5 Things I Learned from Studying Abroad

When I started college, I never planned to study abroad. The fear of leaving my comfortable lifestyle had outweighed the benefit of spending a semester in a foreign place. Why would I voluntarily put myself in a situation where I knew no one and would have to build up my social circle and new life from scratch?

It wasn’t until a late-night drive on our way home from Zion National Park, that my Dad convinced me of how lucky I was to have the opportunity to study abroad that my school was offering.

“If you don’t do it you will be missing out on one of the most exciting, eye-opening experiences of your life.”

He could not have been more right.

I decided to study abroad in London, and it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Not only did I study abroad, but I also traveled after my exams ended (and a bit before) to 11 different European countries. I stayed with Couchsurfing hosts, Airbnb hosts, in hostels, on friend’s floors, and ONCE during the whole journey, a hotel.

The school that I studied abroad at: University College London

The school that I studied abroad at: University College London

I became addicted to the lifestyle that I had feared before I decided to study abroad. Short-term homes in new locations were satisfying in ways that no other experiences had been before. Every day was full of new foods, new faces, and new sights. I had no routine, and I had never been happier. There was always something to look forward to.

And then summer came crashing to an end (along with the funds in my bank account), and I was on a flight back to the US. You know how people talk about catching the travel bug? Well, it’s a real thing. When I got back to school I was restless. All I wanted was to be on my way to another place. I felt claustrophobic in my old routine and familiar environment. I spent the entirety of my senior year dreaming about (and saving my money for) a return to Europe.

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It is the August after graduation, and I am shooting through the sky at 645 miles/hour, on a one-way ticket back to the continent that I fell in love with the year before. In less than two hours I will be touching down at London Heathrow. Having the time to reflect on how I feel now versus how I felt the first time that I took this flight made me realize just how much I had learned from my experience studying abroad (and I don't mean academically):

1. Minimalism:

My first time making this journey, I had brought four (that's right, four) suitcases with me. This time, however, I've managed to fit everything that I need for an indefinite trip overseas into merely a large carry-on-size backpack - a big improvement.

Why so minimal, you might ask?

During my time abroad I kept getting more and more frustrated with the amount of things that I had and didn't need. These extra clothes and accessories acted as literal weights on my shoulders. I felt less flexible and less free for having to spend valuable time browsing through outfits or deciding what to pack for my next trip.

Me and my one bag.

Me and my one bag.

Travel makes you realize that all you really need are the essentials. Now, I have outfits for each occasion, and don't waste any time wondering what to wear, where things are, or why I bought them in the first place.

Having less also means that I'm always ready for adventure. I know exactly what I need, where it is, and that it will all fit in a single backpack, allowing me to be more spontaneous and spend more time on the things that matter - exploring, discovering, and connecting.

2. How to start a conversation:

A huge theme of my study abroad experience was recognizing the temporary nature of the experience. There is an intense sense of impermanence that makes saying yes to things a whole lot easier, and saying hello to strangers a whole lot more appealing.

While traveling, you share a common experience with everyone you meet. You are all wandering through time and space together, which makes starting a conversation as simple as asking,

"Where are you from?"

9 out of 10 times I recommend starting that conversation. Before my flight even boarded, I made friends with a very kind Belgian woman (now my friend on Facebook) who offered me a place to sleep if I ever found myself near Luxembourg; a sweet older couple from Gloucester heading home after their holiday in Maine; and a London local on her way back from holiday in Nantucket with the family that she au pairs for.

The conversations that I started while abroad led to some of the most rewarding relationships that I have had. I am so grateful for having met the wonderful people that I did along my journey, many of whom are still in my life – some of them very deeply – and am moved by the international communities that we have formed together.

Me with my amazing Switzerland Couchsurfing host, Isabella, at the Trummelbach Falls near Interlaken.

Me with my amazing Switzerland Couchsurfing host, Isabella, at the Trummelbach Falls near Interlaken.

3. How to be independent:

For about three weeks of travel during my study-abroad experience, I was on my own. Since then, I have made it a point to travel solo. I learned that I feel strongest while traveling alone. Every minor accomplishment becomes a major feat when done without any assistance from others.

A photo from my solo trip to Florence.

A photo from my solo trip to Florence.

I can also be anyone while traveling. I am no longer confined by anyone's previous understandings of who I am. Each day is an opportunity to be a different version of myself. The liberating temporality of traveling, paired with the confidence-boosting independence of doing it alone, makes me feel invincible.

4.    How to overcome fear:

They say that the best way to overcome fear is to face it. Studying abroad gets you out of your comfort zone in almost every way possible. You are leaving behind your family, your friends, maybe a significant other… and you are now being dropped into a new place where you likely have no friends, no idea of where anything is, and in some cases, no idea how to speak the language that everyone around you is fluent in. This situation,of course, seems daunting.

I know that I have been sugarcoating the experience of studying abroad, but I don’t mean to belittle the fact that, at times, it can be a huge challenge. It is not always an easy, carefree party. There will be hardships, but you will be forced to overcome them, and this will make you stronger.

Flowers in Oxford, England.

Flowers in Oxford, England.

During my time abroad I lost a family member, went through a breakup, and experienced multiple illnesses. These were all events that I had imagined as “worst-case scenarios” before traveling, and I hoped that I would never have to actually experience them.

Dealing with these challenges was hard, particularly because I was in a city where I knew far fewer people than I did at home. For the most part, I had to work through these problems alone; something that I was not used to, and had always feared. Doing so allowed me to feel even more deeply, and work through pain more organically. I came out of each negative experience feeling stronger and more understanding.

The kindness of others was invaluable during these times. My flat-mates in the dorm at my school in London, with whom I had been randomly placed, brought me ginger ale and crackers when I was sick. They hugged me when I lost my grandfather. They lifted me up when I was upset about my breakup. It was in the moments where I felt the most down that I realized that no matter what happened, I would be okay.

5.    How to follow my dreams:

Studying abroad can give you a new perspective on how many options you really have in life. It can make the world seem a lot more accessible, and can make that path you’d created for yourself seem a lot less mandatory.

I would not be sitting on this plane today if I hadn’t studied abroad, and that would mean that I would be missing out on the thing that I have found to give me the most passion in life, and the thing that inspired me to completely change my life plan - travel.

Thoroughly enjoying myself at the butterfly garden in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Thoroughly enjoying myself at the butterfly garden in Stratford-upon-Avon.

At this point I can’t envision what my future would be like if I hadn’t studied abroad; if I hadn’t met the people whom I met during my journey; if I hadn’t tried the foods that I did: overcome the fears that I had; and experienced the ways that other people live. From each place that I went I took with me a piece of knowledge or understanding that has changed the way I live my daily life. I am inspired by the multitude of cultures, the endless beauty, and the vastness of opportunity that the world holds.

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Now, if you are reading this, have the opportunity, and are trying to decide whether or not to study abroad – I have just one quote to share with you:

“If you don’t do it you will be missing out on one of the most exciting, eye-opening experiences of your life.”