I was privileged enough to be able to study abroad in a gap year program before I started my undergrad studying. It was quite frankly the greatest experience of my life, and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about that trip and the impact it continues to have on me. I participated in Semester at Sea, a unique trip around the world on a cruise ship turned floating college campus. I visited 19 countries in four months, and it was unbelievable. Here’s my opinion on why I think everyone needs to study abroad at least once before graduating college.
You become a global citizen
Certainly you can travel to a foreign place on vacation and get a good feel for the culture, but doing so makes you more of a tourist and less of a traveler. Living somewhere, truly immersing yourself in that environment for a period of months gives you the freedom to discover even more about that place. You learn the difference between being a tourist and a traveler. A tourist goes to take pretty pictures and buy souvenirs while a traveler understands the value of the experience.
Though I traveled to Paris for a weekend with friends, there was a point at 2am where I was alone traveling back to our hotel. I don’t speak French at all, and I had only been in Paris for a total of three hours. The subway system closed for the evening and I had to find a way by myself through this completely unfamiliar place! It was exhilarating and terrifying, but I did it (I also got a wonderful night drive through the streets of Paris which was basically amazing). I think back on these moments of triumph that take place only when traveling abroad. Comfort zones are pushed, and you discover you are capable of so much more than you ever thought. This power is intoxicating, and does not go away when you’re back home.
Traveling with people is super intense. The friendships I made in my four months traveling are just as strong as the friends I made in my three years of boarding school. You’ll never forget the girl from Hawaii who laughed with you as you went shark cage diving in South Africa, or that time you got lost with your Croatian friend on a hike through the mountains of Rio. These friendships last after the trip ends. Often times these friends attend different schools on other sides of the world which is even better because it give you an excuse to visit them later!
The world becomes much more real when it is experienced first person. Once you are exposed to other cultures your understanding of people and exotic places grows. I encourage you to look into programs outside of the norm. Visit countries that you don’t hear much about. Try something completely new. Meet new people. While on Semester at Sea we only had a few days at a time to spend in each country, therefore we needed to make the most of our short time there. Talking to locals is the easiest and best way to learn more about a country. Ask them questions about their life, their dreams, and their travels. Take these experiences with you when you come home.
I hope you choose to explore the world every chance you get. College is a great time! You’re free from commitments and can focus on traveling!
Have you traveled/studied abroad before? If so, where?