Studying abroad is quite possibly one of the most coveted experiences amongst college students throughout the world. There is something so intriguing and exotic about spending an entire semester in a foreign country. Thousands who have done this claim that it was the best time of their lives and would give anything to do it again. I feel extremely fortunate that I am currently in the midst of my second study abroad experience, something that so many people don't even get to experience once. (Thank you Northeastern University!) Something that I've learned since being in college and becoming more independent is that there are a lot of things in life that are very easy to be taken for granted, but shouldn't. This has become even more apparent while studying abroad, and there are a few things that I want to set straight about my experience.
Every study abroad student is different and everybody has a unique experience. I think that there are a lot of generalizations made about students who go abroad (especially those from the United States, we have quite a reputation). I think that for a lot of people that are given the opportunity to go abroad, these generalizations turn into expectations. In my mind, study abroad was the opportunity to travel to a place that I probably wouldn't have been otherwise (you know, since Australia is on the freaking other side of the world and it takes twenty-four hours just to get here). I was also excited to be studying at The University of Sydney, one of the top three universities in Australia and ranked in the top 50 universities in the entire world. After all, I was sending myself 10,000 miles away to study abroad.
I think that the "study" part of study abroad often gets overshadowed by all of the other perks of living in a different country. I know that I tend to be a bit more of a nerd/bookworm than many, and I'm not saying that I spend all of my free time in Australia locked in a stuffy library making sure I get a perfect score on every single exam I take, but I also don't plan on sacrificing the quality of the education I get here to party every night. Being able to study at such a prestigious university and add a global perspective to my education is not something that I am willing to take for granted. There is a happy medium for everything in life, and it is extremely important to find balance. There are so many aspects of a true study abroad experience that all deserve to be taken advantage of - the studying itself, the traveling to other places, exploring the local art and culture, getting to know the local people, trying new cuisines and, when appropriate, letting loose at a bar or nightclub from time to time.
A few weeks ago, during one of the first few weeks of the semester, I tweeted "Apparently when you study abroad the weekend starts on Wednesday night and ends on Monday night...". At first I was afraid that I was doing something wrong, at most I could handle going out two or three nights per week. But six? There was no way. But would I be missing out on the true study abroad experience if I didn't go out? Is that what it was all about? Is that how I was going to meet local Aussies and get to know the area? Is that what I needed to do to fit in and make friends with all of the other study abroad students? The answer, I quickly concluded, was no. Like anything else in life, it always seems like everybody is doing whatever the cool thing to do is. But for every person that wanted to go out every night of the week, there was another like me who had other priorities. **I feel like I need to take the opportunity here to say that I am in no way criticizing those who do choose to focus on the partying aspect of being abroad. I definitely appreciate having a fun night at a bar or night club and fully understand the appeal, it's just not my personal preference to focus on that.**
I mentioned earlier that there are a lot of generalizations made about study abroad students that turn into expectations. I think that one expectation is that studying abroad is a chance to find yourself. I know this sounds cliche and like something that any author would write in an autobiography about his or her life, but it's true. There is definitely something to be said about the kind of independence that goes along with studying abroad. In the one month that I've been here, I've started to reflect a lot on my actual values and what I do (or do not) want to do with my life. I've thought a lot about how my past experiences have prepared me for this and how I will be able to relate experiences abroad to challenges I will face when I get home and throughout the rest of my adult life. (Obviously these are all things that I will write about and elaborate on in my autobiography, due to be released December of 2020.) (That was a joke.)
Another expectation about studying abroad is that you will never have a minute of down time, that you will always be on the move or jet-setting off to explore a new city. That's definitely what I expected. The reality is that shipping yourself off to a different country for four to six months is a huge adjustment, and one that you will definitely need time to process. It's important to find some kind of normalcy in all of the chaos, excitement and homesickness that can come with being abroad. There's nothing wrong with curling up on the couch and spending a night watching TV or sleeping late from time to time. Sure your time is limited and you should make the most of that experience, but you can get plenty of living done during those couple of months and make time to relax and process everything that is going on. If you wear yourself down too much, you won't be able to fully enjoy each of the experiences that you allow yourself!
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that setting expectations is important, but not to be disappointed if those expectations don't come to fruition. You don't know what's going to happen, how you're going to feel or what types of people you're going to meet when you study abroad and being adaptable will make or break your experience. Also don't be afraid to stay within your comfort zone at first - you've already taken a huge step outside of it just to get wherever you are. Of course studying abroad is all about expanding your horizons, but that will happen naturally once you've been in a new place long enough. There is no right or wrong way to study abroad. Don't feel like you need to fit yourself into a box of other study abroad students who all want to do the same thing. As long as you go to bed happy and fulfilled at the end of each day, you're doing something right.
(I apologize for how much I used the words experience, opportunity and abroad in this post, but it kind of just comes with the theme of studying abroad. Will make "broadening study abroad vocabulary" a priority for the week.)