To many, the thought of leaving the comfort of your friends and college life as you know it to go spend a few months in another country is a bit scary. Will your roommate find a new friend and forget about you? What if you don't find new friends while you're abroad? What if you want to come back home?
At 19, many of these thoughts were swirling around in my mind, but I headed out for a semester abroad in Paris only barely knowing one person (spoiler alert: we ended up living together and she's one of my best friends to this day!). Each step down the jet bridge towards the plane and away from my parents and my small Connecticut college felt like I was walking towards the guillotine. My seat mate on the plane was from Ecuador and told me he was going to spend a few months in Milan, so he gave me his number and told me that if I ever made it there to give him a call. I never did, but that interaction calmed me down and got me excited for all that was to come. How cool that I could just jet off to another country and find new friends?!
Looking back, studying abroad was one of my most favorite experiences and one of the most defining times of my young adult life. If you're on the fence about doing it or never even considered doing it, here are the top 10 reasons why you should study abroad if you can:
1. The sense of independence
Yes, you will get this just by going off to college, but nothing compares to being in a different country and different time zone to really feel freedom. Everything is new, so your senses are completely heightened. Even the act of going to the grocery store feels like a new and exciting adventure (especially if the language is different!).
daily lunch on the steps of the Seine
2. Exposure to a new culture
Colleges and universities can definitely offer cultural experiences and events, but imagine being TOTALLY immersed in another way of life. Trying to live your life the way you do at home doesn't always work. Sure, it can be uncomfortable at first, but soon you learn the ropes and start to really feel like a local. When I started eating dinner no earlier than 8:30pm (which, by American standards, is so late), I felt like I was French. Even the little things make a difference and have stuck with me like saying "hello" and "thank you" to shop owners when I enter and exit a store and eating with my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right. You may not notice all of the things you picked up and what has become "normal" for you, but you will surely notice it at the end of the semester when you come back home. Reverse culture shock is real, but it will make you feel grateful and realize how much you changed.
3. Mastering a new language
I had taken French classes since I was a little kid. Did this mean I was fluent? Absolutely not. There is a huge difference between taking classes in school in the US and actually using your language skills. I will never forget the first time I entered a tabac (the equivalent of a bodega) to buy more minutes for my international cell phone (now I'm just dating myself). I was so excited to use all those years of French classes! I walked into the shop and the shopkeeper looked up at me and said "bonjour." I awkwardly yelled back "MERCI!!!!" which means thank you. Totally not the correct word to use. Mortified, I quickly bought my minutes and ran out of the store. By the end of the semester, after months of classes at the Sorbonne, living with a French woman, and just day to day experience out and about in the city, I could carry on a conversation with basically anyone with ease. I picked up slang words and phrases that are not taught in school as well as certain mannerisms you will only notice if you are totally immersed. If you choose to go somewhere that is English speaking, you will still pick up a lot of different words and phrases!
4. Trying new foods
Your favorite foods that you enjoy at home will still be there when you get back home. Why not use this experience to do a little culinary exploration? Sweet and savory crepes in France, Vegemite in Australia, schnitzel in Germany, sushi in Japan, and so on. And when you've had enough exploring and just need a taste of home, I think there is a McDonald's in just about every country on this planet (which in itself is worth checking out because every country serves different things you won't find back home!).
5. The shopping
Ok, hear me out on this one: I'm not just talking about clothes, but all kinds of things. Think about it - everyone at home shops at the same stores and all wears the same things. The styles in other countries are usually way ahead of what's going on the in States. I remember seeing everyone in Paris wearing leather boots over jeans and pants and thinking to myself "what an interesting look" and, don't you know, about three years later that style landed back home. You can also pick up some really cool art pieces and collectible pieces (reasonably priced, of course) that you can proudly display in your dorm or when you graduate and have a place of your own (because as much as you try and block it out, adulthood is coming).
6. The ability to travel
swimming at Aristotle Onassis' island in Greece on my 20th birthday
Part of the experience of studying abroad is not only exploring your new home city, but also traveling to other nearby destinations. If you're in Europe, it could not be easier to travel between countries. Whether it's on a budget airline like RyanAir or getting an unlimited train pass on Eurail, you can easily go spend a few days in a new place. Imagine taking a two hour train ride in the US and ending up in a completely different country, that speaks a completely different language and has a totally new culture? It just doesn't happen which makes study abroad weekend trips even cooler. A lot of study abroad programs will only have classes four days a week which makes long weekends even easier. My program was five days a week, but I didn't let that stop me from packing a bag as often as I could. I had worked hard the whole summer before waiting tables at a seafood restaurant (which meant I was peeling and deveining raw shrimp at 6:30 in the morning - barf) to be able to travel around and I wasn't going to let anything stop me!
7. Taking different classes that aren't offered at your school
A lot of study abroad programs will offer classes a bit out of the norm as part of their curriculum. For example, I took classes in French architecture, French cinema, and international business despite my major being public relations. My advisor and I found a way to make these classes fit into my credit requirements and as a bonus because I had so many hours of French class (thanks to those aforementioned five days a week), I was also able to add it as a second minor. This is a really fun way to shake up your classes!
8. A gained sense of confidence
Just like the cultural habits that you pick up, you may not notice your confidence grow until you've returned home. Looking back on all you did and all you accomplished by yourself in a different country will astound you. Did you really master the complicated subway system? Did you really take a politics class completely in another language? You'll feel like there isn't anything you can't do!
9. You get to call this place home for the rest of your life
Every time I go back to Paris, it feels like I am going home despite having lived there 14 years (holy @#$%) ago. Much has changed, but much has not. The Metro is still the Metro, my favorite neighborhoods are still there, and the French are still French (if you know, you know).
And the best part...
10. You meet friends for life
Think about it: the people that you spend your time with while studying abroad become your family. You will lean on them for everything and you are going through this experience together. No matter how many pictures you take or stories you tell, they are the only ones who will know exactly what you went through. Bonds are formed that are so strong and different from other people you will meet in your life. If you study abroad through a program that's run by your college, you may know a lot of the people going on the trip with you, but you may not know them well. This will be your chance to get to know a different group of people. If your school doesn't have a study abroad program and you're going abroad with a third party (like I did), then nearly everyone will be a new face because they are coming from all different schools. To me, this was one of my favorite parts of the whole study abroad experience.