Traveling changes us…
…mentally, physically, and emotionally – and the value of the experiences we gain by leaping into the proverbial ‘unknown’ only appreciates with time. It has been 10 years since I studied abroad, and I can still look back at the experience and appreciate the lessons I learned during my time abroad.
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to return to Australia, the country that snuck its way into my heart and single-handedly reshaped the way I view the world and approach life in one fell swoop. Over the course of three weeks this past summer, I was flooded with memories of my own experience as a student down-under, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the profound ways in which my study abroad experience shaped my life.
As a junior at Hampden-Sydney College (Go Tigers!), I was confident in the direction of my life. I had been taking courses to keep me on track for medical school, a well-worn, predictable path I had seen my older friends take. I could easily chart the next decades of my life: finish my undergraduate degree while applying for medical schools, bury myself under a mountain of medical textbooks and debt, work until I’m old enough to hopefully retire, buy a boat, and finally make some time to enjoy the finer things in life like early-bird-dinners and compression socks.
That life still sounds as equally unappealing to me now as it subconsciously did ten years ago.
The idea to study abroad didn’t quite fit into my plans, but I serendipitously bumped into a study abroad representative who suggested I consider the options of studying abroad. Six months later I was completing my PADI Open Water diver certification on Magnetic Island when I realized that the life I had previously imagined studying medicine and the life I was now going to pursue in marine science had about as much in common as a stethoscope and a scuba tank.
Immersing myself in a community of marine scientists and marine biology students afforded me a glimpse into a field of work in which I felt I could find purpose. Ten years on, not once have I looked back and regretted my decision.
Living in a foreign country inevitably leads to instances in which we must learn to adapt. From butchering a foreign language to navigating a public transportation system, international travel is challenging. We’re pushed into new experiences when we travel, and, as a result, our self-confidence grows.
It became clear in the first two weeks of my study abroad experience that the bus system was going to be public-enemy-number-one in Australia. In an attempt to alleviate the frustration of waiting for buses that would never arrive, my best friend, Sam, and I set off one afternoon to purchase used bikes from a second-hand shop in Townsville (Mind you, this was before the age of everyone having an iPhone in their pocket to *save* us should we get lost along the way.)
Somewhere along our route, we hopped on a bus that dropped us in the completely wrong part of town, miles away from the university and our intended destination. We had reached the end of the line and were left standing on the curb with a limited amount of cash on hand and no real sense of our location. As we roamed the streets attempting to orient ourselves, we stumbled across another second-hand store that was just minutes away from closing. With limited options for returning to the university, we purchased the only two bicycles available, both of which were never intended for riders over the age of twelve. As we pedaled our bikes across town, knees to chest, a massive thunderstorm rolled in – it was the rainy season, after all. Soaked to the bone, we ducked under the awning of a nearby meatpie shop when the bolts of lightning had gotten a little too close for comfort. Eventually, the storm passed and we pedaled our chariots all the way home, hooting with excitement every time we could find a puddle in which we could properly test the mettle of our steely stallions.
That experience, ridiculous as the whole thing was, set the tone for much of the rest of my time abroad. Throughout the trip, I learned to face challenges and uncertain circumstances head-on, to problem solve, and to make the most from less-than-ideal situations. I learned to believe in myself and that failure is often an integral part of the learning process. All lessons which have stuck with me in the ten years since I studied abroad.
Studying abroad opened my eyes to the world of marine biology and set me on a course that has guided my career decisions for the rest of my life. Along the way, I discovered that I really enjoyed setting aside time specifically for the purpose of journaling and cataloging my photos. All of these interests were previously unexplored for me, but I’ve been fortunate enough to combine them into a career.
Shared experiences are the foundation upon which friendships are built. It goes without saying that my aforementioned friend, Sam, and I became close friends during our time in Australia. Somewhere along the side of a dusty road of Townsville’s outskirts, I realized that camaraderie is forged in the circumstances that challenge us. We find like-minded people in these moments and form bonds that last well beyond the experience.
As James Cook University in Townsville abuts an impressive network of trails, I would regularly leave class in the morning and have plenty of time for an afternoon walkabout alongside wild kangaroos and a sweeping view of the tropical coastline. Running these trails became my release from the stresses of exams, homework, and homesickness. To improve the quality of my runs, I cleaned up my diet and six months later I had lost 35 pounds. When I returned to the U.S., my family didn’t recognize me at the airport. That isn’t my attempt to be hyperbolic – I literally had to walk up to my family and convince them I wasn’t an impostor at baggage claim.
Ten years from the experience, I realize that these experiences are not unique. Sure, most people may not find themselves riding children’s bikes through a lightning storm on the other side of the planet or losing 20% of their body weight by choosing to eat healthily and exercise, but having life-changing experiences during a study-abroad experience is not uncommon.
In fact, I challenge you to find someone in your social circles who has studied abroad and NOT had a life-changing experience along the way. If you can find someone who has studied abroad and did not come back from the experience with a greater appreciation for another culture or a wild story to tell…I would like to say I will eat my shoe but that’s just not going to happen. If that’s the case, maybe you should get more exciting friends.
Take a chance.
Find out what you’re made of.
What do you have to lose? If all you discover is that a larger world exists beyond your own, was it really a loss?
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