Why I Studied Abroad

This piece was written a year ago for a global study scholarship related to my Fall 2016 semester abroad. For some reason I never published it, but here you go. It’s interesting to think about all that’s happened and how much has changed since then.

Though I am studying in Vienna, Austria — which was my first choice location for my program — the city itself is less important in my rationalization of studying abroad than the concept of studying abroad and the opportunity to be anywhere but home. For me, it is more about the adventure of exploring a foreign place than the place itself.

There are plenty of reasons why I want to study abroad in the fall, or rather in general. It has been a goal of mine to travel internationally since I was young, and as a child, I dreamed of backpacking across continents, gorging myself with questionable street food, shopping in tiny boutiques, and forging close friendships with interesting people from all over the world. The simplest and first reason is wanderlust, an unwavering desire to explore and discover.

I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, new experiences, and challenges to my ways of thinking, and though the Internet makes it easy to connect, explore, and discover from the comfort of one’s couch, nothing beats physical travel and real-life exposure. I want to actually see, touch, smell, taste, hear, and feel the differences of this new place, not vicariously through some screen. It is exhilarating just thinking of the possibilities yet to come. Since I have hardly traveled throughout my life thus far, the thought of immersing myself in anything non-Californian fills me with joy and anticipation.

When it comes to rationalizing my plan to go abroad, wanderlust would be a pull factor, something drawing me towards this idea and influencing my choice to go. Visualizing it, the reason originates outside of my environment and latches onto my innate curiosity to pull me towards “there.” There are also push factors, reasons coming from the internal, known, and comfortable “here” that push me away from home. Things like sameness, ambition, and pride are push factors.

Any person who has lived their entire life in one place is going to get restless. Even if it is comforting to greet the same neighbor, buy the same milk, and mow the same lawn every day, a life of sameness quickly becomes monotony. Though the people and culture can change over time, geographical stagnation stunts growth and discovery. I fear that someday I will have a life crisis, drop everything, and leave just because I want to get out. California may be big, diverse, and dynamic, but I’m going to go stir crazy someday. As ironic and cliché as it sounds, if I could have one thing be consistent in my life, it would be change. New is good, different is good, change is good. I want to travel because I am too comfortable at home and at school. In order to grow and learn, I must venture out of my comfort zone both physically and mentally. Living in a foreign country for four months to study one of my passions is the perfect balance of physical, mental, emotional, social, and academic challenges.

As much as I would like to say I’m going for the cultural learning and appreciation, I really am much more selfish. A key reason — and push factor — for me to study abroad is to see if I’m actually as independent, resourceful, and brave as I like to say I am. I enjoy doing things on my own, figure things out by myself, and lead, not follow. People associate me with poise and self-confidence, but truthfully, I’m scared. Terrified actually. It may not be my first time living alone and far away from home, but to reside in an entirely different country — a different continent — is an exhilarating challenge. I need to prove to myself that language barriers, cultural differences, and time zones are not debilitating obstacles but stepping stones for growth and development. Change breeds evolution, and I am ready to level up, knowing that my fear is okay, conquerable, and beneficial.

A lot of people rationalize study abroad and global travel as opportunities to learn about other cultures and become more worldly. They say, “I want to be immersed in European culture,” or “I want to understand Asian perspectives,” or “I’m going to gain a global mindset.” What does that last one even mean anyway?

It is a common misconception that spending a measly four months in another country can give a person cultural understanding of a place, especially since travelers are hardly experiencing culture itself but really just the byproducts: food, dress, art, music, media, architecture, language, etc. We are merely consumers of products and ideas manifested from contexts and origins we can never truly understand. Culture is not something you can gift wrap and FedEx back to your parents; it is not even something you can eat at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a quaint village in the countryside. It is something felt and understood, something that creates products, ideas, and experiences but is also created by these things as well.

As travelers, we cannot even begin to understand or become part of foreign cultures unless we were to live in them for many years, become totally immersed in the thinking of the place, and contribute back to society while using that culture as the context for the creations made. So to say that study abroad is a chance to understand and integrate into foreign cultures is extremely pretentious, demeaning, and lazy. We cannot give back, we cannot produce. We can only consume those culturally specific products and ideas in order to gain exposure and increase our individual awareness of other mindsets, which at least makes compassion, empathy, and communication easier. However, we will never fully understand.

I am not going to Austria in an attempt to understand Austrian culture; I am going to understand myself. Like the Cornsweet illusion, when people are put in different contexts they appear and even become different versions of themselves. I want to know who “Maitlyn in Austria” and “Maitlyn the independent traveler” are. In order to reach a better place of awareness and appreciation of other people’s differences, I need to first be exposed to these differences, observe how they affect me, and understand my interpretations and behaviors in relation to them. Though individuality and uniqueness are highly promoted, in actuality people are very similar (and very intolerant), so if I can achieve more acute self-awareness regarding interactions with diverse peoples it will be easier to understand how others feel and think in these situations. And if I can empathize with others, I can better appeal to them, influence them, and lead them.

It all comes back to marketing. I am literally learning marketing by taking my upper division courses in Vienna, but ultimately my personal struggles, experiences, and insights will be more valuable to my development as a decent human being.


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