Studying abroad through small moments

October 5, 2018

The study abroad fair has come and gone for this fall, and in its wake, has left most prospective students with a stack of pamphlets, a list of websites and—though presumably not in the cases of a lucky few—a lack of direction.

Perhaps it is common knowledge, but it seems to be a rarely stated fact that a few pictures and lines of text can really only capture what it means to embark on a months-long experience so well. There are inherent limitations, which are not problems in themselves, but the comparative lists of pluses and minuses from ad to ad too often break it down into parts and obscure the whole.

As every pamphlet and most students who have returned from studying abroad will be eager to tell you, studying abroad is a truly great experience. There are the more obvious aspects that are front and center on most abroad programs’ homepages, and those will likely be the guiding force when sifting through pages and pages of different programs fighting for attention.

But it’s the little joys of being somewhere completely new—the quirks and particulars and impromptu outings—which are what ultimately make the experience worth all the paperwork leading up to it.

During my time in Bath, England, it was often difficult to articulate the feeling of taking an eight mile hike through the countryside, simply because it’s there, what it is like to wander a foreign city with friends in search of iced coffee or the satisfaction of mastering a train system that used to baffle you.

Studying abroad is a time of new cultural experience, certainly, but it’s also a chance to feel uniquely independent. This is a hard concept to slip in as a bullet point on a flyer and often ends up stated in broad strokes as the rather nebulous “great student life” or other phrases of its ilk.

I believe stating that studying abroad is a transformative experience is too esoteric of a claim to make it something worth considering when leafing through possible programs. Not to mention that if you were to question anyone who went abroad, the phrase “I was transformed” likely would not come up in conversation.

A more accurate description may, perhaps, be along the lines of learning how to articulate yourself in a new context. How do you function in a country where nobody knows you? What life do you build for the few months you spend there?

When filling out forms for study abroad, many of them will ask for specifics of exciting things you will do, which a student in the application process, of course, can only guess at. I learned after going abroad and coming home that there is a reason for this—the specifics of a study abroad experience is what makes it so special. It’s simply a bit unfortunate that students get stuck having to invent possible scenarios before they get to live them.

But what does all of this mean for the student who carried home armfuls of information about competing programs? My advice would be something I didn’t consider when I was applying to programs—the location is not incidental to good classes, internships or whatever else is being offered. Being in a new place is what study abroad is all about, and, for many, going abroad means discovering a place that you would want to go back to. It’s an investment of your time, too and requires the rather blunt question of “do I really want to spend five months here?”

The difficult part is finding an affirmative answer to that question, as well as coming to the mildly frustrating realization that the only person who can adequately find said answer is you. It’s a situation similar to the unique experiences to be detailed on application forms—explaining why you will be happy in a place you’ve never been to is not an easy feat.

For me, these were challenges that only in part could be answered by reaching out to program representatives or Brandeis study abroad counselors. There were questions I only realized I needed to answer when I stumbled into them in the first place.

However, the bottom line in all of this contemplating and complaining is that even when bombarded by what is a series of truly difficult questions, the experience is absolutely worth it. All of the hassles and inconveniences will become aspects of a much larger story.

Uncertainty is normal. Discovering you’ve been measuring programs against each other for the wrong reasons is normal. Being conflicted on what is most important to you is normal. Above all, though, finding out the best parts of your experience abroad were little moments you never could have predicted is normal.

Studying abroad is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than what even the best advertisers can list on their bullet pointed pamphlets, and it’s likely even more than the imaginings you’ll list in your application. Whether it’s “transformative” or not is up to the individual, but it’s hard to deny that at the very least, it is an experience, and an unforgettable one, too.

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