Five years ago this week, I arrived alone in a new city and was greeted by strangers. I had no idea that in getting off that train at Tilburg Centraal, I was stepping into what would form the most memorable chapter of my life to date. In the semester that followed, I would build strong, lasting friendships; fall in love; party to no end; and learn an infinite amount about myself and what I wanted in life. But my experience wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; this is just what it means to study abroad.
If there’s one piece of advice I can press on all young students, it’s to go abroad. Study somewhere new — somewhere that pushes your boundaries, that makes you feel uncomfortable and loved and at home all at the same time. It’s a choice that will mould your lifestyle, your friendships, and your values. Studying abroad will change you for the better.
10 Lessons Learned While Studying Abroad
1. Friendship can Cross Borders: One of the best aspects of studying abroad is the wealth of international friendships that you acquire. Make the effort to keep in touch. The way social media and travel works today, there’s no telling when you’ll have the chance to rekindle these relationships. More importantly, use these connections as a chance to learn about the world. I’ll never forget how the Colombians and Brazilians gave me my first glimpse at Latin dance at Intro Camp!
A year ago today, I was wandering the colorful alleyways of Lisbon. It’s the kind of city in which you can spend the entire day just exploring; there is so much to see and so much going on all the time.
One of the unique features of the city is its tram and funicular system. There are three funiculars in the old town, which lead up to various miradores (lookout points). This funicular is the Gloria Funicular. It began operation in 1885 and links the downtown area with Bairro Alto (an old, but now trendy neighbourhood full of bars and restaurants).
On my trip through Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas, there was a family of four in my tour group. Two boys, age eight and eleven, who spent the afternoon speaking to each other in goofy accents and scrambling up the endless stairs to the Inca ruins. I watched in amusement. Traveling with two young kids through South America – wouldn’t that be a bit much, and aren’t the boys bored of all this history?
It wasn’t until their father started chatting with me that I realized the irony. This family (from England) was only six weeks away from completing a one-year around the world trip. The children were almost the exact same age that my brother and I had been when we finished our six-month Europe trip in the year 2000. Six months which Peter and I also spent putting on silly accents, visiting countless castles and churches and marketplaces and piles of famous, old rocks. Six months spent arguing over washing the dishes and who was taking up too much space on the bed in our campervan.
When I told the father about my family’s trip, he paused on the middle of a ancient Incan staircase and stared at me with a straight face.
“What do you think? Was it worth it?”
“Of course,” I replied, without a second’s thought.
“I know they’re too young to appreciate it now, but I’m hoping by the time they’re your age…”
“You’ll see the effects long before then. My trip was life-changing.”
I grimaced at the trite phrase, but knew no other way to state it. Six months of anything is a long time, but six months of travel? That shapes you.
He glanced at his sons, who had started to argue, and sighed. So, I gave him a better answer.
I told him that, when I returned to Canada for the sixth grade, I chose to do my social studies project on Newgrange, a Neolithic burial mound that is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, but far off most people’s radar. I used my own photos and diary entries in my research.
I told him that I visited Europe two more times before graduating high school, and that, by age 16, I had already begun planning my permanent move to the Netherlands.
I told him that watching my Mom navigate us through France with her language skills has influenced me to study four foreign languages.
I told him that countless nights reading the illustrated children’s Horrible Histories books and days spent inside ancient castles and churches led to a history degree, and that a visit to the Anne Frank House inspired my choice for a Master’s program.
I told him that six months in a campervan made me realize that travel is possible on a budget, and that I’ve foregone owning a car to fund my backpacking trips.
I even told him that lugging my Highland dance costume to compete at Scottish Highland Games as a child has transformed into packing salsa shoes and scouting out international salsa congresses.
When I was done talking, the father’s face broadened. He looked back at his sons, and squeezed their hands tightly.
We climbed back inside the bus and began our journey back through the darkened Sacred Valley to Cusco. In the seats behind me, the two boys began spouting off gruesome facts from Horrible Histories: Incredible Incas as their parents discussed the next day’s itinerary.
I stifled a laugh. The same books, twelve years later.
I stared out the window, lost in thought for the rest of the drive. It was only then, after putting my experiences into words, that I understood just how much that trip had created the person that I am today. I am a wanderer. My life is filled with endless saving and expenses, yet defined by foreign adventures and worldwide friends. Six months in Europe at age ten began a life propelled by travel, and for that, I owe my parents.