Study Abroad: Not what I expected

Everyone’s experiences are different, some more challenging than others

I flipped through pages of the black spiral notebook I used while in Chile, fingers brushing over hastily scrawled notes written in anticipation of upcoming travels. I tore out randomized papers from the “Cultura Chilena” (Chilean Culture) Spanish class I took while I was there and stashed them in a blue folder to submit to my Spanish adviser at NDSU.

Last Wednesday at 11:30 I walked into her office and plopped down in a chair, ready to explain the class units and review essays and exams so she could determine if it would fulfill the requirements for my minor. After a coursework discussion that took less than five minutes, our conversation wandered to my experiences in Chile.

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Chillin’ in Santiago

When people ask me if studying abroad was the time of my life, I’ve always hesitated.

“It was quite the learning experience!” I respond honestly.

So as I sat in my adviser’s office, staring at a shelf of colorful Spanish textbooks and other resources, I wondered if she would fault me for admitting that studying abroad wasn’t what I expected – it hadn’t been the walk in the park I anticipated.

When you see photos on Facebook or ask people about their study abroad experiences, they paint a rosy picture of the good times. The melding of cultures between new friends, hiking in faraway lands, chocolate pastries consumed with steaming coffee in quaint town squares.

What you don’t often hear about are the challenges, the hard times, the struggles. Not necessarily from homesickness, but from everyday life roadblocks that are amplified by language and cultural differences.

No one tells you that for the first several weeks you’ll be living in a constant state of confusion, searching for a balance between getting to know your host family, meeting and partying with friends, going to class, doing homework and planning travels. Folks back home send you off with well-wishes and a pat on the back, telling you to be careful and have a good time, never any mention about potential schemes to steal your money or take advantage of you.

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In a boat on my way to visit the Humboldt Penguin Reserve… before getting sea sick.

Throughout the span of four months in Chile, I lost a lot of money (around $600!) getting scammed by a taxi in a situation that could have been avoidable, and the unnecessary replacement of the hard drive on my computer because a crooked techy knew I wasn’t knowledgeable about my laptop or advanced enough in my Spanish vocabulary to argue with his diagnosis. And it’s never easy being caught in the midst of host family drama, fueled by underlying personal issues and financial worries. The fact of the matter is not all families host students for the cultural value. Sometimes you’re just a paycheck, but I didn’t know that.

I’d be a fool to overlook all the positive, because there were incredible times. Like seeing the vivid fall leaves and snowy mountains while hiking Patagonia, running through frigid salt lakes in the Atacama Desert. And then there was working as press at a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” race – the sole young woman in a sea of men wielding cameras, throwing myself into conversations and explaining my purpose with professionalism in my second language. One of the most empowering moments of my life.

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Horseback riding in the mountains with my friend Andres and my mom the day before I left made for the perfect ending.

I guess I expected my adviser to be disappointed that my time abroad wasn’t perfect and that I harbored a tiny seed of bitterness for what I could have done or should have known better. What I didn’t expect was that she wasn’t at all surprised by the challenges I faced. She empathized and shared her own experiences from studying abroad – some far more negative than mine. What she left me with is that even the negative holds positive value. Initially it may hurt, but looking back when times have changed and life lends you an easier spot, you can relish the tough memories from a philosophical perspective.

I remember walking down one of the streets of Viña del Mar one day during the laptop ordeal (which drug out for two weeks), and wondering what my purpose was at that very moment. Why had God wanted me to come here? What can I glean from this? How can I make it positive? What lessons should I take away? God has a plan for us at every step of our journey.

Everyone is different in the way they manage their thoughts and feelings, but for me talking helps to compartmentalize my thoughts and minimize anxieties tied to them. Before I left my adviser’s office, I shrugged off the weight of disillusionment that had stuck with me since leaving Chile.

“I gained everything from it that I had hoped,” I said, savoring the words as they came out.

And it’s true. If you ask me if studying abroad was the time of my life, I’m going to tell you that collectively, it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had. But it was without a doubt the most valuable experience.

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