Studying Abroad: Don’t Forget Passport or Purpose

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When you think about what it means to study aboard, what comes to mind? Is it the historical sites? Is it the foreign people and their customs? Or is it something else entirely?
For many students, studying abroad is simply a matter of taking the classes and learning in a foreign country. However, I’d be willing to bet that the majority of those who pack their bags and hop on a plane are looking for something more.
According to a new report from the Institute of International Education, more American students are studying abroad than ever before. In fact, nearly 150 percent more students are studying outside of America than a decade earlier.
Hopefully, these eager and adventurous students are venturing out into other parts of the world for reasons that go beyond underage drinking and bar hopping.
For me, studying abroad was all about independence and the overall experience. Sure, there was the academic aspect thrown into the mix, which didn’t hurt, and the amazing nightlife that is completely nonexistent in Irvine. But for the most part, my experience studying abroad was not about learning in a classroom environment. It was about what I could learn outside the classroom and what the country had to offer me.
This past summer, I was in Spain studying at the Complutense University of Madrid and living in the heart of Madrid, known as Sol. Even though I was there for only a short five weeks, those five weeks have had a dramatic and positive impact on my life today. But if someone were to ask me about my experience studying abroad a few months ago, I probably would have just shrugged my shoulders and said, “It was fine.”
So, what was it that triggered this 180-degree turn? Well, though I cannot speak on behalf of the other 241,791 students who went abroad in 2006-07, I can try to make sense of the reasons that triggered this sudden and drastic increase of interest and popularity in studying abroad.
As a humanities major who needed to fulfill that useless language requirement, I was forced to take the inevitable high school-like Spanish courses. Little did I know that those seemingly unnecessary classes would spark my interest in not only studying abroad, but picking up the language as a minor.
During one of my Spanish classes, a representative from Global Student Exchange (GSE) came in to talk about studying abroad and the great opportunities available to us outside the United States. Even though I ended up choosing a different program, I’ll never forget how pumped up and excited I was after that one class.
Another huge factor that pushed me to study abroad was my friends who shared their amazing experiences, proving that the word-of-mouth style of sharing information is still very effective. Before I knew it, it seemed as if just about everyone I knew had either already studied abroad or was in the process of planning an epic journey.
The only problem with this buildup was that by the time I actually arrived in Spain, my expectations for this life-altering expedition were way too high and completely unrealistic. The whole time I was there, I kept thinking that I was missing out on something, like I was out of the loop. Everyone else in my program seemed to be having the time of his or her lives, while I desperately searched for some greater epiphany.
Even after the program was done and it was time to go home, I couldn’t help but wonder why I felt so dissatisfied and so different from everyone else. Even to this day, I still wonder if my life would have been any different if I hadn’t lived in Spain for a month.
It was actually not until a few weeks ago that I finally understood and realized how my residency in Spain truly affected my life. As frightening as it may be, my time abroad helped me to “grow up.” After living in another country where no one speaks your language, it seems that almost anything is possible.
My parents were able to spot my newfound independence and maturity instantly. They, along with my brother and sister, flew to London to meet me after my program ended. They were absolutely shocked when they saw their once direction-challenged daughter navigating the family through the streets and subways of London.
Studying abroad isn’t something that should be taken lightly, and with the new record number of students participating in this once-in-a-lifetime experience, it would almost seem like that is exactly what’s happening.
Even if that’s the case and those students are just traveling on a whim, it’s amazing that this great influx is full of passionate and driven young individuals daring enough to live in a foreign country. I absolutely encourage and applaud it. But at the same time, before you grab your passport and trek across an ocean, I think it is equally if not more important that you not only have a real and meaningful purpose as to why you are going, but also that you try to get as much out of it as you possibly can. Trust me, it’ll be much more worthwhile in the end.

Kristie Kang is a fourth-year English major. She can be reached at kangkm@uci.edu.

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