What I Learned Studying Abroad (Twice!)

I recently returned from a semester-long program in Costa Rica, where I lived on a chocolate farm with 19 other students and learned about sustainable development in rural communities. Next week, I take off for Nepal, in order to return to a town that I visited on a summer program after my freshman year, and to do research for my senior thesis.

As I’m looking forward to returning to this place that completely threw my life for a loop almost exactly two years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that I’ve learned from studying abroad, twice. Here’s seven quick reflections about things that I’ve learned about myself, and that I want to remember in the future.
That time we stayed in Panama for an extra three days and went to the highest point in the country

The days are long, the months are short

The days drag on. Not in a bad, boring way, but in a wonderful “how did I do all of those things today” kind of way. In the moment, so much happens in every day that each one abroad feels like three at home. When you look back, though, it’s hard to believe how fast the time went by. For me, my entire three months in Costa Rica now feels like a dream, even though every day there seemed to go on forever.

I find this a somewhat difficult phenomenon to deal with at times, because so much was happening all the time. While I felt this way more acutely while studying abroad, I’ve noticed that it happens to some extent any time I travel. Trying not to become overwhelmed by all of the things that could be happening, I have developed a few strategies that help me to keep focused on the experiences in front of me and make the most of my time in a place.

1.  Break the day into smaller pieces. Focus on just the things you want (or need) to do before lunch. Do the same for before dinner. And after dinner, if you aren’t so tired that you immediately fall asleep.

2.  Reflect on all that you’ve done at the end of the day. This could mean keeping a journal (I was required to), or it could just be spending five minutes before bed or early the next morning thinking about all of the different things you’ve been able to see/feel/learn/experience/etc.

If every day feels like three, we might as well make the most of it, right?

Get away from the group!

I always have some of my best experiences when I am wondering around by myself, or with a small group. For me, small means one or maybe two other people. My favorite way to explore a new place is to wander down whichever roads look interesting, following my internal sense of direction and going where my gut takes me.

This past semester, I stayed behind in Panama for three extra days with three friends after the rest of my class returned to Costa Rica (pictured above). All four of us that stayed that weekend found it to be one of the most valuable parts of our semester, in large part because we were able to interact more directly with the local people around us.

On both of my study abroad programs, breaking off from the large group has allowed me to talk to people outside of the other students, and to find new things that I could not necessarily do with a big group. Without the pressure of speaking English around other English-speakers, my solo adventures have allowed me to practice speaking the local language, and to feel comfortable doing so.  They also gave me more confidence that I could travel alone in the future for longer periods of time, since these short excursions only every lasted a few hours.

Try things that you never would at home

I don’t eat fried fish all too often. In Costa Rica, however, fried red snapper was a common meal to have by the beach, and on a few occasions we were able to cook alongside locals and help prepare the meal. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had fried fish served whole, but I certainly had not. Another student in my
Fried red snapper at Doña Christina’s

class mentioned that the fish eyes are one of the best parts of the fish, and I realized that there was no way I would get to eat whole fried fish like this in the USA any time soon. Might as well try the eyes, I thought. They were delicious.

Eating fish eyes may be more adventurous than some people want to get, but I think the idea of testing the edges of your comfort zone is helpful when traveling. While you don’t want to push things too far, it’s important to take advantage of new opportunities and feel out how other people live.

Talk. To. Locals.

I mean beyond talking to them in class or asking questions of a guest lecturer. Try to make friends with people in the area, listen to their stories and tell your own. Rather than relying on information from your guidebook or google, ask people what their favorite places to eat are, or what they like to do for fun when they have free time.  This helps to get a better sense of what life is actually like in the area, rather than just giving you the curated tourist version of the area.

It’s always good to have a deck of cards around

There were many afternoons during the semester where we had free time before or after dinner, and just needed something easy and mindless to fill the time. Cards are a great way to get to know other people, have fun, distract yourself, and learn new games. It’s fun to have a specific game like Cards Against Humanity, but we honestly used just a good old classic deck of 52 cards way more. Cards are also great for when you’re feeling sick, and need a distraction that doesn’t take too much effort.

Image result for card trick gif

Embrace new friendships

Try not to spend all of your time thinking about the people at home. Acknowledging that you miss people is important and healthy, but getting to know your fellow students or locals in the area can help open up new opportunities, and make you feel more connected to where you are.

It’s nice to check in with the people back home every now and then, but the more you spend time catching people up on your adventures, the less time you actually have for those adventures. Like most things in life, finding a balance is essential. 

Take time for yourself

This is probably the most important thing that I learned on both of my study abroad programs. If you’re just going nonstop for a month (or four), you’re going to crash at some point. In order to keep good relationships with the people around you, and in order to stay sane yourself, it’s important to take a few hours here and there to take care of your own needs. For me, this meant sitting along in my room and reading a book, or writing in my journal that was a part of our class requirements. Other times I would go walk in the woods for an hour and come back mentally refreshed. As an introvert, I may have needed more of this time than some other people, but I think this is something that everyone can benefit from. It’s hard to fully take everything in and make the best of your time when you’re crabby or feeling overwhelmed or just sick of people.
Walking on the beach at sunset

What are some things you have learned as you have traveled at home or abroad?

Everyone looks for different things when traveling, and I’m curious what other people learn about themselves. Was there one thing that stuck out as a moment of clarity in your travels? Or has it been a slow, ever-evolving process?