There’s a stark reality underneath the layers of all the newness that comes with study abroad (new friends, new “family,” new places). The reality is that you have transported yourself into to a completely other culture that is a whole 12 hour flight away from your home. An entire different set of humans living their lives here just as you had been living yours. They are speaking a different language and eating different foods. They shop at stores you’ve never heard of and at weird times of the day. You are surrounded by the unfamiliar and in this reality you are alone.
I don’t want this to sound like a message of fear. I want to explain that this sense of alone-ness can be your greatest friend. You create your own reality. Maybe at home, your reality was influenced by your parents or things your friends shared with you, whether it be interests, activities, ideas. Study abroad is your chance to really think about what you’d like your reality to be about and go ahead and create it.
Last weekend’s circumstances called for me to venture solo. My study abroad program had a field trip to Santigo to visit a few historically important sites and I decided instead of taking the bus back that evening with the group, I would spend the night at a hostel.
After navigating the metro system, I checked into my hostel. I was informed it was the largest hostel in Chile. While the man at the front desk was showing me around the hostel I experienced something like deja vu. The place felt like something that had appeared in a childhood dream. It had many staircases and hallways and a bohemian vibe. A kitchen with cooking things waiting to be discovered in the many cabinets. If you walked towards the center of the hostel you’d find yourself in an open air patio that continues on to the dining area. What looked like a modest, maybe shabby old brick building from the outside felt like a mansion of travelers from foreign lands on the inside.
After buying groceries, I spent a while under a tree in the park eating gummy worms and people watching. Perfect. I cooked dinner, a stir fry of broccoli, green onions, and bean sprouts while dancing around the other guests cooking their meals in the kitchen. We swapped a little Spanish as they monitored their pasta. Cooking dinner was very exciting because after three months of eating food cooked for me by my host family, it feels nourishing to cook for myself.
I felt like a queen.
I ate dinner with a table of girls I had never met, all from different countries all over the world. We talked and laughed and decided to find a place to dance that evening and went out together. We bonded over feelings of displacement and being inept at dancing the salsa.
In the morning the hostel had a nice breakfast included in the price of my stay so I ate as many pieces of bread as possible in true Chilean fashion, slathered in caramel-ly manjar* and consumed several cups of REAL coffee.** Fuel for my day. I planned to visit two art museums: Museo de Bellas Artes and Museo de Arte Conteporaneo.
*Manjar is similar to dulce de leche or a caramel-like spread. It bears resemblance to the caramel frequently used for caramel apples. However, Chileans put it on anything possible, like cakes, candy, donuts, and of course toasted bread for breakfast.
**It is rare to find real coffee here in Chile. If you order it in a restaurant or cafe, you will frequently receive a mug of hot water and packet of instant coffee powder on the side.
I had selected this hostel because of its walking distance to the art museums. I walked in the general direction of the museums and trusted my instincts. I stumbled upon a record sale and fingered through vinyls of many Chilean bands that I was ecstatic to recognize and had to restrain myself from spending all of my pesos.
I wandered through a flea market and craft vendors selling beautiful handmade clothing and jewelry. I walked through a cobblestone street surrounded by artsy cafes and bars. Eventually I found the art museums (free admission!) and spent several hours wandering around the two galleries. How fun it is to be on the other side of the earth and still be doing things you would do in your home town.
I got very hungry and decided to try the tiny cafe inside of the museum and was served an awesome meal of salad, soup, and spinach lasagna. The two cafe workers were about my age and had fantastic taste in music and when I paid for my meal we chatted about their great tunes.
I caught my bus back to Vina del Mar and was back home.
The point of this is that being alone is good for you. It develops self awareness, forces you to face your reality, and allows you to credit yourself with confidence. Embrace the uncomfortable zones of your identity. Pretend you are like a vegetable on a vine that needs rotation so that each side can face the sun. You may feel like a tree without roots for awhile, but by becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable you can learn a lot.
It’s hard to believe my semester here is coming to a close. In exactly nine days, I’ll be back home in the United States working my summer job, preparing for the LSAT and senior year, and undoubtedly missing Athens. Thankfully though, it’s not yet time for me to say a somber goodbye to this wonderful country I’ve come to love and call home. Before that came my last adventure during spring break.
My friend Alex and I, like nearly everyone else in the College Year in Athens program, decided to take advantage of the eleven day Easter break we were given to travel around Europe and see some of the Greek islands. We first visited a close friend of mine studying abroad in Rome, where she showed us the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and more. By more, I mean gelato. So. Much. Gelato. I regret nothing. I have wanted to go to Italy ever since I was a little girl, and it was everything I imagined and more. A bustling city with breathtaking ruins popping up ever so often, it’s reminiscent in many ways of Athens. We took a day trip to Florence where we saw the Duomo, learned how to haggle in the outdoor leather market (I was pretty good at negotiating, surprisingly enough), and ate the most amazing clam pasta ever.
