know a new place, you got to know yourself even better. And that you knew when you were coming back home that you would never be the same.