14 things I took away (and hope you do, too) from studying abroad

20 21 June 2012 053

“Here, there is an insane love of football, of celebration, of music.”

“A city that thinks a table is for dancing on.”

“We do things differently here.”

“It all comes from here.”

I smiled as I read these quotes about Manchester by famous Brits — actors, musicians and athletes — in a shop the morning before I left. That’s because now I understand.

I didn’t know what to expect from Manchester. A few of you know that I originally wasn’t even supposed to go there. When I did decide to, I hadn’t done a lot of research; I hadn’t even heard of the city except for Manchester United. (It was in the U.K. and didn’t require knowledge of another language, which, in my frenzied state at the time, was enough for me.) But, for some reason, I boarded a plane and went anyway. And that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

The past four months have been a series of adventures filled with wonderful people, memorable experiences and beautiful sights. (I’ve even come to not hate Manchester’s annual 300 days of cold, rainy weather.) And as I looked at my possessions, packed neatly into suitcases on top of my bed, I knew that I was a different person than I was the last time my possessions were packed. (I also acquired an additional suitcase of possessions, but that wasn’t the big change.)

If I were to continue in a traditional format, I would probably write an unorganized ramble. (It’s still going to be long, sorry.) So, I’m going to attempt to sum up this semester in 14 points (because it’s 2014 and I’m just so clever) — 14 things I’ve taken away from this semester and hope that anyone who has the incredible opportunity to study abroad also takes away. Enjoy.

1. I love to travel.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t something I realized until I traveled nearly every weekend. I’ve always loved airports — going on vacation, to school or back home is exciting — but my destinations have mostly had a purpose: to visit friends or family, to go to school, to intern at a media outlet. I’ve done very little traveling just to travel.

I like booking flights, trains and hostels, figuring out what times I should be getting where. I like figuring out where to go and how to get there. I like just being somewhere, occasionally documenting the moment with my iPhone, but not letting technology be the main focus of the visit.

Most of all, though, I like experiencing different cultures and interacting with different people. I’ve learned so much this semester just from walking along streets and picking up on the vibe of a city and its people, and that’s something I never could have experienced by reading a news story or watching a documentary.

2. Everyone has an interesting story to tell.

One of the best parts about this experience — and almost every experience, really — has been the people I’ve befriended. Being in a fully immersive program, meaning I don’t live or take classes with other exchange students, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from all over — lots of Brits, but also full-time students from countries such as Romania, Italy, Thailand and Singapore. I’ve also met other exchange students from all over — lots of Americans, of course, but also people from Australia, China, Mexico, Germany and Canada, among other countries. (And, of course, there are the people you meet while traveling … there are always characters in hostels.)

I love, love, love hearing their stories. Everyone has such rich life experiences and wonderful perspectives to add to any situation. I have had the opportunity to ask so many questions this semester, and though I didn’t get a direct answer to everything (because that’s impossible), I loved having the opportunity to learn so much about other people’s lives and home culture. One of my friends said that after you study abroad, you feel like you “get it,” meaning why other people and other cultures are so important, and I definitely feel like I “get it” after this semester.

3. Journalism is such a useful major.

It’s frustrating how many people, especially in Europe, have openly questioned my decision to go into “a dying field,” a “useless major” or “such a lousy profession.” (First off, it’s not your decision, so why should you care? But I digress.) Something a great journalist I once interviewed said has stuck with me for the past year or so: He said that journalism students should learn skills such as multitasking, synthesizing information, and thinking and writing quickly and professionally so they could be used in various workplaces. (Note “media outlet” or “newspaper” is nowhere in that sentence.)

This conversation has made me think a lot about how the skills I’m learning in journalism school translate to real-life, unrelated scenarios, and it’s made me realize that I use them every day. Manchester and Europe were no exceptions.

I’m no longer anxious when talking to strangers. I’ve learned how to listen and ask questions, whether it’s with the chatty stranger across from me on the train or a hostel roommate. I was a go-to photographer because I know basic photo composition tricks. I even happily volunteered to put my InDesign experience to use for a pamphlet we made the Mormons we studied all semester. I wasn’t doing any of these things in a journalistic sense, yet I don’t know as if I could have done them — or, at the very least, if I could have done them as well — without my journalistic background.

4. It’s important to hear a different perspective.

People in America generally like America. (“USA! USA!” chants come to mind.) So it’s interesting to be in a place where people don’t necessarily like America, or at least recognize its flaws more openly than many Americans.

