A major part of the college experience which is so often thought of as “optional” was a big part of how I actually picked my university. From a very early age I knew that study abroad would be an unparalleled opportunity to live and breathe in another culture, without missing a beat in my college studies. Studying abroad can not just help shape/confirm/change what you want to study in college, but it can truly change your life.
The first part of my 21st year was spent in Rome, Italy, in 2000. I spent a semester there with my entire class. The school I attended for the first two years of my undergraduate career, Thomas More College, made the entire sophomore class leave the beautiful woods of New Hampshire in the Spring Semester. It had been a big selling point for me in coming to the school in the first place.
Despite the fact that I was born in Asia and didn’t move to America until I was 9, at 21 America was very much my home, and being dropped smack into Italy was everything I had hoped and wanted it to be. I got to see hundreds of churches, monuments, and ruins. We observed life in Italy: slow, ancient, new, and impossibly different from the New World we had left.
My roommate and I had made a pact to only use sign language with each other to communicate, forcing us to use the Italian we had learned in preparation for the trip. And it’s true, there’s nothing like immersion to perfect an accent, to learn what textbooks sometimes make impossibly difficult, and to really dig into a culture.
I would find myself on sunny afternoons, doing homework, writing, reading, or sketching (and I was no artist, but the city brought it out of me!). I watched tourists scurry to and fro while I had the satisfaction of knowing I had the city to myself all semester. Classes ended on Fridays by 10am so we could be gone on weekend trips: Assisi, Naples, Florence, Venice, Subiaco, Orvieto… each new place widening my eyes even more than I thought they could be widened.
I came back a hopeless snob about pasta and gelato (though I didn’t eat any for months! Italians really only eat Italian food and after a full semester of it I needed 6 months of other cuisine). I came back determined to return to Europe to explore all that the Old World would offer me. I came back having beheld things I had only read about in the stacks of books from my liberal arts education.
But the subconscious messages – the ones buried deep from that wonderful time – took years to hatch, and it wasn’t until considered reflection many years after my semester abroad that I realized the seeds had been planted first in the city of the seven hills.
As Americans we sometimes cannot escape the fact we come from a very “young” country. Being abroad drove home how important history is for so many others. As I touched walls that had been around at the time of Christ, I got goosebumps. As I stared at the spot where Caesar was stabbed to death I marveled that people still left flowers thousands of years later. As I walked the ancient seaport of Ostia Antica, just a short drive outside of Rome, I was deeply impressed by how much life in ancient times very much was like life today.
The best gateway to another culture and language is through food. You learn that how people cook and what they eat what is really important to them. As I said above, the Italians are hopelessly in love with their own cuisine – but hey, it’s a wonderful cuisine. And as I said, I’m a snob about Italian food now. But not an annoying one, I promise!
Many students who were with me had never been away from home, much less out of the country, for as long as we were gone. There is nothing that can help you appreciate your home, family, or country more than leaving it all behind.
The vast majority of schools have study abroad programs in which tuition is the same or less than a regular semester in the United States. The same can be said for room and board. A lot of schools also make provision for having a wide enough selection of classes so that studying abroad doesn’t take you off a graduation track. Italy was the only option for me – but many schools have options all over the world. If you’re committed to learning a second language, study abroad is the best way to go.
But the most important reason to study abroad? You’ll learn more about yourself. The ancients in Greece and Rome knew this to be one of the most important things any person could accomplish in his/her lifetime. So go abroad. So you can come back wiser, more thoughtful, and more grateful.