I was standing on a ledge right outside of the Cinque Terre train station, and I almost threw up. Not because of the height, not because of the bumpy train ride where I sat backwards and smelled onions the entire time, and not because I happened to get the stomach flu. No. Because of the view. Because of the gorgeous teal-blue water mixed with the grey and brown rocks. Because of the tiny, choppy waves. Because of the cliffs. Because of the little salmon pink and yellow houses that reminded me of Barbie doll homes. Because it wasn’t real. I wasn’t really here, in this seventy degree weather, soaking up how beautiful and astounding the world was.
For three weeks, four months, whatever duration, studying abroad is one of the best decisions you can make in your undergrad (and grad!) years. Why?
1. It’ll scare you
If you’re like most college kids, there’s ‘home’ and ‘home-away-from-home.’ And the longer you’re in college, the more those labels blur. You start to become familiar with living on your own. You become comfortable. And that’s the perfect time to study abroad.
When you’re used to the routines of school, sports, fine arts, and social events, life gets redundant. And don’t get me wrong, that can be a good thing. Who doesn’t love the scheduled gym time, the Pub Wednesdays, the annual Saturday morning sleep in? But studying abroad will pull you out of that. It’ll freshen up your routine. It’ll change the way you do things and have done things for however many months, years. And it’ll scare the hell out of you.
Picture yourself in a place where you can’t really speak the language, don’t know anyone, and aren’t 100% sure how to get around. That’s terrifying, sure. But it’s also incredibly exciting.
2. You’ll learn a hell of a lot
This goes hand-in-hand. When you’re living in a place you’ve never been, you’ll learn where to find the cheapest wine, which galleries are open on the weekends, the best night life spots, the most relaxing parks to just sit and write, the most expensive places to order pasta, how to navigate the local transportation, what heels to never ever wear on cobblestone, how to somewhat read a map, a few Italian words, and the names of all the famous artwork.
But that’s not even close to all you’ll learn. When you’re outside of your comfort zone, you’ll see the world beyond your bubble. You’ll see some of the most majestic sites. You’ll learn about history and people and artists who have shaped the world. You’ll stand under the Sistine Chapel for almost an hour, craning your neck to study the brushstrokes, to imagine the hours and the diligence in creating something so powerful. You’ll understand the subway system, the sculptures, the different tastes and smells. You’ll learn your limits. You’ll learn that almost anything is accessible by foot. You’ll learn to spend money wisely. You’ll learn to spend money on experiences. And you’ll learn to love the world outside what you’re used to.
3. It will make you humble
When you’re standing under the 17 foot statue of David, with his perfectly chiseled muscles and realistic facial expression you’ll feel incredibly small. When you’re overlooking the thumbnail-sized towns from your airplane seat, when you try a meat sauce that’s been handed down for three generations, when you think about religious persecution as you stand in the middle of a famous church, you’ll realize how miniscule you are in the big scheme of things.
Suddenly your bad hair day and blistered feet don’t really seem to matter. For those weeks, months, you aren’t a college kid anymore. You’ll begin to learn about people much different than yourself, understand their language, beliefs, customs, fears, habits, traditions. You’ll learn to make friends with people you might not have before. And you’ll become humble, learning to listen and take it all in.
4. And then you’ll see the world in a new way
When you have to travel from place to place by boat in Venice, when you’re surrounded by the ruins of the Roman forum, when you try escargot for the first time and actually love the buttery, salty taste, you’ll see the world in a new way.
For probably the first time, you’ll see that the world is exciting and new. That there is life beyond the frat houses and final paper deadlines. The sites, ruins, sculptures, and artwork aren’t just pictures in a textbook. They become tangible, something you can touch, admire, ponder. The world suddenly becomes this place you can discover, and there is so much to learn, so much to see, and so many new experiences to just say, ‘Sure, why not?’
5. You’ll learn to slow down
When you don’t have to punch a clock for work, eat quickly before basketball practice, get up by the third snooze button, race down the hallway for Chemistry class, or get that project turned in before Friday, you can just sit and enjoy your experiences.
That’s the beauty of studying abroad—you learn to slow down.
In a foreign country, you can turn off your social media and live a life without distractions and drama. Other things will become more important, like sharing stories and ideas with others, slurping rich and cheesy Carbonara pasta, staying up to watch the sunrise over Anacapri, riding in a gondola across Venice, trying different wines and gelatos, dancing ridiculously to Americanized techno in an Italian club, or just sitting quietly and admiring nature.
Suddenly deadlines, demands, and decisions won’t have as much relevance. You won’t have to stress about what you need to do. You can just be.
6. And finally, you’ll learn a lot about yourself
Not only will you return reciting important dates and garbled French words, holding handfuls of trinkets for your little siblings, but you’ll return a new person.
You’ll know what foods you love and hate, what your biggest fears are, how late you can stay up, how long you can walk with bleeding toes, what foreign words will get you where you want to be, what art really spoke to you, and who you are now.
When you’ll leave, you’ll be a scared twenty-something-year-old. But when you return, you’ll be an older, livelier (after sleeping off the jetlag), and more open person. You’ll be willing to try new things, to share your experiences, and to value things and people in your life. And you’ll learn that you love the rush of being somewhere foreign, a feather thrown into a bustling ocean, trying to stay afloat and ride the waves.