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How Studying Abroad Made Me a Stronger Woman

megan lee in a field of flowers

As a co-founder of Pink Pangea, the magazine for women who love to travel, I often reflect on travel experiences that have shaped my love of travel. Perhaps the one trip that really set me on my path was my study abroad journey.

While I traveled throughout my childhood, I had never traveled long term (no, not even sleep away camp). So the decision to study abroad was a big one. Immediately, I knew I was headed to Barcelona -- or at least I thought I was.

Being away from my routine gave me the space to see that I didn't have to take the paths that other prescribed for me. I could choose my own.

But after bumping into a friend in Binghamton University's student union and hearing about her experience abroad, my plans took a turn from Barcelona, Spain to Tel Aviv, Israel. Something about the way she described her journey was contagious and I caught it!

With only a few weeks left to apply, I scrambled to send in my application, sublet my room, and buy a plane ticket. Before I had time to really think about the change I just made, I landed in Ben Gurion Airport and my study abroad journey began. Like most people who studied abroad, I can go on and on about how great the experience was -- but I’ll spare you. What I will share, however, is five unexpected lessons I learned abroad that made me a stronger woman:

I Learned to Expect the Unexpected

Traveling has this way of throwing us for a loop. Did I ever think I would be living with two hip hop artists from Los Angeles, a girl from London, and two girls from New York City in a 4 bedroom penthouse? Did I ever think that when I met my first serious boyfriend, he would be wearing a shiny silver shirt? Did I ever think I would be crossing a border to Egypt at 2am with 22 other people I didn't know?

megan and ayako on a trip

Travel has a way of opening our eyes to adventure and possibility. There was a sense of freedom being abroad, and after just a few weeks in, I learned to relax my expectations, and go with the flow. I see the value of this mentality more and more as unexpected opportunities, occurrences, and challenges come my way.

Just a few months ago, I trusted a gut instinct to quit an extraordinary job. At that time many friends said things like “Why would you quit your job now? People dream of having such a great job?!" I didn’t have an exact plan, and to everyone’s surprise, that was ok with me.

I was ready to dance with the uncertainties (and possibilities!) and run with it. Get this: a few weeks ago I pitched an idea to a publisher and here I am now writing a book! At this point in my life, I embrace the unknown, whereas I notice that people feel stuck in life tend to fear the unexpected. It’s quite a different outlook, and available to all of us.

Without having developed an understanding that unexpected challenges and opportunities will come my way, and that I could navigate through them, I would not have had the courage to quit my job and follow my dreams. Co-founding Pink Pangea and publishing a book has been a dream of mine, and now it’s all happening!

My Path Doesn't Have to Be What I'm Already Working Towards

Picture this -- I'm at the pool club next door to the Tel Aviv University Campus in between classes, surrounded by Kaplan LSAT books. Yes, really!

I was on a path, and there was work to do. So I found myself studying at the pool. It was about three months in that it hit me. I didn't want to be a lawyer. Nothing about the day-to-day life of being a lawyer appealed to me. It was what I always thought I would do because other people told me I should.

When I first realized this, it took me by surprise. Being away from my routine gave me the space to see that I didn't have to take the paths that other prescribed for me. I could choose my own. By the time I returned home, the Kaplan books where being used as bed raisers.

When I don’t get lost in a “should”, I free myself to find something that lights me up and that I truly enjoy.

What this experience taught me was that every time I think to myself, I “should” do something, I need to re-look at that something. Being a lawyer, or the "shoulds" that I frequently think to myself (like I “should” go to the gym) are 9 times out of 10 not a bad thing to do.

In and of itself, a career as lawyer and going to the gym are wonderful experiences, but if a “should” comes up for me, it’s probably not exactly what is inspiring me at the moment. There is usually a better option. These days I love to exercise outside, and do some yoga. When I don’t get lost in a “should”, I free myself to find something that lights me up and that I truly enjoy.

Enjoy. When we enjoy life, we flourish. We are creative, inspired, and have lots of energy. As much as possible, I try to watch myself and notice what lights me up, as we all have our unique interests, and they change from time to time. This has led me dance performances, writing, traveling, and lots of time enjoying reading in coffee shops. I used to feel guilty sitting in coffee shops for hours just reading. I thought I “should” be doing something more productive. But what’s more productive than letting our imagination run wild in a story?

As a start-up entrepreneur, there’s always so much I can do to further develop my company. We are constantly given advice (both solicited and unsolicited) -- we had to learn to take the “shoulds” that we fit our personalities and where we want to go, and leave the rest behind. That’s not to say a lot of the advice that we don’t take isn’t good advice, it’s just simply not the path we want/ed to go at that moment.

