One of the best lessons I learned from studying abroad is the opportunity to get to know yourself.
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Around this time almost a decade ago, I was getting ready to take the biggest trip of my life thus far.
Studying abroad in another country.
My application to study abroad for the spring semester of my junior year had been approved, and I was busy making final preparations. I had a host family, an extremely overpacked suitcase, and a determination to Skype my friends and family every day.
I lived in Madrid, Spain with my host mother, Carmina, from January to May of 2010. I took four classes (all in Spanish) at the Universidad Carlos III while also finding time on the weekends to visit places like Paris, Barcelona, Dublin, and Salzburg. Classes were mandatory and all homework, essays, and tests were in Spanish. I made new friends, discovered new gluten-free products, and embraced my new dinner time of 9:30 PM. I even had a short-lived blog I shared with family that documented my adventures & travels!
As I think back to my experience, I realize how many lessons I learned from studying abroad. People tell you that you learn about others when you travel but tend to forget that you really get a chance to learn about your own abilities, preferences, and limitations. While I was a lot younger during my time in Spain, I feel that some of the things I learned during that semester have stayed with me and shaped the woman I am today.
Here are five lessons I learned from studying abroad that are applicable to any trip or vacation!
Lessons Learned From Study Abroad
- Lessons Learned From Study Abroad
- Study Abroad Lesson #1: Blend in if you can.
- Study Abroad Lesson #2: Be aware of personal space.
- Study Abroad Lesson #3: In times of panic, take deep breaths and think.
- Study Abroad Lesson #4: Stop and appreciate where you are.
- Study Abroad Lesson #5: Don't be afraid to try something new.
- Final Thoughts on Lessons I Learned From Studying Abroad
Study Abroad Lesson #1: Blend in if you can.
The first lesson I learned from studying abroad was that feeling out of your element was completely normal. When you live in a foreign country, you are an outsider. You look different than everybody else, you speak a different language, and nothing is what you are accustomed to.
Travel shock is a real thing, but it doesn't mean you have to stick out like a sore thumb.
I found that blending into the local culture, whatever way possible made for a better travel experience. Locals can tell when you aren't from around here, so when you try and speak the language, follow what everyone else does, and attempt to acclimate yourself, you'll have an easier time. I will say my biggest travel guffaw, as featured above, was my choice in white tennis shoes. If anything screams college kid from America, that usually does it!
During a weekend trip to Paris, my friends and I were trying to determine what time the trains left for Versailles. When they had no such luck in English, I attempted in very broken French and hand gestures to ask about train times. The woman at the ticket counter was immediately receptive and slowly said the numbers so I could remember them and then translate in my head with my limited French.
We were able to catch the right train to Versailles and make it back in time for our flight. With only a little effort on my part, things immediately became easier.
Study Abroad Lesson #2: Be aware of personal space.
Online at the local grocery store called Mercadona in my neighborhood of Madrid, I was uncomfortable with how close the Spanish woman was behind me. She was at the point wherein America, someone would turn around and give you a look that said, "Um, please give me space!" Once I paid for my groceries, I hadn't even gotten my change from the cashier before the woman had moved almost on top of me, forcing me to move out of the way. I thought to myself, "What the heck?
The next lesson I learned from studying abroad? Personal space has different interpretations abroad.
Future trips to the grocery store were similar, where everyone did not keep as much distance as they did in the US. While on walks with Carmina, I noticed she stood very close to me, often touching my shoulder multiple times during a conversation. I realized that while my personal space comfort level may be one thing, other people in the world have their own. And that is okay! It's important to remember you are the outsider - and you have to adapt to the culture you are living in.
Study Abroad Lesson #3: In times of panic, take deep breaths and think.
It seemed like every issue I encountered during study abroad was ten times harder than at home. While that may have not been the case, there's just something more complicated when these things happen while traveling. When in another country, you are already out of your element. It adds an extra layer of stress to whatever problem you are facing.
My semester in Spain was amazing, but not without issue. The third of these lessons I learned from studying abroad was to stay calm in times of trouble - even though it can be so overwhelming!
