“Don’t tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you traveled.” – Mohammed
If you are in college/university and are able to study abroad, I want you to close the other tabs on your browser, turn off your music, and listen to me intently.
Are you ready?
OK: If you have the chance to study abroad, do it.
Perhaps that wasn’t profound or a share-worthy enough quote to be imposed on a picture of a sunset for Facebook. In fact, I bet you’re so smart you absorbed that sentence without closing the other tabs on your browser or turning off your music. I just wanted your attention. (In fact I’m not listening to my advice on both counts: four tabs, including this Ed Sheeran song I’ve been listening to on repeat for the last hour)
So whether or not you’re looking for reasons to study abroad, here they are:
1) You will always be able to conjure up reasons not to go. “I’ll miss my grandma’s birthday/my friend’s wedding/Poetry and Pie.” Valid reasons, all. But if you wait for a cushy time to go when you have no obligations or holidays holding you back – well, let’s just face it; that’s not going to happen, is it?
2) Travel forces you to figure out who you are outside of your comfort zone. If you’re like me, you’ve spent the majority of your life in just a handful of places. Places where nearly everyone else looks like you, sounds like you, shares your beliefs, etc. In a new country, you’re no longer as keenly influenced by your core group of friends and family. In my case, it brings out my inner philosopher. I start to think about who I really am – apart from my creature comforts of home, including the expectations (real or perceived) put on me by myself or others. Also in my case, traveling makes me feel closer to God. That might sound odd, but I think this has to do with the previous notion of getting outside of your comfort zone. I grew up in a town – and went to college – where almost everyone around me were white, middle-class, Protestant English speakers (just like – you guessed it – me!). While New Zealand is not exactly the antithesis of America, it is different enough to make me reevaluate myself and my priorities. It was, I believe, a large part of the reason I got baptized here.
3) You become a better person. This is quite a claim, I know. But when you travel to someplace news and different, you suddenly become the minority. Ever since someone had a hard time understanding me because of my accent, I have more sympathy with others when I have a hard time understanding theirs. When you are the outsider, it makes you question how you’ve treated outsiders in your home country. For example, I’ve always felt welcomed by the locals in New Zealand, despite the fact that they know I’m not “one of them.” I’m not sure I could handle living here if I wasn’t treated this way. Could the same be said of how Middle Eastern immigrants are treated in the States? This is one of those things you understand in theory, but until you’ve experienced what they have – even in the smallest degree – you probably won’t be motivated to reach out and welcome them. In short, being the outsider in a country makes you less ethnocentric. When you witness something new, you learn to train your thinking from “that’s weird” to “that’s different,” and you move on.
4) Your home and host universities set everything up for you – you just show up. This is something I appreciate infinitely more now that I’ve returned. Traveling to a country where you know no one is hard enough on its own. It’s so much nicer when you don’t have to worry about transport or cooking or cleaning the bathroom or where to buy linens or remembering when the heck you put the trash to the curb. The people in the international offices at both your home and host universities know what they’re doing – really, when you think about it, not taking advantage of their knowledge and resources would be a pity. Plus, between classes, the dining hall, international-student activities and extracurriculars (I’d strongly suggest getting involved in your host school’s outdoors club), you have somewhat of a built-in base of friends who all live within walking distance. You also have all the same long weekends and mid-semester breaks, perfect for seeing more of the country.
5) If you ever go back to the country you studied in (to visit or to live) you’ve got a foundation for what to expect and a network of friends already there. This sort of ties in with the previous point. I can honestly say I would not be in New Zealand right now – let alone for an extended period of time – without the connections I made last time. I have friends with whom I live and can set up travel expeditions. I also have a better cultural and geographical understanding of the country. While I know it can be done, I can’t imagine going to a new country – sight unseen, knowing no one – and trying to create a new life there.
6) In a few years, it’s going to be a lot harder to travel. Despite my student loans (see No. 1), I knew that if I didn’t make this happen soon after graduation, it wasn’t going to happen. I may have a career or a family before long, and while those things don’t inherently mean you can’t travel, it certainly is much more difficult than when you’re single and still figuring out what you want to do when you grow up.
7) You become a better global citizen. Both this time and in 2011, coming to New Zealand made me hyperaware of the news in my home state and country. Following American news feels, in some strange way, like a little piece of home. A Kiwi co-worker of mine said she felt the same way when she was living in Europe. I listen to a lot more NPR than I ever used to. This started mostly to keep my brain entertained in my data-entry job, but as a result I find myself following much more international events in countries I never used to follow. And if you’re in a country like New Zealand – OK, probably any country but the U.S., if I’m honest – the local news outlets follow a lot more international news than you’re used to. Someone joked with me that because New Zealand’s a small country, the news has to cover international news because there’s not much else to cover in local events. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful for it.
8) With the Internet, it is easier than ever to stay connected. Case in point: I’m currently live-streaming the jazz radio station at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. Then there’s Skype, What’s App, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc. Not to mention you can still access your favorite TV shows, news outlets, blogs, and so forth. Or – here’s a thought – you can write real, honest-to-God letters. And you can still check out your favorite book from the library or watch a movie you’ve seen dozens of times when you’re feeling low. So don’t tell me how homesick you’ll be.