Choosing to study abroad is a big decision for anyone to make. For me, there were quite a few factors that lead me to my decision to study in Singapore but when I assessed my priorities, there were really only a few things I thought I wanted to take out of my experience. During my time abroad, I thought that all I wanted was to see just a bit more of the world while adding a little something to my resume.
I had not only brought back a suitcase filled with souvenirs, photos and memories, I also brought an improved outlook on life.
By the end of my semester, I got what I wanted. I was able to visit seven countries across Southeast Asia while taking some of the most challenging and rewarding academic courses of my school career at the Nanyang Technological University.
When I got home and unpacked all of my bags however, I realized I had not only brought back a suitcase filled with souvenirs, photos and memories, I also brought an improved outlook on life. The experience was so unique and, looking back, I found there were several ways studying abroad had unexpectedly made me a better person.
I Learned To Embrace Other Cultures
I’ve always been interested in learning and reading about other cultures and traditions. Stories about remote tribes and foreign customs fascinated me, but there is a big difference between hearing stories and living them out yourself.
After muddling through a healthy dose of culture shock after first arriving in Singapore, I quickly learned that embracing these surprises can bring on more rewarding surprises in return.
I found these in many big and small ways during my time studying abroad. However, one aspect that stood out to me in particular was that many of the restaurants I visited while traveling in Indonesia didn’t offer cutlery with any of their meals, and they served their guests on floor mats instead of tables. If you wanted to eat, you had to grab a spot on the ground and dig right in with your hands.
At first I was a little reserved about the idea of making such a mess, but I knew I couldn’t just let myself starve. After a couple of mouth-(and hand)-fuls, I started to realize that my sense of touch was adding a new level of depth to the food and that eating was becoming an experience in and of itself.
By the time I finished my meal, I realized that it wasn’t only the food I was experiencing, it was Indonesia as a whole.
By accepting and embracing the culture, I truly felt immersed in the country's day-to-day, and not just like an outsider coming to take a look (and snap an unnecessary amount of photos) at it.
I Learned to Prioritize What's Important In My Life
As much as I wanted to travel, party and study, I knew I wouldn’t have the time (or money) to do all three all the time. When it came down to it, I had to prioritize which trips I wanted to take (diving in Thailand and touring the Angkor Temples in Cambodia won out) and balance them with my course schedule.
I realized that there were a lot of things and possessions in my life which I used to value that didn’t actually mean that much.
In order to get in all the traveling I wanted, I tried to keep my expenses in Singapore lower by resisting the endless shopping and expensive restaurants. I realized that there were a lot of things and possessions in my life which I used to value that didn’t actually mean that much.
Almost all college students, regardless of if they study abroad or not, are no strangers to thrifty living, but studying abroad put "living on a budget" in a whole different perspective. More than ever before, I had to weigh whether a new pair of jeans was worth more than a new experience, or the chance to learn about a new place. In the end, the answer was no. Experiences and learning always won out over creature comforts.
The memories from days spent getting lost in a new city and stumbling upon a pristine beach or gorgeous temple are a lot more valuable than something like a new pair of sunglasses. The experiences and friendships I brought back with me mean more than any souvenir.
It Put My Life Into Perspective
Traveling to rural regions of Vietnam and Cambodia, I learned about their recent wars and genocides. While I had heard about the Vietnam War in history classes back home, I knew nothing about the Cambodian genocide, where people had been executed for reasons as simple as wearing glasses.
However, when I arrived in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Phen, I took a tour of the killing fields and the S-21 museum, where an elementary school had been turned into a torture chamber during the genocide.
The hardships that the country endured were unbearable, with over a quarter of the population being murdered. After a day of visiting these sites, I couldn’t help but realize the problems I had in my life -- like not being able to enroll in all the classes I wanted, and not being able to afford little luxuries -- paled in comparison.
Furthermore, it made me realize that being someone with the opportunity to study abroad (or even study at all) meant that I lived a fortunate life. I never again wanted to take this for granted, and instead learned to recognize and appreciate my upbringing and education. I began to truly understand how small the small stuff is and came home with a whole new perspective on my, and my fellow North American's, lives.
I Opened Up As a Person
Although most of the ways I grew as a person while in Singapore were more introspective, I also realized that while on exchange, we open up to other people quicker than usual. Within my first week of classes, I had not only made friends with people from all over the world, I had agreed to travel all across Southeast Asia with them.
Whenever you travel, you’re usually around similarly travel-minded people who share similar interests. When you’re both traveling and studying, you form a even stronger connection, and are forced to step out of your comfort zone (extrovert or not!) and meet new people.
Needless to day, I made tons lifelong friendships during my study abroad -- not just because of the school work we accomplished together, but the fact that sessions would more often than not finished with an extra “study” of the next destination everyone was planning on visiting.
The added bonus? Now I'm not afraid to make friends outside my pre-existing groups and have truly opened up as a person.
I Learned to Love Where I’m From
Like most people studying in a foreign country, every moment was a chance to learn more about my temporary home -- and I didn't waste it.
While touring museums and historic sites, I learned about Singapore’s colonial history and development into a highly profitable trading port. I learned that Singaporeans tend to be surprisingly direct and honest (when I showed up to class and my hair looked like a mess, my friends would tell me it looked like a mess). All these things made me fall in love with Singapore.
I realized how truly connected I was to my home, and how much I loved all of it’s quirks.
At the same time, although I got to learn about Singapore, I also had the opportunity to teach people about my home country, Canada. To my own surprise, I enjoyed talking about our history and beautiful landscapes and trying to convince my new friends to come and visit.
I felt like I was only truly able to describe the country when I mentioned how a Canadian will wait to hold a door open for you and then apologize for making you feel rushed while they waited.
Spending my whole life around the little things like this, I had always taken them for granted. But by talking about them to my new (international) friends in Singapore, I realized how truly connected I was to my home, and how much I loved all of it’s quirks.
While I was able to accomplish what I had initially set out to do from my study abroad experience by traveling and completing my courses, by the time I had returned, I realized that these were two of the less important parts of my trip.
Yes, filling up pages in my passport and adding lines on my resume was nice, but gaining knowledge about myself and the world around me (near and far) was more thrilling and rewarding than I had ever imagined.
Every place you visit isn’t a destination, it’s another step along your journey through life. I learned that there will always be new things to learn about myself and the world and that by keeping the open attitude I found while studying abroad, I can still continue to become a better person person no matter where I am in my life journey.