After leaving Italy, Alex and I spent a few days on Santorini Island, arguably one of the most beautiful islands of Greece. We stayed in Thira, close to the sea overlooking the rocky cliffs that drop to the ocean, and even visited the black sand beach in Perissa, which was unlike any beach I’d ever seen before. From there we took a ferry boat to Mykonos, where we stayed for 3 days in an Air BnB with two other friends for Easter. It’s true what’s often said about Mediterranean waters–it’s the clearest blue you will ever see. The beach near our Air BnB was phenomenal, and almost empty because we arrived just before tourist season began. On Easter our host Sissy invited us to have lunch with her family, and it was absolutely amazing! The hospitality and kindness of Greek people never ceases to amaze me.
Now it’s back to reality. Final exams start this week, and the Greek language exam is my first. Of course, Greek is also the test I’m most worried about, but I’ve been studying non-stop, so hopefully an A is in my future! Besides that I have a philosophy paper, Greek myth and religion paper, and two essays for my Greek political science class to write. Stress is very much a state of being at the moment, but I’m staying motivated to finish this semester out with a strong GPA. Sleep can be caught up on later! The next time I’ll be writing for this blog will be from home, and there will probably be tears involved. So for now I’m going to tackle my exams and appreciate my last week in Greece as much as possible!
My study abroad experience in Morocco has made me more confident than ever that I want to pursue a profession in journalism. Meeting professional journalists, being put in positions as real journalists and not students, and being able to go after stories that we had some freedom with gave me the chance to see what my life might be like as a journalist. I want to be the best journalist I can be, and there are some things I have learned I need to improve on. I really need to buckle down with my language skills, especially Arabic. Struggling to communicate with people to have more productive interviews has motivated me to do much more to master Arabic and other languages as well.
At this point, I am still unsure if I will go to graduate school. I am getting mixed advice from my teachers and mentors. On the one hand, if I were to get into a graduate program at a school like Columbia Journalism School, or Berkeley, then that would be clearly beneficial. However, the advice I have been given recently has been more along the lines of simply going into the workforce. This, my advisors say, gives me the most opportunity to learn true field reporting skills that are not always learned in grad school.
What has changed is what I plan to pursue after I graduate. I am very interested now in applying for scholarships like Fulbright to study post-colonial effects on Southern Italy, or a comparative study between Mediterranean countries. The more time I spend here in Morocco, the more I realize how important it is to promote the history of my heritage’s specific area, or of the greater Mediterranean area as a whole.
There was a point where I was on a train from Rabat to Marrakesh where we passed some very rural and poor areas, and I could not help but think of Mezzogiorno, the Southern region of Italy. (I apologize that I keep harping on this, but the awareness that I have gained from studying abroad in Morocco has had a fairly profound impact on how I see myself, the area around me, and my family’s Italian roots.) Looking at the landscape and the ocean in the distance, it just looked so familiar. Morocco and the Mezzogiorno have been victims to similar kinds of destruction. As I am Neapolitan, I feel like it is not only my place, but my duty to ensure my country is given the proper respect and opportunity it deserves. My ancestors fought and gave their lives to defend our sovereignty and dignity, and were defeated. I feel like it is my responsibility to carry on their fight in a way that I can: through journalism. I would do that by exposing the effects colonization still has on the people of the Mezzogiorno through research and field work. If I can, in addition to that, bring the same awareness I now have of the region to other people in the region, I would feel I have completed something very important.
My professional goals have not changed, but have felt more solid and confident. I think my academic goals have changed to reflect my greater awareness of a history and culture that I am a part of, something I am not sure would have happened to the extent that it has, had I not studied abroad in Morocco. And for that, I have one more thing to be grateful for.
Making volunteer work part of your study abroad experience is a great opportunity to learn more about the culture you are living in. It allows you to see the country through a different lens that you don’t get to see when traveling as a tourist. It gives you the opportunity to understand the struggles that the country faces and how you can help with them.
I have had the opportunity to participate in a couple of volunteer activities mostly geared towards environmental conservation and farming, since that is related to my field of study. They were enriching experiences that made me more in touch with Thailand. Some of them touched me so much and expanded my knowledge of many of the struggles that people face that we never hear about or learn in a classroom. It also has given me the chance to then share what I learned with others through things like social media.
One of the experiences that really opened my eyes was when I got the opportunity to volunteer in an elephant sanctuary where they rescue elephants that are abused and exploited in rides and shows for tourists. For many tourists that come to Thailand, riding an elephant is on their top to do list, or going to shows where these elephants perform. What they don’t think about is the abuse that these animals go through to learn these tricks and the pain they have to go through when people ride them. I cried so much when I was learning about this and I hope that people educate themselves and instead of riding elephants, choose to instead learn about the many other ways they can connect with beautiful creatures.
