Things I Learned [Outside Of Class!] When Studying Abroad

Remember when a public health emergency didn’t prevent people from traveling to other countries? [looking at you 2019!] During that time in my life I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study abroad in Ireland.  Hopefully, this school year will be a little bit ‘back to normal’ + experiences like studying abroad can be an option once again. 

I actually kept a journal during that time in my life + I am so glad that I did. I look back on all of the places I went, people I met, + adventures I had ++ usually remember that time as such an amazing experience I am so grateful for. I had the chance to not only explore Ireland + the beautiful place it is, but I also visited 10 other countries during my time abroad. While some times were definitely challenging, my time abroad taught me so much about the world + myself. Here are the top four things I learned [outside of the classroom!] during my experience abroad. 

#1] There’s a big world out there

I am the definition of a small town girl [seriously, my hometown has a population of *almost* 1,500!] so studying abroad definitely taught me how big the world truly is. Even though Ireland is literally the size of Indiana, exploring the natural beauty of the country was absolutely one of my favorite aspects of my experience.  The country has six incredible national parks + I had the pleasure of experiencing all of them. I went rock climbing off the coast in Burren National Park, hiking up the mountain of Connemara National Park + kayaking in Killarney National Park. As a girl who loves to be outside, this was absolutely an incredible aspect of my time abroad + some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. 

It sounds dorky, but my time abroad also sparked an interest in history unlike anything I had ever had before. I had the chance to travel + learn about history ++ the culture of different places that is unmatched by an educational experience in the classroom. I visited the holocaust museum in Berlin, the “Peace Wall” that separates the Protestants from the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Habsburg’s castles in Vienna + so much more. Experiencing these incredible sights in person are worth so much more than anything I could learn in a textbook. 

Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, it always reminds me that there is so much more to see + experience. Studying abroad provided me with a platform to expand my horizons, but I truly did just dip my toes into the incredible world out there. Whether it’s taking in the exploring the natural beauty of a country, connecting with the local culture or experiencing a nation’s historical significance, it really is a big world out there. 

#2] It is so okay to do things alone

I can not emphasize this point enough. Unlike some others who go have the chance togo abroad, no other students from my school back home went to Ireland at the same time, so I didn’t know anyone at all. When I arrived at the University of Limerick in Ireland, I didn’t necessarily find ‘my people’ to travel + explore like I would have hoped. I heard wild tales from friends + family who also had the fortunate opportunity to study abroad ++ went on crazy adventures with their best friends. In hindsight, I am glad that I wasn’t in a bubble with people I was already comfortable with when traveling because it encouraged me to meet other people from all over the world.

When I went out to explore on my own, I met so many new + interesting fellow travelers in my hostels, on tours, or even just on the bus. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely some moments where it would have been nice to not be alone, but solo experiences are so underrated! Being forced to meet new people everywhere I went opened my eyes to the fact that everyone truly has their story to share. If I had been traveling with friends that I knew, I don’t know if I would have been as eager to connect with new people + I would have missed out on hearing their stories. 

Traveling alone also helped me develop my problem solving skills + a sense of responsibility unlike any experience. Even though I am a ‘thorough planner’ when it comes to travel plans, there were still moments where things went wrong. Being responsible for all of my bus, train + plane tickets, as well as my hostel stays ++ tour dates was definitely daunting at first [especially when it was in a different language!] However, these challenges pushed me to develop my independence in a way I never thought possible. Learning how to navigate new places all by myself was one of the best lessons of studying abroad. 

#3] But it’s also so okay to miss your family, friends, + life back home

It is so easy to remember my experiences + romanticize about how incredible ++ life changing it all was. When looking back at it now, it’s easy to forget that some days were really hard. Sometimes the loneliness + unfamiliarity got to me ++ I just really wanted to come home. 

The experience of moving to a new country + traveling to new places created a constant state of being out of my comfort zone. Everything was unfamiliar + different than what I was used to + it took me forever to figure out how to navigate my new home. These experiences of constantly being ‘out of my element’ made me miss the comfort + familiarity of home even more. 

One of the worst parts of these days when my anxiety took over was the immediate guilt I would feel about experiencing this. Why can’t I appreciate what I have? So many individuals would kill to have this opportunity + I shouldn’t be wasting it feeling sad or sorry for myself. 

Studying abroad helped me to learn how to show grace to myself for feeling this way. It is totally okay to miss home + crave the comfort it provides. My time overseas taught me how to admit when things are hard + give myself a break when I was feeling down. Being out of my comfort zone wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it helped me to grow + become far more independent. But it did make me miss home more + that is totally okay. 

#4] Life isn’t as serious as we think it is 

One of my favorite aspects of my time abroad was experiencing all different cultures. Every new country had a different way of doing things + it was so eye opening to see how all different people wake up ++ live their lives. Even though every place I visited was incredibly unique, I did notice one important commonality — their ‘pace of life’ is much slower than the United States [in a good way!]

We are always in a hurry in the United States in so many aspects of our lives. From a day to day standpoint, we are always rushing to our next meeting, activity + class — packing our days to the brim with commitments. There are never enough hours in the day to get done what we need to get done. 

In Ireland [+ Europe in general] this was so not the case. First of all, the country does not wake up before 8 or 9 AM, ever. Their classes are structured with plenty of time to get ‘a pint’ between classes at the pub on campus. They even had this wild idea of ‘closing their library’ on campus, forcing students to go home + not study. I don’t think I ever quite got used to this cultural difference, but it was definitely different from the hectic lives we live here in the United States. 

In more general terms, the people I met abroad were just in less of a hurry in their lives in general. A lot of other students + travelers were busy taking gap years + seeing the world before they started their real lives. It was almost more out of the ordinary to go right from secondary school [high school] to University to a career without taking a break. Back at home, I unfortunately feel like it’s the opposite as so many of my friends + peers [myself included] are busy on the conveyor belt of high school, college, then career. I hope I can take this lesson with me + learn to relax a little bit when it comes to starting new phases of my life. After all, why are we in a hurry? 

Interested in studying abroad? Here is what I have learned about the process + how it works at most schools. There usually are a few options:

1] A University Led Program — a lot of schools will administer their own study abroad programs where they have agreements with universities in other countries. These programs can be more convenient as your school will likely have all of the information about the experience + how to enroll. However, most schools do not have partners in every country you might want to visit + you might only have a few options to choose from. Ask your advisor at your University if your school has a study abroad office so you can find out about the programs they offer!

2] Third-Party Programs — this is what I did! Organizations like the Council on International Educational Exchange + IES Abroad offer a ton of options for students to spend time in other countries. Some programs even happen in the summer if you can not find time during your school year! The advisor or study abroad office at your school will likely have more information about these options but you can also do independent research to find programs that interest you. Going through a ‘third party’ can be more challenging to get your courses approved + to arrange your study abroad experience but it is totally worth it. 

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