Studying abroad: a time of personal enrichment for some, reckless adventure for others, and life-changing experiences for all. I’ll start off by saying that yes, you should do it. Go off to the country of your dreams and grab life by its horns. Experience a new culture totally different from your own, and enjoy every single second of it.
However, proceed with caution, because I’m going to go against the grain here and tell you this: there is a wrong way to study abroad.
That sentence might sound pretentious, or perhaps even condescending, but if I were saying this sentence to you face-to-face during a normal conversation on your patio, I would not say it haughtily with my nose in the air; nor would I roll my eyes and nod knowingly as if mentally recalling some idiot student I met during my travels.
Rather, my tone would be one of care and earnestness, because I don’t want you to make the terrible mistake of spending your time abroad as a tourist.
When you are initially abroad, you’ll be tempted to hang out with your American friends at all times. That’s completely understandable—after all, it can initially be terrifying being in a new culture, and sticking with those who you identify with can be the most tempting option. The temptation is practically palpable when those Americans you’re with are friends you’ve known from your school, or perhaps even your hometown.
Initially, I didn’t really have that option. I spent a semester in Australia at the University of Queensland (UQ) in the International House (IH) – 50% Australian students, 50% international students. Yes, that latter 50% included Americans – but not a ton, and not a single one from my university, Arcadia. Most of the other Arcadia students studying at UQ opted to live together in an apartment.
When I first arrived at IH, I was one of the first students there. I was scared, jetlagged, and feeling very lonely. After dumping my stuff in my room, I sat down on my bed. I stared at the pale yellow walls of my room, which had been completely stripped bare, the only evidence of prior use being the scattered tiny holes from thumbtacks that had surely once held up old, beloved posters.
I thought of all of the posters I would have brought had I the space in my suitcase. Anything would be better than these blank walls.
I felt like I was going mad. My initial impulse was to try to connect my phone to Wifi, but I couldn’t get it to work. There was no one in my hall, and I didn’t have a calling card, so there wasn’t even a way for me to make an ultra-expensive call home.
Realization hit me like a ton of bricks: for the first time in my entire life, I was completely and totally alone. And I was alone in a country 12000 miles away from anybody I knew. What I would have given at that moment to have my Arcadia friends by my side.
Now, I’m more thankful for that loneliness than anything in my life, because it drove me to make friends.
A lovely girl found me crying in the common room, and without a moment’s hesitation, she offered to take me shopping with her sister so I could get the necessities for life: laundry detergent, a toothbrush, and all those other luxuries. She helped me get back on my feet and get ready for the impending orientation week.
The next day, everyone else came to IH, and the place that had just 24 hours ago seemed so lonely and desolate became bustling and full of life. I met my neighbor, the crazy and adorable Emily, who would often plop on my bed and tell me all about the ponderings she’d had that day. I met the lovely Annika who lived down the hall from me and would come in to show me new music and share a story she had heard at dinner. Then I met Ella, one of the kindest people I’d ever have the pleasure to know, who showed me the beauty of salt and vinegar chips and Phoebe from Friends. And then, before I knew it, I’d met Hope, Erika, Maddie, Jess, Caitlin, Robyn, Georgia, Emma, and countless others (featured in the picture above).
All of these people were Australian and had lived in Australia their whole lives. And they were all absolutely thrilled to help me suck the marrow out of my trip through inviting me to stay at their houses, showing me around the city, or even just giving me popular Australian cookies to try.
Don’t get me wrong: I did most of my traveling with American students, and I did truly and deeply enjoy my time with them. However, my favorite parts of being abroad did not involve scuba-diving in the Great Barrier Reef or seeing the Sydney Opera House. The touristy aspects of traveling are certainly beautiful, but I always found myself looking forward to returning to IH to see my friends’ faces, to tell them all about my travels, to talk with them until the wee hours of the night. My favorite parts of studying abroad were going to a bar with Ella and her dad to get a beer, and spending Easter Sunday sick on Hope’s couch while her mom made me tea and toast with passion fruit butter.
I don’t know if my Aussie friends realized that for me, the beauty of Australia wasn’t just a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Every moment I spent with them, becoming closer to them, made me fall in love with the country more. I saw the beauty of Australia through their generosity, their passion for life, their fondness for helping others.
I experienced Australia through a way no mere tourist can. The essence of my experience abroad was not on a gorgeous mountain or a deep-sea adventure, but through a handful of Australian girls who completely changed my life.
So yes, in my not-so-humble opinion, there is a correct way to study abroad. And there is an incorrect way, as well. Don’t be so afraid to try new things that you stick with the familiar. Don’t be a tourist. Go forth and immerse yourself in the new.
But after meeting my IH family, I can’t help but wonder: how could anyone possibly choose the wrong way?