Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How Studying Abroad Changed My Life

When I first started college, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. One of my majors is International Relations, so it is definitely highly recommended by our advisors to study abroad and actually experience the world. Being in my freshman year, I didn't have any idea of where or when I wanted to go, I just knew that I had to go.

Fast forward to about halfway through my sophomore year, and I was sitting in my English class (my other major) and someone came into our class talking about a summer program held in London for about five weeks. My interest was piqued, and I felt that this program was perfect for me. I went home that night and looked up the application, and started with my essays. The next week I was sitting in my Spanish class, and another person came into our class to talk about a different summer program - right after the London one - held in Spain. Again, I was super interested, and thought I would enjoy the program. I looked up the application and trip information and decided to apply to both programs, and go to whichever one I was accepted into.

I turned in my applications, and patiently waited for about a month or so. As it turned out, I ended up getting into both programs, and I was so happy, but also super confused about which program to choose. Both England and Spain have been on my travel bucket list ever since I could remember, so I had no idea how to choose between the two. I agonized about it for a couple of weeks - I am an extremely indecisive person - until finally I called up my parents and asked for their advice. My dad told me point blank that I should do both programs. Oddly enough, the thought never crossed really crossed my mind, especially since I didn't want to spend a whole summer away from my family (and probably more importantly my puppies and kitties). I thought about it, and with my parents full support, I committed to both programs.

To be completely honest, I was excited, but I thought I would be more excited, if that makes sense. When I told other people about it, I didn't have strong feelings either way, and sometimes the other person seemed to be more pumped up about it than I did. I think that's because I was subconsciously super nervous, since the only time I had left the country before was to go to Mexico when I was 5, to volunteer. I had my brother and my mom, and later my dad, with me, so it wasn't scary at all. This would be the first time that I would be leaving the continent, and it was by myself. After the first meeting for the England program, I actually came home and had a panic attack because I was so scared. I started to regret my decision, and had a lot of nerves about going.

The nerves started to ease since I had finals to focus on, and once I was finished with the school year and home for the summer, I was still really scared, but I was getting more excited. I waited until the night before to finish packing, which was a huge mistake, and went to the airport the next day with my parents. Once I was on the plane, it finally started to feel a little bit real that I was going, but I don't think I quite believed I was going to London until I was actually there. Getting an international SIM card was a great idea, because I was able to call an Uber to get to my homestay, rather than figure out the tube system with my giant suitcase.

When I arrived at my homestay, I was instantly homesick, because I was at a home but it wasn't mine. My homestay mom was so sweet and fixed me some lunch, and it was so nice to have a home cooked meal. I did miss my own mom, but it was nice having someone there to fix me some food when I was completely, and utterly exhausted. The first couple of nights were really rough because I was missing home a lot. I also had a lot of time to think about and miss home since classes hadn't started yet, which probably made it a lot worse. I got through the homesickness with Harry Potter and my favorite Game of Thrones book, also my sweet roommate and homestay family, and once classes started, I was fine. For some reason, I was also super worried about traveling to Spain by myself, and couldn't stop thinking about it for the first week. After getting around London, though, and visiting the surrounding cities, my anxiety about that eased up a bit. I only had two panic attacks in the beginning, and I'm actually really proud of myself that I didn't have more when trying to use the tube for the first couple of times.

Now you know a bit of the background to my study abroad, here's how it changed my life!

I had to rely completely  on myself for probably the first time ever.
When I first started college, I thought I was relying on myself, but in reality I was still leaning heavily on my parents. I called them everyday, texted them multiple times a day, and still asked their advice constantly. When I was in London, I texted them once a day to tell them I was still alive, but other than weekly Skype calls, I didn't talk to them a whole lot. I made decisions for myself, and had to figure out how to use the tube systems and get around the city on my own. Yes, it was scary - terrifying - in the beginning, but after a while, I got used to it, and enjoyed relying on myself and no one else. I've always been an independent person, but this was independence on a whole new level.

I learned how to be alone.
Again, I have always been an independent person, but I think I've always been a little scared to be alone with myself, especially when I'm so close with my family. I don't have a huge family, but since we're close knit, I usually spend most of my time with them. Being in London taught me how to be alone, and that it isn't scary, but actually quite enjoyable. My roommate and I rode the tube together to class, but usually after classes we went our separate ways. Yes, it was scary to ride the tube completely alone for the first time, but I came to really enjoy it. Don't get my wrong, I enjoyed her company, but I also loved my time alone on the tube, where I got to read on my Kindle and just listen to music. Long tube rides also didn't bother me in the slightest, because it just meant I had more time to read, and I ended up reading about six or seven books in my five weeks spent in London. I also wasn't bothered to eat alone, and actually learned to love to people watch while sipping coffee.

