The conventional wisdom on study abroad depicts it as a life-changing educational and cultural experience. It will broaden your proverbial horizons, expand your communication skills and maybe even give you superpowers (or at least a stronger immune system). What they don’t tell you, though, is that most of us come back from studying abroad with more questions than when we began -- but now they’re in two languages instead of just one.
Without a doubt, spending a few months or a year in another country can change your outlook on everything from your individual style to how you feel about personal space, not to mention your threshold for embarrassment. But it can also bring up deeper doubts about the issues that really matter in life -- like chicken buses. Let's take a look at some of the ways studying abroad can make you question everything you thought you knew to be true.
1. What Am I Doing with My Life?
Sure, everyone at your home university may be frantically networking to finagle their way into a finance, engineering, or nursing job, but that’s just because they don’t know about all the other options out there! Studying abroad will open your eyes to a whole new range of potential jobs you never even knew existed, from travel blogger to part-time surf instructor.
Even if you’re not looking to switch to a career path that’s guaranteed to make your parents’ hair go prematurely gray, living abroad can help you figure out what really interests and drives you, as well as expose you to new fields and areas of study that you may never have known about otherwise. Maybe you’ll discover that you secretly have the palate of a natural-born sommelier or develop an affinity for urban planning after spending what feels like half your semester stuck in traffic.
2. Do I Even Speak English Anymore?
The more you use another language (particularly one with a totally different grammatical structure), the more you’ll notice strange things seeping into your English. No matter how much of a grammar nerd you are, your brain will eventually begin to doubt itself or lapse into Spanglish, Franglais, Itanglese, Arablish or some other odd combination of words that go together... like peanut butter and tacos.
It can be kind of unsettling to suddenly find yourself asking “was that actually a word?” in the middle of a normal sentence, or realizing you could’ve said “both” instead of “the two of them.” Don’t worry, though, other people will (probably) find it charming -- at least for the first month or two.
If it goes on for much longer, you might want to go digging through your closet for your old SAT study materials to see if you can rebuild your vocabulary back to where it once was.
3. Did I Always Think This Counted as Pizza???
I know I’m not the only one who plans most of my travels around what (and when, and where) I’m going to eat. While most experts wouldn’t necessarily advise choosing a study abroad destination based solely on the culinary offerings -- although hey, there are definitely worse reasons! -- the opportunity to encounter and enjoy (or not) new kinds of food and drinks is a huge benefit of studying abroad.
Chances are it won’t take more than a few weeks for you to be filled with indignation that you’ve spent all of the years of your life up until now deprived of the joys of real jamón, truly spicy kimchi, fresh in-season mangos, properly aged Brie… the list could go on, but we’re all getting hungry. Not to mention you'll be able to go right to the source for authentic Belgian or German beer, Chilean or French wines, without even paying those extra import taxes you'd run into at home.
Yes, study abroad alumnus, a lifetime of foodie snobbery surely awaits you. Once you’re back in your home country, prepare yourself for becoming one of those people who complains about a lack of geographic diversity on a wine list, or scoffs at the supposedly “spicy” noodles you’re served at a Thai restaurant.
However, while it may be understandably difficult to readjust to food or drinks you now know to be a poor imitation of the "real" version, we recommend not doing your scoffing loud enough for the waitstaff to hear, unless you want even less appetizing flavors to find their way into your meal.
4. Show up on Time? What Does That Even Mean?
The effect of [insert country here] time will depend significantly on where you study abroad -- if you’re doing a semester in Tokyo or Berlin, you likely won’t run into this issue. However, if you end up in a country that views schedules as more of a recommendation than a fixed agreement, you may begin to wonder why you ever bothered showing up less than 15 minutes late for a class or meeting. You might even hear yourself saying things like “I’ll be there eventually,” or worse, telling others to relax when you show up .
Take it from someone who adapted a little too easily to Latin American time, though -- your friends and family back at home will not necessarily be big fans of your newfound nonchalance about everything from movie start times to airport check-in. You’re welcome to try to convince the uptight gringos of the world to take it easy on that whole punctuality thing, but know that your enlightened self may find yourself in the minority -- or just not invited to things anymore.
5. Who Needs a Car When You Can Fit Cows on Top of This Bus?
Trains, planes and automobiles are so imperialist. The more you travel, the more you’ll discover that human beings have apparently endless creativity when it comes to finding ways to get people and things from one place to another. Chicken buses, tuk-tuks, canoes, camels, Jeeps salvaged from the post-WWII era, moto-taxis -- the world of transit extends so far beyond subway cars and the mad dash for aisle seats on a Southwest flight.
Forget Uber: you haven’t experienced real on-demand transport until you’ve flagged down a guy on a bike to take you six blocks because it's actually too hot to walk. And when it comes to unique modes of transportation, we suggest not knocking it until you try it, unless it makes you motion-sick just thinking about it.
6. Why Are Phone Plans so Expensive?
Pay-as-you-go phone plans might be the greatest thing ever invented -- unless you somehow always seem to be the one who gets stuck making phone calls. Even so, the by-minute payment structure available in many countries means you’d have to try (like, really hard) to run up more than $25 in phone charges per month, especially if you’re only calling or texting when you’re out of range of a Wi-Fi connection.
After saving this much money on your phone (and discovering you can survive without 24/7 access to Spotify), you may come down with a serious case of sticker shock when the time comes to renew your contract in your home country.
7. Do I Actually Know Anything about the World?
If you grew up with the idea that everyone in Turkey lived in thatched-roof huts, or that you'd be killed by some deadly animal within 20 minutes of setting foot in Australia, you may be disappointed (or just surprised) to find that reality doesn't always align with stereotypes and preconceptions. In fact, most of the time, those ideas you had about other countries or regions couldn't be farther from the truth.
Studying abroad will likely make you direct a more critical eye toward the way people in your home country view other countries, regions and groups of people, especially if you discover that those views aren't entirely -- or at all -- accurate. You'll realize just how little you've learned about most other cultures and parts of the world, and you might even start to ask more serious questions about just how "global" your education has been so far, particularly compared to the systems in some other countries.
At the same time, you may confront beliefs and stereotypes about your home country held by people in your study abroad location. Some of these may be truer than you'd like to admit, while others might be wildly, even horrifyingly, inaccurate. (My personal favorite was when another teacher in Bogotá asked me, totally seriously, if there were any poor people in the United States. I almost choked on my lunch.)
Either way, you're going to gain a new perspective on how people around the world perceive your country and the people there, and you might even begin to ask how those perceptions came to be, and whether they're positive or not.
8. Maybe Moving Back in with My Parents Wouldn't Be so Bad?
Just kidding. Just because your foreign friends make this work does not mean lectures about how to properly separate your laundry will be any less terrible than you remember.
Question Your Preconceptions (It's a Good Thing!)
Remember, there are plenty of other, more serious questions that can arise from studying abroad: questions about your career goals, interests, and beliefs, even what you want out of friendships and relationships.
Studying and living abroad can make you question just about everything you believe to be true about yourself and your values. These are all extremely important questions and issues to work through -- but only after you’ve found somewhere that makes coffee strong enough to let you think!
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