I made a life-changing, world-altering decisions during my junior year of university. I remember sitting in the study abroad office, flipping through catalogs and pamphlets of far-off places and imagining myself living in each of them. And I landed on Florence, Italy. I didn't know it then, but that decision changed the course of my life as I know it.
That semester was filled with laughter and exploration. I made new friends from all around the globe, and learned more about myself than I had in my first three years of college. I fell in love with the world.
It’s been six years… SIX YEARS!... since that semester. But like most other big choices, I didn’t fully understand its significance at the time. I can now look back with a bird’s eye view and see exactly how it shaped me into the person I am today.
So whether you’re thinking about spending a semester overseas or are reminiscing on your own time abroad, join me in celebrating all the ways studying abroad can change lives for the better.
1. You'll become addicted
Studying abroad is the gateway drug. It was for me. And I promise that it will be for you too.
I boarded my first international flight during my senior year of university. I made the cobblestone streets of Florence my home for the next 4 months.
I tasted pasta made from scratch by an Italian grandma, toured museums I'd only read about, and explored the Tuscan countryside you see in movies. I found how easy it was to travel, and I scored cheap airfare to Ireland, Malta, and all around Europe. Buying flights and train tickets gave me a rush I'd never known before.
I began to crave stamps in my brand new passport just like a smoker craves a cigarette on their lips. And now, countless international flights later, I am happily and unapologetically addicted to travel. My passport is now dog-eared at the edges, and I there are only a few blank pages left, but that excitement has never faded. If anything, it has only grown.
There is no turning back after a semester abroad. Your life simply won't be the same. You can't say I didn't warn you.
2. Your world and your mind will be opened
We spend much of our college years sheltered in our little community of people like ourselves. You're surrounded by other students and sit in classes alongside peers who have similar interests. Even if your campus is diverse, it can't compare to living overseas for a semester. Not only will you learn about your host country's culture in depth, but in turn, you'll understand more about your own.
In Italy, I saw different ways of doing things. After doing laundry, I hung my clothes out to dry in the Tuscan air instead of in a machine. I walked everywhere. Or took a bus. Or train. But I never drove. I concocted my own salad dressing from locally made balsamic vinegar and olive oil instead of using the store-bought kind.
I met people from all over the world, and learned about my home country from a different lens. I was able to see America – the good and the bad – as the rest of the world sees it. It was as if I was wearing glasses that were all fogged up, and someone wiped them off for me.
3. Learn that feeling at home is a state of mind
When I think back on my semester in Florence, nostalgia overwhelms me. I remember the market where I bought my fruits and vegetables and fresh cheeses; where I laughed with the vendors and practiced my minimal Italian. I got to know the town, and soon felt like a local. I had a favorite bar and restaurant, and I remember rolling my eyes as I passed groups of tourists on my walk to class each day. I made friends who I spent holidays with and celebrated birthdays together. We cooked a huge Thanksgiving feast and took trips on the weekends. They became my family, and Florence my home.
This is my story, but it can be yours too. Studying abroad will show you that there are communities all over the world where you can belong. You'll find that you can make a home thousands of miles from where you grew up if you'd like. And there will be a bittersweet moment where you realize that you can be homesick for more than one place.
4. Get out of your comfort zone
I carry a fortune in my wallet that reads, "Comfort zones are most often expanded by discomfort". Let that sink in for a minute... Deep, huh? Stepping into unchartered territory truly is the best way to learn and to grow into the best version of yourself.
Studying abroad was uncomfortable, but in the best way. I didn’t speak the language, but I learned to communicate with my hands (just like the Italians). I had never taken a train by myself, but by the end of my semester I was a pro. My confidence soared, and I learned to think about issues with a more open mind. I grew and changed in ways I never would have had I stayed in the same streets of my university town.
Studying abroad is an investment in yourself and will make you a more interesting and globally-aware person, which will be qualities that stick with you for life.
5. Make different memories
While some people remember their college years as a collection of house parties and football games, students who study abroad will have a gamut of other experiences as well. Biking through back alleys in Buenos Aires, raising your glass at Oktoberfest in Munich, hiking through the Andes, spending the day on a rice farm in Thailand. Instead of rehashing fuzzy Friday nights at the same old bar, you'll have stories worth passing on to your children. And grandchildren. Because let's be real... you're not going to want to tell them about the night you took 5 tequila shots and danced on a table.
6. See another side of money management
There's nothing quite like going overseas to teach you about handling money. In addition to keeping a budget, you'll also have to stay on top of exchange rates. You'll learn how to make your money go a long way, because it's a pretty big hassle (and maybe not an option) to call Mom and Dad to ask them to wire money across the world.
True, studying abroad can be expensive, but I’ve never met anyone who regrets spending the money. And I know from personal experience -- I studied in Italy when the dollar was at one of its lowest points. But I worked my a** off to make it happen. I applied for scholarship after scholarship, and saved up my waitressing money, which in the end made me appreciate the experience even more.
7. Learn without textbooks
Food and wine pairing in Florence? Sign me up! Scuba diving in Australia? Hell yes! Sea turtle conservation in Ecuador? Okay, stop it...
Jump on these opportunities because they won't come along again. Opt for fun classes over practical ones, and don't worry too much if they don't fulfill credits. If you take these courses for fun later in life, they'll cost exponentially more. Plus, I can't imagine anything worse than sitting through a calculus lecture when there's a new country to explore just outside the classroom.
And when comes to learning a new language, there’s no better opportunity than spending a semester overseas. You can study Spanish from the comfort of your English-speaking home all you want, but it will never compare to living in Spanish culture. It's common knowledge that immersing yourself in another country is the quickest way to learn a language, but it's more than that. You'll pick up on cultural cues and slang that you just can't get without living abroad.
8. Rethink your career path
Most college students don't have an exact picture of their dream job when they enter school as a freshman. And that's fine. These four (or five, or six) years are a period in your life meant for self-exploration and discovery.
Studying abroad will only aid in that journey. You may find that you love living overseas -- so much so that you apply for a job on the other side of the world upon graduating. While studying in a rural village in Nicaragua, you may see a need that has not been addressed and decide that it is your calling. Or perhaps you'll discover that travel for you is a hobby, and would lose its fun if mixed with work.
Whatever it may be, one semester of studying abroad will teach you more about yourself than a 4-year degree ever could.
9. Fall in love
I'm not talking about coming home with a new girlfriend or boyfriend (though that's not totally unheard of). Studying abroad will make you fall in love in the most unlikely of ways.
Maybe you'll fall in love with the country you’re living in, or maybe with a new hobby or skill you're learning. You may fall in love with a new cuisine or language. Or perhaps you'll fall in love with the sheer independence of being in a foreign land.
Whatever it is, fall hard. This is the time of your life to discover new passions and dreams.