It’s the same with other issues. Each country — and, sometimes, even each area of a country — has a different attitude and a different perspective, and I found it very enlightening to think about issues differently, especially in terms of cultural norms. For example, life attitudes and expectations are very different in Eastern European countries than in the U.K. and the U.S., and it made me take a step back and wonder whether the U.S. “rush to be somewhere and do something” is all it’s cracked up to be.

5. Say “yes” more and “no” less (but, obviously, know when to draw the line).

Historically, I’ve liked to think about things and know how they will turn out before I commit to them. (Also, I’ve historically been a bit shy.)

But this semester, I thought, when in Europe, right? I said yes a lot more, and I don’t have any regrets about it.

I tried food that initially didn’t sound appetizing. I was one of the first to speak up in class when asked a question. I traveled alone to countries where I didn’t speak the language. I even climbed a mountain.

As I said in the blog post I just hyperlinked to, this semester has been about making the uncomfortable comfortable, and saying “yes” has helped with that. I’m working to translate this to my American life, and it’s working so far. Even in the past week, I’ve noticed a new general sense of comfort in any situation, which is coupled with a bit of fearlessness. I love it.

6. You should be friends with yourself.

I love people, and that love coupled with my ambition drives my busy schedule. I’m rarely alone and not working on something — and the few times I have been, I’ve hated it.

This semester forced me to befriend myself. It started on my first solo trip, when it sunk in that I didn’t have anyone else with me. I somewhat panicked at first, I admit. But then I realized that I had time to read. I could spend nine hours one day in museums (true story), and no one was there to complain or hurry me along. I could even eat where I wanted to and meet every one of my dietary restrictions.

It was really weird and uncomfortable at first. But it got a lot better, and I think knowing that I can be somewhere alone and have fun has really increased my self-confidence. It got to the point where I had no problems going to a movie alone, or going to a restaurant and reading something on my Kindle while eating. And I had fun.

7. It’s OK to not have a plan.

I like scheduling things far in advance and keeping track of dates from the first time I hear about them. But thanks to traveling here (and in December, when I co-led a trip to New Orleans through Mizzou Alternative Breaks — shoutout to Team Gumby, a wonderful group of people), that’s become less crucial for me.

Yes, it’s important to have housing, transportation and directions, solidified, and I love visiting landmarks, but some of my favorite experiences abroad have been wandering — around canals in Venice, along the water in Dublin, in the woods and around ancient ruins in rural Belgium. At first, I was afraid I’d be bored, but there was so much to see that I didn’t have time to think about being bored. Everything was just so interesting.

8. Everything will work out OK, so don’t waste energy stressing out about it.

This is related to the last point (and my MAB trip — it’s how Team Gumby got its name), but if plans change or things don’t work out as planned, it’s really not worth stressing out about it because it’s going to work out.

Arriving at Milano Centrale an hour late, which was 40 minutes after the last shuttle left for the airport, where we had a 7 a.m. flight? A shuttle bus stayed late, so we didn’t have to catch a sketchy and expensive cab.

Navigating the streets of Zurich late at night sans Wifi/data to get back to our hostel? I was able to find the streetcar line we took to get to our hostel and follow it the 4 miles back.

Not realizing that Charleroi International Airport and Brussels International Airport are not the same, finding out too late that Brussels International Airport is actually Brussels National Airport (what a misnomer, as it had all international flights), and missing my flight from Brussels to Berlin? And then discovering that my hard drive cable stopped working, so my computer wouldn’t turn on and I couldn’t start on my 3,000-word essay due in five days? I found a flight to Berlin that departed nine hours later, and I spent my day using the new pen and notebook I bought at the airport to write my essay. (I used Wifi to access journal articles on my phone.) Still arrived in Berlin that day.

America? No problem after those stories (and more).

9. Liberal arts classes are some of the most important classes.

At the beginning of the semester, I blogged about how I thought this semester would be a much-needed break from journalism. And I was right — I missed it a lot, and I returned having realized that it’s an industry I really like and think is important.

However, I also realized the importance of other kinds of classes — you know, the ones we all roll our eyes about because we have to take them.

