Some students take their first step beyond U.S. borders with study abroad; the program serves as an introduction to the world of visas, flights, and currency exchange. To others, the experience may seem largely familiar: perhaps they’ve traveled frequently, or at least enough to feel that they know their way around an airport.
I fit in the second group: I’ve moved countless times, lived abroad, and traveled extensively.
That’s why my preparing for my first study abroad program to New Zealand didn’t phase me: I thought I was a professional at handling packing, jet lag, and culture shock. Despite all my ‘experience,’ each of my study abroad programs have surprised me with their unique and unexpected challenges.
In New Zealand I was frustrated with my classmates. Though I was hyper sensitive to the Americans stereotypes that exist abroad, many of my classmates were unaware and seemed to only confirm them. The volume of our group often drew stares from the local community. To them, my aversion to the noise seemed like a lack of enthusiasm for the trip as a whole. Our perspectives were different, and I had to understand and adjust.
I learned to practice patience and empathy with my companions, and this is a lesson I continue to use in all of my travels.
When I traveled to Spain I was confident that language wouldn’t be a problem for me. I had survived in Germany for 8 years without much German, and I felt I could manage this language barrier as well. Within ten minutes of landing I was being bombarded with questions in Spanish and I had a moment of panic. Although English is widespread in Europe, that does not guarantee that the people around you are going to use it. Bracing myself for that sort of shock is something I will never forget to do again, regardless of where I go in the future.
Remember, it is not the responsibility of the people in your host country to know your language!
When I went to India, I found the food, dress, weather, and language were radically different from anything I’d known. I thought I could prepare for the unfamiliar, but it took me by storm. I had traveled as a minority in my childhood, but I had never been so obviously a minority as an adult. Delhi is a city with millions of people, but the entire time I resided there I didn’t see a single other person of my skin color outside of our program. Unlike when I was a kid, I noticed every little bit of extra attention I was receiving. People stared, took selfies with me, and touched my hair. It was strange and somewhat uncomfortable to be stared at so blatantly, and have my photo taken without any sort of consent. I did understand that seeing someone who looked so unusual would be intriguing, but I never fully got used to this attention.
No matter how many times I traveled,
each experience challenged me in new and surprising ways.
There is a humility in accepting that
you can’t predict or prepare everything.
Stay flexible, stay open, and offer everyone the
compassion and patience you hope to receive yourself.