As an exchange student looking for volunteer opportunities, I found that the biggest challenges are the language barrier and the flexibility of the programs. The language barrier is something that is very difficult to work around, especially when you arrive in a country without knowing any of the language like I did. While there are many volunteer opportunities for foreigners, the majority revolve around teaching English to Thai people. Teaching English is a great way to give back to the community since this is a skill that is very useful for the people of Thailand, but if you are not a native English speaker (like me) it is difficult and requires a very strong commitment. This also brings me to my other piece of advice which is understanding the importance of flexibility. While studying abroad I believe that your utmost priority is to study, followed by learning from your travels and involvement in your community. What I found was that many volunteer programs in Thailand ask for a lot of time from their volunteers, something that is very difficult as a student since you can’t skip class. I understand the need for long-term volunteers because the organizations need responsible people who they can regularly count on to expand their mission. But as an exchange student this is not always possible.
To overcome this, I recommend talking to your host university about potential places you could volunteer as a student. This way you overcome the language barrier, since the host university has connections with different people and they can help you visit multiple organizations to learn more about different issues and needs in your host country. This method worked well for me, and I was blessed by the fact that the International Office of our university organizes entire trips for international students to volunteer and learn about the issues of the country, something that I hope many other universities implement and that I will suggest to my own university back home.
Another thing that I wish I thought about more before coming here is the opportunity to participate in an internship as a volunteer. Since paid internships are rare and tricky with student visas, volunteer internships are a great way to build up your professional resume while simultaneously volunteering in an area of your choice. I can imagine this is a great way to earn credit while abroad, and it also allows you to have a set time during the week to work on something you are passionate about.
Apart from volunteering I strongly recommend learning about the minorities in your host country because you will learn a great deal about situations you probably didn’t know existed. I had the opportunity to visit a community center and mosque for Thai Muslims, the biggest minority in Thailand, and learned so many things I was very ignorant about before. One thing that really impacted me was learning how Thailand is affected by the global refugee crisis, in addition to the European and Middle Eastern countries you hear about in the news. Many Burmese and Chinese Muslims leave their country and come to Thailand to escape persecution from their governments and that is something I was very ignorant about before and glad I could learn about.
It doesn’t matter what kind of volunteering you choose to get involved in. Every kind action matters and impacts at least one person. When you see the results of your efforts, it fills you with great pride and a deeper connection with your surroundings. After our final exams I will have some time before leaving Thailand, and I look forward to dedicating that time to visiting and volunteering at local farms for a couple of weeks. As I begin packing to return to Puerto Rico, I will also remember to donate everything I can’t take back home with me in my luggage.
You hear a lot about culture shock when preparing to go abroad. Ranging from a short trip to a permanent move, culture shock is something that all travelers will experience at some point. Studying abroad is probably one of the most direct ways to encounter culture shock in my opinion, and I’ve definitely had my fair share of it since going abroad for the first time five years ago while I was in high school.
I find myself comparing my bouts with culture shock here in Japan to my high school experience in Thailand, and while there are quite a few similarities there are also quite a few differences. For one, I feel that when I lived with a host family in Thailand I had to confront my language inability and misunderstandings of the culture much more quickly than I’ve had to do here, living in an apartment. Also, having studied abroad before gave me a lot more tools to prepare for the first initial lows of culture shock and how to get myself through that phase with more ease. However even with my previous knowledge and preparations that I tried to make for this experience in Japan, I still found myself getting hit extremely hard with homesickness, something I still struggle with with only approximately ninety days left of my exchange.
However at this point I’m getting into the more exciting phase of my study abroad experience by starting to accept the cultural differences that I’ve learned here and starting to see Japan as not just my home, but a place where I understand the culture and am starting to be able to say that I’m a part of – even if it’s not in the traditional way. Just a couple days ago, I was showing some of my roommate’s friends from Canada around Tokyo and I realized that I’m much more integrated into the culture than I see myself sometimes. To further elaborate, this week in Japan is a celebration called “Golden Week” which is basically a term that encompasses several holidays that all happen within a very short time span. So I suggested to my roommate’s friends that we go to Meiji Jingu to see if there were any activities going on at the shrine. Sure enough, there were a ton of things to see — several wedding processions, traditional performances, and markets. I found that I was able to answer all the questions asked of me. I could explain why something was happening a certain way or translate what was being said. It felt, in a way, that I was explaining things that happen in the culture that I’m in and apart of, even though I’m not Japanese and it’s not my nation’s history, but just because I’ve gotten so used to being here and have started to get a deeper connection to the people around me.
With only ninety days left of my time in Tokyo, I feel quite conflicted about the idea of going back to the United States. On one hand, I’m excited to be returning to see my friends and family and to start back with my traditional studies. But I still feel like I haven’t had enough time here to fully grasp my surroundings and the language and cultural understanding that I was desiring before setting out on this experience. I think I’m starting to realize that maybe that’s one of the saddest things about studying abroad. It’s such a rare occurrence to be able to live in a different country in the way that you do when you’re studying abroad, and in the end it feels like the time goes too fast. Yet in the end, even if you do feel sad, you would never change the experience for anything else in the world. In my opinion, the ultimate bittersweet moment.