The Problem with “Study Abroad”

It almost seems silly that I would write a blog post on what’s wrong with the idea of studying abroad when I’m doing just that at this time. However, it’s important to challenge the decisions that we make and truly understand why we decide to do things like studying abroad for a period of time.

Of course, I could go on and on about the benefits of taking time out of your normal, comfortable lives and taking a fat leap of faith into this terrifying thing called The Unknown, which comes in the form of hopping on a plane and committing to living in a foreign place for an extended period of time. There’s just something about physically removing and relocating yourself that allows for growth, change, reflection, and exploration–in every facet of the word. None could deny the existence of how much can be learned while outside of one’s comfort zone – it’s ridiculous for anyone to think that it wouldn’t.

Now, with that being said, there’s a lot that’s wrong with studying abroad. Rather, there’s a lot wrong about how people view study abroad programs. Here are 3 things that studying abroad is not:

1. It is not a vacation.

Some of the most beautiful, mind-blowing, magnificent places that I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting have been when I was participating in a study abroad program. There’s no doubt that other areas of the world contain glimpses of Glory that would not have been witnessed without traveling there. And of course, by seeing and experiencing the beauty that’s out there, one would be crazy not to be inclined to travel to go see more.

However, that is not the purpose of study abroad. If my only purpose in going to foreign countries is for the Instagram posts and to be able to check off a bucket list, I’m doing something wrong – both in my parent’s bank account and in my perspective of what I’m doing. Similarly, if other people perceive my semesters abroad as a way to “beat the system” of college, using my status as a university student as a means to only have fun in other countries, that’s just as much of a lie. Yes, I am taking a full schedule of classes. Yes, I am taking an internship for credit. Yes, I am endlessly surrounded by Spanish to a degree that it makes my mind turn into jello (#cultureshock). And yes, I go on fun adventures like climbing volcanoes and going to the jungle. As un-academic as those adventures may seem, they actually are academic in how they encourage and cultivate learning.

2. It is not an alternate reality.

It’s not crazy to assume that your lifestyle will change when you’re in a different culture. Anyone studying abroad could attest that being at the mercy of culture shock can make them say and do some crazy things. This does not mean that how you’re feeling is not valid. How you feel about the people that you’re with, or the situations that are waiting for you back home, are still real despite the change in how you may be reacting to them in this particular context. Study abroad is very much the real world, and it’s important that everybody understand this: what happens when someone studies cross-culturally is not their Get-Out-Of-Reality Card. What happened pre-study abroad carries into the time spent abroad, and most importantly, into the period of returning home. You cannot escape your problems while traveling even if you’re not physically present with them.

3. It is not easy.

This somewhat relates to my first point that study abroad is not a vacation in the sense that committing to a semester in a different country will not be a walk in the park. Chances are, there will be a language barrier, which greatly inhibits your ability to communicate like a normal-functioning human being. If not that, the culture differences will eventually catch up and kick you right in the ass, sending you to this fantasy land where you dream of venti iced caramel macchiatos from Starbucks and driving your own car with traffic rules that you actually understand. Public transportation is literally a battle to use – elbows are thrown around like nobody’s business, and it seems like everybody and their mother is wanting to hop on the trolley at the exact time that you need to be somewhere. In all reality, the culture is probably not that preposterous to the extent that it’s impossible to assimilate; it’s just different. And as adaptable as you think you are, there will be moments where studying abroad may seem like the most difficult thing you’ve ever chosen to do. The struggle is real; don’t ever put yourself down for being discouraged that living in a different country wasn’t as stress-free as you thought it would be.

I know that I’ve been guilty of falling for these three lies, separately or combined. But what I consistently hold true through the moments of my study abroad experience, both positive and negative, is that I am becoming a better person. May this be a necessary reminder for those who are here in Ecuador with me now, as well as for those studying elsewhere or even planning on studying abroad in the future, that going overseas is a huge commitment – a difficult one at times, but always worth it in the end.

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