Without having learned that I don’t have to do everything that I think I should do (or that others think I should do), I would have felt overwhelmed and given up on many dreams early on. Deciding not to go to law school was big decision for me, and I’m so thankful that I gained the courage while abroad to really look at the journey of law school and reflect on what I really wanted to do, and ultimately, follow my heart.

I Don't Always Have to be Doing Something

Ah, yes, the importance of doing nothing. Because we were on a budget, cable TV was out of the questions for my suite-mates and me. It was 2005 and smart phones were non-existent as far as we were concerned. So what did we do? Nothing. A lot of it.

pensive foreigner in china

While doing nothing, we would find ourselves writing on the walls, playing music, journaling, exploring, reading, cooking, making a mess, etc. We found cultural activities, live performances, and new restaurants we wanted to try. It was that space of nothing that pushed us to do so many things we never thought we would.

With a free schedule, anything can happen. If we exist without time to do nothing, our brain doesn’t have time to reflect on experiences, and process them. When we schedule meetings and things to do all day everyday, we start to get overworked and exhausted. I learned while studying abroad that it is okay to plan for nothingness and in fact, it's usually a more sustainable lifestyle than the alternative.

In my life today, I have a work calendar that my colleagues can see at all times. They know when I’m on, and when I’m off. Sometimes there are busy patches where I have almost zero “do nothing time.” I’ll notice it, accept it, and make sure to lighten the workload soon -- before it gets to be too much for me and I start to get depleted. It was in experiencing the down time while studying abroad that I learned the value of it.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

Studying in the the Middle East is quite interesting this way. We all know the basics of bargaining: you ask for a lower price, they’ll say a higher price, you say no, then there's a bit more back and forth and somehow you meet in the middle.

Well, in the Middle East, everything is somewhat negotiable, and there's always a way to make things happen. For the first four months, I found myself hitchhiking, asking strangers for favors, and negotiating with the guy trying to tow my friends’ car.

One night, my roommate was out at a local bar, and I was home alone getting ready to meet her. I closed the bathroom door to take a shower, and suddenly the door knob was in my hand. I was locked in. It was about two hours later when my roomie came home worried about me.

Without having learned that I don’t have to do everything that I think I should do (or that others think I should do), I would have felt overwhelmed and given up on many dreams early on.

The real kicker? I forgot one thing, the doors in Israel lock from the inside, and I locked it (so she couldn't get into the apartment and I couldn't get out of the bathroom!). Screaming through the doors to hear each other, we decided I would use the umbrella in the bathroom to break the door. I sweat more than I do in a Bikram class, but I finally broke out!

When writing a book and building a company there are often blocks that come up and may appear to have no good solution. Those are opportune times to grab that umbrella and power through!

There's More to Me Than My Own Experiences

When I envisioned going to Tel Aviv, I pictured the campus, beach, nightlife, friends, and the ancient culture. I was less excited about getting to know my family members who lived there as well. As it turned out, I eventually started to spend time with them.

megan lee in thailand

At first it felt a bit awkward, but as I learned more about my history, I learned more about myself as well. My father's family immigrated to Israel from Iraq in the 1950s. While I was there, I got to see where his family lived before he was born, discover more about what his childhood was really like (which included him living in an orphanage for a few years, a detail he had simply left out before), and learn how to make traditional Israeli food.

I also visited many of his aunts and uncles, heard stories about my day from my cousins, and built really strong relationships with them. While I didn't go there searching for this, I can't imagine my life now had I not gotten the chance to see the bigger context of where my family is from.

For me, studying abroad was about learning about my family's past. If you have the opportunity to do some heritage exploring while abroad I highly recommend it. Seeing what experiences my father had that lead up to him becoming my father helped me better understand the fortunate experiences I was lucky to have. It gave me a better appreciation for my family, so much that I couldn't wait to head home and give them all the biggest hug!

Everything Else is the Same... Except Me

I don't know what my life would be like now if I had stayed in Binghamton University that spring semester. Maybe I would have learned these lessons there? It's possible, but somehow, I doubt it. When I returned, everything felt the same. The library, the bars, the student union, my classes, and my room. Something was different though -- I had changed.

Photo Credits: Megan Lee.
Photo of Jaclyn Michal

Jaclyn Mishal is a co-founder of Pink Pangea, the community for women travelers. Questions? Contact [email protected].