A year ago at this time, I was getting ready for the experience of a lifetime. Ever since I declared my Global Studies major, people had started asking me where I wanted to go abroad. At times it seems like the focal point of the Global Studies major, and although this made me beyond excited it also created the anxiety that comes with any monumental experience. This is it, I kept thinking, this semester will change me, the way I look at the world, the way I see myself; this semester will be the one I talk about for years, the one that starts all my “cool” stories, the one that stands out above the rest. Finally, instead of asking me “what are you going to do with a Global Studies major” (confused, skeptical emphasis on the “Global Studies”), people’s questions started with a “Wow”: “Wow, you’re studying abroad?”; “Wow, that’s awesome where are you going?”; “Wow, what a great experience at such a young age.”
Others’ opinions have always held a weird place in my brain: on one hand, the advice and thoughts of others help guide me and my decisions, and like a lot of other teenagers I once strived for the approval of others, but on the other hand I always have to figure things out for myself. Once I stopped letting go of what others had experienced abroad, what others expected for me, I was left with me and my expectations. Or, I should say, lack of expectations. I had no idea what to expect since no other experience in my life had been like this one. And that was one of the best things to happen to me prior to my trip- going into the experience with an open mind, the only expectation being that I would learn and grow a lot. It allowed me to take things in stride, to be open to every possibility and to let things happen to me without prior judgment.
Sitting here now, on my winter break, going about the activities of home, it might seem like I never went abroad. I still work part-time at the same restaurant, I still get in minute and a half fights with my brother then continue on joking as normal, I still love iced coffee, I still get nervous about silly school assignments. The obvious times when it seems like I’ve studied abroad are when I’m mentoring younger Global Studies students or talking with other seniors reminiscing on being abroad, when I message my host mom on Facebook or text an Argentinean friend with What’s App. Then there are those things I’ve learned since coming back from abroad- I’ve learned to love a dog, when I used to be afraid of them all and even in Argentina I would get nervous when they were around; I’ve grown very close with a special pair of colleagues and learned the ins and outs of teaching a college course with them. There are still some things I want to learn- I still need more patience, more relaxation and less anxiety, and the ability to live in the moment all the time instead of constantly creating to-do lists for the future.
There are parts of me, however, that have forever been changed as a result of studying abroad, parts that may not be noticeable at all times but that I notice upon reflection and have become incorporated into who I am. I have grown deeper in my compassion towards other human beings. I have always felt connected to people, have always loved people, and have always felt that most people genuinely mean good. After traveling to another country and meeting so many people- from my host family, to the professors and program leaders, to the rural host village in the south and the communities in the north- I have learned to be empowered by stories. I love getting to know people, where they come from and what they’re about, what they know that I can learn from them, and how their wisdom fits into my life. Everyone lives a certain way for a certain reason, and what I may see as strange has a perfectly good explanation in someone else’s eye. That too- there is an explanation for anything, and judging another until you know his/her story will only lead to unnecessary prejudice and hatred. Before I studied abroad, my way of showing my love towards humanity was to be nice to everyone and want everyone to like me; I prided myself on being able to get along with anyone and to be agreeable. After studying abroad and meeting so many new people, and hearing what motivates and excites people, what kind of work they are doing and what opinions they hold, I realized that in order to strengthen a love of humanity, I sometimes have to disagree with people. I sometimes have to argue, in order to defend my opinions. I sometimes have to challenge people, in order to be true to myself. I still believe that everyone genuinely means well, and there is an explanation for all opinions and actions, however that does not mean I have to agree with everyone or keep silent when I do not agree. I feel called to argue, challenge, protect, but mostly to learn- and to do that, I will never have a closed mind or an arguable nature. But studying abroad helped me to find a little bit more of my true self, and as Shakespeare said “to thine own self be true.” To survive in a constantly changing world, I must hold onto my identity, and even as my identity changes I must strive to learn about myself first and foremost so that I may able to make the fullest contribution possible to the world.
I have always enjoyed writing, and have been fortunate enough that others often enjoy my writing as well. While abroad I kept this blog, updating family and friends back home of my travels. This was a powerful tool for me, and taught me the importance of reflection. At the end of each day I was able to sit back and think about the day, then think about how I wanted to convey it to my audience. While I loved writing about exciting adventures and funny happenings, I loved writing about the “ordinary” days too. Why? Because I had to think of a way to write about those days that would make my readers interested in them. It taught me to rethink the adventure, magic and happiness in ordinary days and really challenged me to be appreciative of each day. I made it to class on time, without messing up the bus route; I went on a lovely sunset run in the park; I Skyped with my parents; I told a detailed story to my host mom in Spanish; I added credit to my cell phone. It’s the little things in life that can bring us the most happiness- sometimes without us even knowing why.
