For many people studying abroad is a formative experience, but for me it changed everything. It altered the way I looked at travel, my place in the world and my ability to express myself. It also introduced me to some of my favorite people.
Before I spent the semester in Scotland during my junior year of college I knew that I wanted to travel and see the world but in a very hypothetical way. I didn’t know what it meant or how to do it. Visiting a country where you didn’t speak the language seemed ridiculous. Going somewhere by myself was out of the question. Now there are very few places I wouldn’t consider going. Most of those places are countries in civil war. I have confidence in my ability to navigate a train system (except in Berlin, that place is so confusing) or mime what I need at a store.
Studying abroad taught me to be an American. When I was in Scotland, Bush was in office and everyone felt entitled to tell me what they thought of America and our President. I had to learn to have pride in my country as well as humility. No pretending to be Canadian. My country has its embarrassments and its triumphs. Doesn’t yours? I mean, Hello British Empire! Just saying…
Growing up my family had spent a lot of time discussing where our ancestors had come from and we described ourselves as English, Scottish and Irish. We listened to Celtic music and I loved watching Irish dance. But being in all of those countries taught me that I am only an American. That is the culture that shaped me. I can be interested in my lineage and learn about the history of my ancestors but me? Little ol’ me? I’m an American mutt like so many others. I could no longer try to claim the cultures of others.
Studying abroad in college was the first time I didn’t know a soul. No one else from my home college went with me. I didn’t know anyone. Typically a shy person I was determined not to waste this time. I introduced myself. I made friends. I spoke up in class. I said what I thought. It was new to me and yet it came easily. When I went back home to Asheville, my new roommates called me “no nonsense”. The way I interacted with my friends had been forever altered. It was difficult, in some ways, to maintain friendships with people I knew from before. I gravitated towards people who had also spent semesters away from Asheville or towards people who didn’t know me before. New people didn’t have expectations. I could present my new self without confusion or questions.
The friendships I made in Scotland are still some of the most important ones to me. Thank goodness for Skype and Facebook. I do not get to speak with them as often I would like but I think of them often. This year I’ve been lucky to have two of them visit me in Wilmington- not an easy place to get to for a Canadian and an Australian.
Many times I meet people who have changed their lives or career paths because of their study abroad experience. I met one just this week. I can honestly say, I completely understand.