You don’t have to ‘find yourself’ abroad

August 24, 2018

Studying abroad is the best decision I made in college. I spent last spring semester in Madrid, Spain and learned more than in any semester at Brandeis. If you’re thinking about studying abroad, I highly encourage it. But you don’t have to subscribe to the myriad cliches out there, such as the idea that you’ll “find yourself” abroad—because you probably won’t. And going into a semester abroad with that mindset might wind up holding you back.

We’ve all seen the “finding yourself” abroad cliche on pamphlets and newsletters—the student who becomes Cultured™ and adopts an entirely new worldview, now incapable of ever returning to life in the United States. But studying abroad doesn’t mean that you will become an entirely new person. It gives you the tools to learn and grow, but it’s not as if you step off the plane and into new skin, complete with a great accent to match your host country’s. It’s not always an easy, breezy experience, straight out of a guidebook with the wind in your hair; there are hard days and days you miss people at home. You will change after the semester, but it’s too simple to say you’ll “find yourself.”

In some ways, studying abroad doesn’t feel like real life, and this is maybe one of the hardest parts about adjusting both abroad and back home. For a whole semester, you suddenly live in a new apartment, go to a different school, meet new people––but all with a deadline looming ahead, knowing that the semester will end and you’ll have to resume “real life” at home. With this mindset comes a unique freedom—you want to make the days count and try new things while you still can. You can also relish a little in the fact that very few people know you here, and you can create this new life for yourself however you want.

Looking back, it’s a little hard to believe that you were even there—from the vantage point of my summer job in Waltham, it feels like so long ago that I was sitting outside a cafe in Madrid, sharing tapas with people who became some of my closest friends. Part of adjusting back in the U.S. is working through this, and comparing expectations to reality. I know that I changed from my semester in Madrid, and I miss it every day. But my reflections on the semester are also about dispelling this “finding yourself” cliche.

My advice to those studying abroad? First, it’s a lot like an undergrad experience at Brandeis in the sense that the semester is entirely what you make of it. Opportunities aren’t just going to fall into your lap; try not to spend a lot of time in your bedroom, alone on the computer. You need to put in effort to make new friends and find your place. That said, don’t be afraid of some alone time—it’s calming and rewarding to wander around your new city, discovering things you might not stumble upon with a group. It can also be nice to travel alone for a weekend—to become acquainted with a city and have the freedom to roam as you please.

Lastly, don’t disregard the possibility of going abroad for the whole academic year. If your major allows it, and you wouldn’t fall behind in credits to graduate, look into going abroad for the year. A big part of me wishes that I could have spent the entire year in Madrid, but I wouldn’t have graduated on time. Studying abroad is an opportunity like no other, and taking classes in another country for a year will impact your self-growth and maturity in a manner Brandeis likely wouldn’t. And even if you can’t find room in your schedule to go abroad during the school year, summer study abroad opportunities are just as fulfilling.

In a lot of ways, study abroad is about discovering. When you first arrive, you feel a little lost, but you’re not alone. You find friends. You find new favorite foods and gain a sense of direction in your new city. You find a new home. But you can’t rely on another country, or another culture, to transform yourself or fill a missing void. Your study abroad experience depends on the relationships you make and the lessons you learn, on your choices and mistakes. It’s unrealistic to think you’re just going to find yourself—or that you have to.

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