Studying abroad has also helped put a lot of things in perspective. When I have a bad day or get upset, I know how to analyze what’s going on and put it in the larger picture. Is this really ruining my life? My coffee is the wrong flavor, I know I’ll be spending the whole night in the library, I don’t know what job I’ll have next year, am I making the right decisions with my life? Well, that’s the pessimistic way to look at it. Studying abroad taught me how to quickly change those situations around into positives- because I had to more than I did in life before. I had to be my own support system in a foreign country, and also I had to enjoy all the time I had there- I told myself there was no time for sadness or stress. So those same situations become: I got to try a new coffee flavor, I’ll be learning a lot from my homework and I’ll be studying at a table with my friends in a warm library, I have so many options for a career path, and not having my life planned out is exciting and if I’m not happy with a decision I change it. Attitude shift: How did I contribute to what’s happening and how can I change it? What are the worse problems in the world? I am careful not to pity anyone- another lesson studying abroad taught me- however I know that the reason I have dedicated my life to these issues is because injustice bothers me. Injustice infuriates me and impassions me, it motivates me and brings me closer to people. When I have a warm bed at night and good food to eat during the day, a loving family close by and friends I can turn to, there is little I should be complaining about. Rather, I should be looking at it with a healthy attitude of “how can I change this?” or “what do I want to do about this?” Furthermore, action is not always the answer. As a dear friend recently quoted, “Take time to be. We are human beings, not human doings.” This shows the importance of reflection, of inaction every once in while, of not rushing to complete the millionth to-do list I’ve made for myself but to enjoy the moment. Give myself credit for where I am, and use that to motivate me to get places in the future.
Coming home from Argentina was difficult. I did not and do not know if I will see the other students in my group again. I may never see my host mom or program directors again, yet all these people were instrumental parts of my life for a semester. This in hindsight is a valuable lesson of learning to love the people you are with, while realizing they might only be in your life for a short period of time. I learned that everyone has something to teach me, and I can teach everyone something as well. Humility has been one of my strong points, but my humility was deepened to a new degree after meeting so many wonderful, diverse, and interesting people in Argentina. Sometimes I felt like I had little to offer, doubted my story and felt embarrassed my a lack of experience, but I am now more comfortable with asserting myself and knowing that I, too, have a lot to offer. What I offer can be as simple as an outlet to share these people’s stories, it can be a listening ear, it can be advice or it can be my own experience, it can be my love. Coming back from Argentina was also exciting, because after three and a half months I certainly did miss my family and friends. I missed the staples of American life and the convenience of my home and college. I had to be careful not to get comfortable again, though, and stop learning in this new way. In Argentina, everything was a learning experience and everything was new. Nothing became routine- even during the three and a half months the program varied our schedule so that each day was always exciting and different. Now back at home I have to challenge myself to seek out situations or look at events in a new light, to constantly learn and never get comfortable.
So in conclusion, studying abroad added a dimension of richness to my life. It taught me to always remember that there is a world beyond the world I know, yet also to focus on what’s in front of me and do it with all my heart. It taught me to challenge myself and push myself outside of my comfort zone, because this is where accomplishment and achievements lie, but that I can push myself in any situation and not just in a foreign country. I can learn from any situation, not just in the four walls of a classroom where there is a professor present. There are people all over fighting for similar issues to which I want to dedicate my career- social and economic justice, fighting for everyone to be given the same rights and for everyone to realize that difference makes our world go around. I recently watched a TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html) on the danger of a single story, or the danger of judging and thinking you know a people or a culture based on one dimension, one story or one stereotype you have heard about them. The beauty lies in multiple stories, in the complexities of life, and of not always coming to one answer- but to enjoy the mystery of the many.
My mother to this day teases me that she is still waiting for the last entry of my blog, for a concluding post about my trip home and re-entry into American life. While there were some stories to share- my parents meeting me at a spot in the airport earlier than I thought I would be able to see them and that inexplicable feeling after not seeing them for three and a half months; the second day back when I was grocery shopping with my mom and shocked to hear so much English and people saying “Excuse me” instead of “Perdón”- for some reason I was never able to write a final entry up until now. I first thought I would get around to it, but something other than a bit of laziness was behind this one. Perhaps I knew that my experience abroad will never really end, but rather it will go on teaching me things all the time and I will constantly look back and remember it as I continue on my Global studies path. Alas, this final entry is dedicated to my mother and to everyone else who has supported me on my journey thus far. May we all continue to appreciate the beauty in life, “never underestimating the power of fate and the thrill of the unknown.”