When I decided to study abroad the fall semester of my junior year, I wasn’t looking for a way to become a better student. If anything, I was looking for a break from the academic rigors of my highly-ranked liberal arts college. A semester in France meant a chance to learn a new language, but mostly it meant croissants, chocolate chaud, no drinking age, and some good shopping.
Those four months, however, gave me such amazing insight to the world that I became a better student without even trying. While I did enjoy the croissants, wine, and shopping, I left the collegiate bubble of my suburban school and became a citizen of the world. Perhaps more importantly, the lessons I learned and the experiences I had, helped me choose my career path and determine my priorities in life.
I left the collegiate bubble of my suburban school and became a citizen of the world.
While study abroad changed me in many ways, here are a few examples of how it has the power to transform all of us into better students:
It made me part of the action
World events seem far away as we study in our safe collegiate bubble at our home university. Yet as a student in France, events happening on the world stage made an impact on my day-to-day life. Suddenly, I was paying attention to exchange rates, wondering if recent elections in a certain place meant I should cancel my weekend plans. It was a reality check, and a look into what life outside of college was bound to look at.
Of course, being in France meant I also needed to keep an eye on what protests were happening and if that meant there would be no public transportation that day. These events were no longer abstract and far away but were real and meaningful.
I realized textbooks never compare to real life experiences
My home university French professors were very hopeful that my language skills would improve, and for the most part, their predictions were right. Being able to work on my French every day in interesting, and immediately practical ways made me a much better French speaker.
Studying French no longer meant struggling through Camus or memorizing conjugations, but became about being able to joke with my vegetable vender or eavesdrop on the couple loudly arguing on the metro. Having an immediate need and endless opportunities to practice ultimately motivated me and improved my language skills I never could have achieved with a textbook or class.
A big part of my success was that I had great professors. They made sure that we learned about France, history, art, culture, and language in creative ways. Our French teacher would take us on an outing once a week, to the market to buy ingredients for a meal, to a local restaurant, to a play, or even the bar around the corner.
These teachers knew that we were there to learn beyond the classroom and helped to make all of these disciplines intersect. In the end, my experience made me a better student of the language because it became a vibrant, useful, interesting part of my everyday life. After the semester, I was able to travel throughout the country, confident that I could handle just about any situation with the French I had learned.
Study abroad contextualized classroom learning
My learning outside the classroom went beyond language skills. I took a Greek Art and Architecture class my freshman year. It was an interesting subject, but I found myself struggling to keep my eyes open in the darkened auditorium while we examined and discussed slide after slide showing temples and statues.
Then, while abroad, I took a weekend trip to London and found myself staring at actual friezes from the Parthenon in the British Museum. Instead of slides or plates in a school book, the art and history of thousands of years leapt off the wall and became real. It’s the same with so many of the great works of art. Whether it’s the Mona Lisa or the stained glass in a country chapel, seeing it in person, even if you have to fight throngs of camera wielding tourists, makes it so much more personal.
It expanded my worldview
It’s not only language and art that you learn to view with a different perspective. America has such a short past relative to most of the world. Spending time overseas helps put American history into a broader context. Walking along the ramparts of a Medieval Castle and visiting World War II battlefields is all part of a much bigger story.
Study abroad made me a part of worlds I never knew existed and helped me find my story in the world.
It’s hard to wrap my head around the thousands of years that passed between the building of the Roman forum and my visit there. Experiencing history first hand, whether seeing the sites related to the Prague Spring or ancient pilgrimage routes, means a better perspective about how our lives fit into the larger story of human history.
It inspired me to round out my studies at home
Study abroad made me a part of worlds I never knew existed and helped me find my story in the world. One of the greatest lessons I learned while studying abroad helped me discover my future career. When my human rights course organized a weekend trip to Geneva, it was an opportunity to visit the offices of the United Nations and to see how these crucial international organizations impact the world.
We spent one afternoon at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. One of the many crusaders for refugees came out to speak to us. He spoke of refugee work and its importance to the millions of displaced people around the world, and immediately, I was hooked. Prior to study abroad, I didn’t even know this field existed and I wanted to learn more.
Once back to my North American college bubble, I was excited to be home but I also knew I was a different person with different goals for my studies. I had a new outlook and it seemed that everything had some connection to the experiences that I had had overseas. I started attending all of the lectures, panels, the African drumming concerts, anything that was going to be different and interesting.
Before having studied abroad, I had rushed past the many fliers advertising upcoming events, but now I was hunting them down. Many of us who had studied abroad were doing the same thing – we had new perspectives, our horizons had been expanded, and we were looking for ways to continue to learn and grow.
It's a tired but true phrase: study abroad will change you. For me, it unexpectedly made me a better student, better at my academics, and opened my eyes to the fact that learning doesn't always take place inside a classroom. Furthermore, the learning that we do outside of our colleges' walls is most often the most impacting and influential. More than reading a textbook, study abroad was able to show me what was going on outside of my safe little bubble, and inspired me to take my academics into my own hands and grow as a student. My time abroad had an enormous impact on my academic life and I felt it made my education come alive.Photo credits: Cafe at dusk, Geneva, and Mariana Yazmin.