I’ll preface this by saying that I have always loved traveling. As a junior in high school I went on a mission trip to Peru and spent two weeks in Israel with my church, and after my senior year, I spent a month with a group of students and teachers in my high school traveling through Europe.
I am no stranger to traveling, so you could presume that studying abroad would be a logical decision for me in college – in fact, that’s one of the very things that was a must-have for me during the two-year frenzy that is college searching. I knew I had to go somewhere that had a study abroad program.
There’s something absolutely thrilling about being in a place that is entirely unfamiliar, where you don’t speak the language and even the streets are new at every turn. Going abroad can teach you so many things about yourself that you would never have the opportunity to learn stateside.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone is going to have a go-to-India-to-find-themselves experience. Studying abroad doesn’t have to be completely life altering to be impactful, in fact, you can still learn from the small experiences.
Lesson 1: Don’t Put a Limit on your Expectations
Take my trip to Peru for example. I was seventeen years old, and I had all these grand expectations. All of my friends had recently been on mission trips to Albania and India and had these unbelievable stories of how their lives were “sooo impacted” by their experience.
I’m naturally a bit of a skeptical person, albeit a romantic – I know, it’s a conflicting worldview –I both wanted to believe them and doubted them at the same time. So, off I went, expecting something momentous to happen, but nothing momentous did.
Yes, we helped build dorms at an orphanage and we spent time with the children there, and both of those things are impactful and important, but the whole time I was expecting to be somehow, inherently changed like so many of my friends claimed to be.
“Studying abroad doesn’t have to be completely life altering to be impactful.”
Instead, I saw all the people in my group have these incredible experiences, yet I felt isolated as if I were watching from afar. I began to feel bitter as if I were somehow approaching the experience wrong.
But that’s just it, I was. I went abroad with the expectation that something had to happen to me. I’m your classic Type A perfectionist: I need to know what is happening when it’s happening, and how it’s going to be accomplished.
I went to Peru with this idea that I would come back a better person, chasing this ineffable more that seemed so elusive.
It was only when I was back in the States that I eventually realized the lesson to be learned – don’t go abroad with specific expectations of what you think needs to happen, instead learn to experience everything for what it is, rather than what you wish it were or thought it would be.
Lesson Two: Learn To Embrace Every Moment
So now let’s talk about what you’re really here for, studying abroad in college.
Up until I chose to study abroad, my abroad experiences were typically “safer.” Now, I don’t mean physically safer, but rather in the more emotional sense of the word (you could easily argue that going to Israel in 2014 was not a safe decision).
I went to Peru, but I spoke Spanish. I went to Israel on a guided tour, so I didn’t need to worry about the language.
I went to Europe, but most people in Europe speak English, at least to some extent, and if not, French and Italian are similar enough to Spanish that I could figure it out. And even more than that, Europe, for all its differences, is still a Western culture, so you can easily find similarities and familiar foods and experiences.
But for my college abroad experience, I chose to go to China. There is almost nothing about China that is like life in the states. The language is completely indecipherable to a non-speaker, the culture and expectations are entirely different – even the rituals and habits surrounding the way meals are eaten is different.
“Learn to look for the small things that will stick with you.”
This was the first time that I had really experienced a culture without the easy shelter that I had previously known. When we had free time and went out exploring on our own, there wasn’t a tour guide to explain what was happening, there wasn’t this security net of a mini American culture to act as insulation – and I felt like I was really able to experience culture like I had never encountered it before.
This is where the second lesson comes into play.
You’re only abroad for a few weeks, a month, or a few months – what is that in the span of your life? You might’ve walked ten miles on a tour in ninety-degree weather, and the last thing you want to do is go explore the city at night, but that’s exactly what you should do.
Experiencing a culture up close is one of the best ways to make the most of your study abroad experience.
When we were in China, there was one day in particular where we had a couple hours of free time. Most of our group chose to stay in the nearby mall where they could get food and wander around the stores.
A few of us decided to break off and do something different. We found an escape game about a mile away, so we quickly walked there and decided to try to figure it out.
Let’s just say that doing an escape game in poorly-translated English is one of the more difficult things I’ve attempted. Not only that, but it definitely wasn’t very regulated, and they legitimately locked us in with a padlock.
It was sketchy and it was cheap, but it was so much fun. If we hadn’t decided to venture out of the comfortable spot, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.
The best meal that I had was when we were looking for a restaurant we found online, only to find out that they were closed on Tuesdays – which of course wasn’t marked on their website.
We were wandering around the streets of Hangzhou in the pouring rain, exhausted and hungry, and we decided to get food at the first restaurant we found. Of course, as we said that, we rounded the corner only to see a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant, that was about ten feet deep by five to six feet wide.
“Wherever you decide to study abroad, you’re going to see incredible things.”
They had two plastic tables with plastic lawn chairs and there was a group of older Chinese men seated at the other table drinking beer and playing cards. And let me tell you, that was the most incredible beef noodle soup I’ve ever had, and it was only $2.
We sat there, in that un-air-conditioned restaurant, playing Chinese card games, fanning ourselves with the cheap street-market fans we had bought the day previously while a strange game show played on the ancient TV in the corner of the room – and it was one of my favorite memories from that trip.
Wherever you decide to go, you’re going to see incredible things. Maybe you’ll see the Sistine Chapel, the canals of Venice, Big Ben, the Dead Sea, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, but realize that you can have so much fun and experience so much in the moments in between.
Learn to look for the small things that will stick with you.
Be Open to Experiences That Come Your Way
I learned so much in China. Yes, I learned how to say “no, I don’t want that”, “too expensive,” “I’m full,” and “I am an American,” but I also learned about Chinese culture.
I learned that eating dinner where everyone shares from the same plates can be a really bonding and joyful experience.
I learned about a completely different way of viewing yourself in relation to others, about giving respect to those who deserve it and finding your place in society.
I learned how to rent bikes on WeChat and how to properly brew Pu’er tea.
But I also learned that there is so much more to life when you’re willing to go somewhere completely new and when you’re open to any experiences that come your way.
I graduate from college this December, and after that, I’ve decided that I’m going back to China. It might be for a year, or it might be longer. But this is a path in my life that I would have never found if I had not been open to studying abroad, if I had not approached these experiences with an unbiased perspective.
I went to China having learned from my previous mistakes – I chose not to set some grand expectation for myself, I chose instead to be open to experiences as they came.
I encourage you to study abroad. Go where you’re comfortable or go somewhere that is entirely unfamiliar to you. Go with an open mind and a willing spirit. This is your chance to experience something entirely new, and I hope you make the most of it.
Written by: Christiana Duerksen
Christiana Duerksen is a senior at Belmont University graduating in December 2018 with a double major in Corporate Communication and Psychology.
Eventually, she wants to study Industrial-Organizational Psychology for graduate school, but her immediate plans are to take a gap year and move to China to teach English and start a travel YouTube channel.
She loves photography, reading science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian novels, and absolutely cannot wait for the next season of Game of Thrones.