I took classes in Manchester’s politics, Middle Eastern studies, and religion and theology departments. I’d never taken classes about any of those. In them, I learned a lot about Islam, how people practice religion in cities (in particular, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — we did a research project on them), and feminist takes on the economy. (I’ve also learned how these ideas and groups of people are portrayed by the media and the criticisms of that coverage.) I’ve been applying what I’ve learned to everyday discussions, and I know I’ll apply it to editing.

I also got to apply knowledge from classes when traveling. For example, I took an honors art-for-journalists class my sophomore year, and I honestly thought I’d never use what I learned again. Boy, was I wrong. As I walked through museums, I recognized works. I knew who created them, a bit about the artist and even what significance that kind of art had. It made my museum experiences even better because I became so excited about these works.

That feeling made me wish I’d paid more attention in history and language classes I’ve taken. Artifacts are a lot cooler in person when you know the significance of them. (But I guess I just had to go here to “get it” — see point No. 2.)

10. Your experience can be as immersive as you make it.

Some people study abroad just to go on vacation. Others go just to party for four months. Still others go strictly for academics. I knew from the start that I wanted to immerse myself in the British culture, so that’s what I did.

I gave up Starbucks for Caffe Nero and Costa, two British chains. I curbed my “y’all” usage. I picked up terms such as “holiday,” “revising” and “cheers.” I even (temporarily) toned down my pastel and brightly colored outfits for darker, more neutral tones. (Also, despite it raining an average of 300 days a year here, I quickly learned that no one wears rain boots.) And even though my “strong” American accent gave me away every time I opened my mouth, I felt a bit more each day that I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb and that I was learning much more about the British culture.

Manchester’s a great place to become immersed, too. I’m so glad I came to Manchester because it’s a very “British” city — even though it’s large, there’s little tourism outside the Old Trafford stadium area. I like to compare London to New York City: It’s wonderful, but it’s not a place I’d ever send anyone if one wanted to know what life in that country was really like. (I’ve explained to several people here that the rest of the U.S. is not like L.A. and New York, and that different parts of the country have different cultures. Same thing in England.)

After living in Manchester and visiting other parts of the U.K., I just didn’t think (the center of) London embodied as much British culture as other cities. Its huge international population and large number of tourist attractions didn’t help with that perception, either. (Don’t get me wrong, though — I do love London!)

11. There is always something to explore.

I’ve always been curious, and being in foreign environments really fueled this curiosity. I saw so many different parts of so many different cities, and I didn’t come close to seeing it all. I didn’t even see everything I wanted to see in Manchester, and I spent most of my semester there.

That’s OK, because there’s always next time.

12. I can get anywhere.

I’m not known for being great with directions. This semester, though, I had to be, and I became great with directions. In fact, I was the one others relied on to get us somewhere.

I’ve learned how to navigate a city without being glued to directions after being there for only a day or two. I’ve also figured out how to get places in cities I haven’t stepped foot in yet. It’s been great.

13. Enjoy the moment.

It’s so hard when your heart and mind are in more than one place. I’m thankful to have had several friends this semester with whom I regularly talked on Facebook. I still got Snapchats and MU emails. It was nice to have those reminders, but it also served as a constant reminder that my state was not permanent, that I would eventually go back.

I also missed things this semester I wish I could have been there for: the #StandWithSam gathering, Tap Day, Relay For Life and Mizzou Alternative Breaks events, just to name a few. Seeing pictures/video and getting messages during and after these events caught me up on what went on, but it definitely wasn’t the same as being there.

However, I tried not to let that get me down. I regularly reminded myself that I was on an incredible European adventure, and that I could catch up on everything when I had some down time. London (and other places) were calling.

14. Studying abroad is an incredible privilege.

I was talking about this with a few friends on one of my last days in Manchester. When you’re studying abroad, and when people around you are also studying abroad or traveling, it’s so easy to forget that this isn’t normal. Not everyone can casually talk about “that time I was in Switzerland” or pull out pictures of them in front of the Coliseum. It’s not a common thing.

MU’s journalism school is an anomaly: About one-third of its students study abroad. (No wonder it always seems like all of my friends are on some cool adventure.) Nationally, about 1 or 2 percent of students study abroad. That’s not a lot of college students.

That’s become even more apparent being back. People I’ve caught up with have said things such as “I wish my major made it easy for me to study abroad!” or “I wish I had the money to do so, but it’s just so expensive.” I’ve realized that I have been very privileged in both senses, which makes me treasure my time abroad even more.

If you have the opportunity to go abroad, do it. It’ll be one of the best things you’ll ever do.

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