During my first week, I spent almost three hours at an Internet store trying to find a way to get WiFi on my laptop and woke up with a horrible stomach bug on my first day of school. During a weekend in Paris, my wallet was stolen right out of my backpack. Before flying to Austria for spring break, a local ATM in Madrid ate one of my debit cards. On a flight back from Ireland, I forgot about the one-hour time difference between the UK and Spain and had only a fifteen-minute to catch a connecting flight. On a weekend trip to Valencia, I forgot the memory card for my camera on my desk at Carmina's.
To summarize, it wasn't perfect.
Looking back, all of these situations were not that terrible, and all of them could have been solved relatively quickly. At the time, it seemed like I had no idea there could be another option. I went into panic mode as soon as something happened, which didn't necessarily lead to logical ways for how to figure it out. Most of these issues were resolved, but some of them I could have managed differently.
When I reserved a hostel room in Valencia that was mixed (male/female) and wound up spending the night with two guys, I was very uncomfortable.
But I didn’t have to!
I could have easily asked the hostel if they had other rooms available, or gone to another hostel. I just didn't even take the time to think through the problem and come up with a plan!
The biggest takeaway I have from all of those mishaps is that while it may seem like the end of the world, it's not. Taking a moment for some deep breaths and assessing the situation logically is really the best thing to do, rather than screaming at an ATM in half Spanish/English in the middle of the street on a Sunday afternoon, of which I am definitely guilty.
Study Abroad Lesson #4: Stop and appreciate where you are.
When traveling, we always find ourselves missing the familiar or things we are used to. While in Spain, I really missed the delicious gluten-free pizza crusts I would keep in my freezer for homemade pizza. I also longed for the humidity of Florida, and of course, the comforts of my own queen-sized bed. The mattress in my room was a twin and not the best.
Regardless of all the simple things I missed, I had so much to be grateful for. I was studying abroad in Spain. Spain! This was the country I had wanted to visit since I was fifteen years old. I was eating delicious food every day, meeting people from all over the world, and my Spanish was improving.
Travel is a privilege. While you may miss home, it isn't going anywhere. It will be right there waiting for you whenever you return. The fourth lesson I learned from study abroad was to be grateful for the experience of travel - because not everyone gets this opportunity.
Whatever you see right before your eyes is fleeting, so enjoy and soak in every moment of it while you can. I sometimes close my eyes, pause for a couple of seconds, and then open them again just to again take in wherever I am in the world.
Study Abroad Lesson #5: Don't be afraid to try something new.
This lesson doesn't only relate to food - it can relate to new friends, experiences, hobbies, and activities. While I never in my LIFE would have considered eating squid swimming in its own ink my second day in Spain, I did it anyway. Something about being there just made me bolder. I made sure to try as many new foods as possible.
In addition to sampling new foods, I also participated in new activities. I took an environmental science class, which for me, was definitely different. I hadn't taken a science class since high school and avoided all things science-related. It just doesn't interest me. By taking a class separate from my liberal arts studies, I found that I did, in fact, enjoy science relating to society and how people live.
I spent a lot of time in the evenings watching new television shows (in Spanish) with Carmina. I learned how she prepared and cooked various dishes. I visited four countries and ten cities, all while doing homework, writing essays, and taking tests in Spanish. It was a totally different college experience and schedule. I had classes Monday through Wednesday, and then had four-day weekends!
Each new experience gave my study abroad semester more meaning and more depth. In a time when everything was new, I decided to jump right in and try multiple new things at once. I embraced the unknown with vigor and enthusiasm, and that’s something I’m most proud of!
Final Thoughts on Lessons I Learned From Studying Abroad
All of these lessons I learned from studying abroad are still applicable to traveling and study abroad today. No matter where I go in the world, I'm constantly reminded of my time in Spain, or the various ways I overcame problems while living in another country.
Having the opportunity to learn Spanish and study abroad the way I did is something I’ll never forget. I had the chance to travel by myself at a young age, which instilled in me my confidence and determination that I am more capable, independent, and stronger than I realize. I’m more cognizant as an adult traveler with these experiences behind me. I will definitely utilize many of these lessons once again on our trip around the world in just two short weeks.
Traveling is meant to get you out of your comfort zone - to experience a different way of life, and to seek the unfamiliar. It's all a part of the experience, and as my former collegiate self, I'm once again ready to learn. 🌎
Have you ever studied abroad?
What lessons did studying abroad teach you?
Tell me in the comments below!