I learned how to take risks.
First of all, I took a risk by studying abroad, since it was something that scared me, but it ended up turning out wonderfully. I guess I've always been more of a physical (if that's even the right word to use) risk-taker, in that I'm not afraid to jump off a cliff into a pool of water (check out this vlog to see what I'm talking about), go on crazy roller coasters, or anything like that, but other risks like forcing myself out of my social comfort zone terrify me. I'm not one to strike up a conversation with a stranger, so going to two whole new culture with two different groups of people from my university who I didn't know at all, and go to a whole new continent in general was taking a huge risk for me. I don't mean that I didn't want to travel, quite the opposite actually. I've always wanted to travel, but I definitely let my anxiety hold me back. Actually doing these programs was a huge step for me, and I learned how to take risks, and that they result in wonderful, wonderful things.

Caring about what others thought of me stopped becoming something I worried about.
With so many other things to worry during my time spent in London and Spain, worrying about what others thought of me quickly got put on the back burner. I also started getting so much for comfortable and confident in myself by navigating through the different cities I was in, that I just felt so much better in my own skin. Those theoretical things other people thought about me started not to matter, because all I knew was I was happy with myself, so I didn't care what other people thought about me. I realized things people thought about me - people I don't even know - really don't matter at all, because chances are, I'm probably never going to even talk to those people.

I learned not to judge others before getting to know them.
Something that happens when you go to a foreign country with a group of people you don't know is judgement. On the first day of classes I found myself making assumptions about people before I even talked to them. Throughout both programs, I learned not to judge someone before getting to know them, or assume that they are a certain way, because oftentimes you will be wrong. On my London program there was a deaf girl, and she was one of my favorite people to talk to and get to know. Her outlook on life and people was incredible; some people in the program were unintentionally very rude to her, but she tried to understand where they were coming from, and saw that they weren't trying to be rude, and didn't even get upset about it. Her first reaction wasn't to immediately get defensive and mad, but try to understand why they would unfairly be rude in the first place. If we all had an outlook on life like hers, I think we would all be a lot happier.

I also learned that people aren't as scary as I thought they were, and starting a conversation is actually pretty simple.
I've never been one to strike up a conversation very easily, but being exposed to a ton of different types of people taught me that people aren't as scary as they seem. Just because someone isn't actively talking or smiling, doesn't mean they aren't open to talk. Now I definitely never started a conversation on the tube because people appreciate silence, but if I was waiting in line at a busy coffee shop or in a more "social" setting, it was fun to talk to people who were a lot different than me. You really learn a lot about people, and it makes you look at yourself differently.

Eight words: strawberry-lime cider, halloumi cheese, and patatas bravas.
Okay, these things didn't so much change my life, but ohmygosh I got addicted to them. Strawberry-lime cider was my drink of choice in London, and I fell in love with halloumi cheese. It was absolutely everywhere in London, but I haven't seen it here in the states. I have heard that Trader Joe's has it, so I'll be on the look out, but it definitely isn't as accessible here. While in Spain, patatas bravas were my friend's and I's favorite bar food. We'd grab some after class and snack on them before our (very late) dinner, and wow are they delicious. I haven't tried to make them since I've been home, so I really want to see if I can make them as good! I'm betting on probably not, but hopefully I can get them close.

Going to museums and just simply looking at art made me look at myself differently.
There's something about looking at art from hundreds of years ago that starts to change your perspective. It's easier to understand how life was like back then, and also how life now is different. Looking at art also just forces you to reflect, so you find yourself reflecting on more than the artwork in front of you, whether it is a painting, sculpture, or something else. I went to museums in both London and Spain with my study abroad group, and also by myself, and looking at a ton of art really teaches you how to look at things differently, and just reflect in general. I never thought I would enjoy museums so much, but I definitely love them now.

I immersed myself in two different cultures, and it made me look at my own - and myself - differently.
Like going to museums and looking at art from different places from around the world, immersing yourself in different cultures teaches you so much that you really can't learn anywhere else. Experiencing two very different places was so beneficial for me, and I learned to be so much more open to other people's customs and way of life. Just because something or someone is different doesn't mean they're wrong. You can learn so much from different people and places, as long as you keep an open mind about it. Not only did I learn about these places, but I learned so much about my own culture by comparing it to those of London and Spain. People told me I would learn so much, but I don't think I quite believed them until I was in these places, actually experiencing them.

I now have the undeniable urge of the travel bug.
Once you get a taste of the world, all you want to do is travel and see other places. Countries that I really didn't have an interest in visiting before are now places that I really want to see. Basically, there isn't a place that I don't want to see, and I have a better understanding that every place in the world has something you can learn from.

Studying abroad this summer really did change me for the better. I learned so much about myself, and I really wouldn't trade this experience for anything in the world. If you're considering studying abroad, or even just traveling, go and do it! You won't regret it, and you'll probably have an incredible experience. Even if it isn't completely life-changing, I guarantee you'll learn at least one thing.