Two weeks before turning twenty-one, I was sitting on a plane flying high over the Atlantic Ocean. I was headed to England for a semester abroad. Before this moment, I had never set foot outside of the United States. As I arrived at Lancaster University for orientation, my body filled with nervous excitement. For an instant, I could hardly believe my own bravery. Then came the moment I placed my luggage on the floor of my new flat and the fear began to grow. It settled in. I am thirty-five hundred miles away from home, and I have no friends.
To this day, I am still surprised by my decision to study abroad for my first international experience. Even though I was scared that day, and I felt like I had made a huge mistake, participating in a study abroad program had a monumental impact on my life. It seems like everyone who studies internationally or travels abroad makes this same vague, meaningless statement. But it is true. Study abroad is the most effective way to facilitate positive personal growth.
First of all, study abroad allowed me to tackle my anxiety of international travel. Now, at the age of 24, my wanderlust has swept me away to a modest sixteen different countries. I have met dozens of wonderful people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. It opened my heart and mind, making me a more accepting and understanding person. Studying abroad also permitted me to cultivate relationships with my sister and my now fiancée. While studying abroad, I took two separate backpacking trips with my sister and fiancée. Traveling on a budget with my fiancée was a great way to put our relationship to the test. It made us realize that we could overcome anything, and that we truly loved each other.
Me and my sister in Prague
Me and my fiancée in Bath, England
Studying abroad is more about the people than the places. Exposing oneself to a completely foreign environment is an opportunity to develop great interpersonal skills. Having the ability to interact and connect with individuals is essential to succeed in life. Let me tell a story to put this in perspective. I had only been in England for two weeks, but I was determined to celebrate my twenty-first birthday. It was up to me to plan the festivities and invite people I had only just met. Even though I surrounded myself with essentially strangers for my birthday, it didn’t seem to change anything. A group of girls baked me a cake, gentlemen from around the world bought me shots, and we all danced into the night. I will never forget the positive human connection we all felt that night. It was truly beautiful.
Finally, studying abroad is an opportunity to explore different educational systems than the ones found in the U.S. Study abroad also gives students the ability to take courses that are not offered at their home institution. Going to a small school like Allegheny College, I was not able to take courses such as sustainable agriculture, soil science, and water resources management. Although the classes are important, it is essential that you do not allow the classes to control your time abroad. I was struggling to adapt to the course structure at Lancaster University, so I messaged my academic advisor about my problems. He told me to take a deep breath, grab a pint of English beer, and go out and experience the things around me. Because, at the end of the day, studying abroad is about creating meaningful bonds with people, having a deeper understanding of foreign cultures, and growing into a more loving and confident individual who is ready to take on the world.