Hong Kong; a place where I, Brianna Jeanette Diaz, am being recreated through the challenges I face in a drastically unfamiliar environment. I have created three crucial goals during my time abroad to maximize my experience and take in knowledge and growth. With my passions for fitness, and my enthusiasm to learn more about the business culture, Hong Kong, with its vibrant and bustling business environment, fit my passions, dreams, and desires. To the beginning of a whole new outlook on life!
One thing that’s amazing about coming from the U.S. to Europe to study is the immense difference in spatial recognition you recognize almost immediately after entering Europe. You’ll notice that the little map on the screen in front of your seat on the plane flies from one country to the next in what seems like 30-60 minutes (yes, that short) and the lines that you see on that map don’t recognize state or provincial borders but rather whole nations. It blows me away that nations can be so tightly packed together and yet so vastly different.
Regions of the U.S. certainly have their own gross differences – the busy pace of the coasts versus the slow lifestyles of the Midwest and South, the drastic differences of English accents across regions (Southern drawl, New England accent, Cali slang, Midwestern accent, etc.), and even the hospitality of the states bathed in sunshine (the South and the West) versus the more distant demeanor of those of us in the North/East. (New Yorkers aren’t mean! We’re just cold and busy!) But ultimately, traveling the U.S. is still exploring American turf. You’re under the same federal jurisdictions, you share the language, and most likely you’ll be at least somewhat familiar with the culture.
Not in Europe. It’s fascinating to live on a continent where driving an hour and a half to the Northeast, I’d be met with Belgian German. An hour after, we encounter Germany. Driving east would lead you to the romantic world of Italy, and even further east and you’re in Eastern Europe, a very different place pretty separated from Western Europe in terms of culture and inclusion in the international realm.
Recently I spent spring break traveling with a bunch of people including my friend from New York, friends from my study abroad program, and some of their friends. We went to Cologne, made a little stop in my hometown in Germany, and then flew to Rome.
It’s fair to say one of the things all of us international students studying abroad in Europe look forward to is traveling. I mean, why wouldn’t we? We were all bold enough to leave our homes, probably for a place with a new language, and a very different culture… so why not take it further? This blog post is based solely on my personal travel experiences, and I hope the advice in it is helpful to those of you who are already travelers or look forward to studying abroad. Of all the traveling I’ve done, traveling as a student abroad has been some of the most enlightening and interesting experiences I’ve had, and along the way I’ve picked up many tips and tricks that I hope will make traveling a breeze.
10 Do’s and Don’ts of Studying Abroad:
- Do plan ahead. See what your cheapest travel options are, and compare prices between companies. Goeuro.com is great for comparisons, but make sure to also look into local car-sharing services (like BlaBlaCar here in France) as well as cheap bus options (like Flixbus, a personal favorite) and airlines (Ryanair is amazing in Europe).
- Don’t go crazy trying to plan all the details ahead of time. Give yourself extra wiggle room while traveling. You’ll never know when you (and maybe your friends) want to stop for something to eat. You also don’t want to try to buy tickets for everything you’d like to see in advance because it could be that you all decide to wander around instead of sticking to a schedule, and you don’t want to be anyone’s mom pressing them for time.
- Do spend some time alone. I know you’ll be excited to travel with old or new friends, and you might feel safer in a group or with friends, but trust me – this will be necessary to balance your moods and process all the new things you’ll be encountering. I find that most people who travel together (especially new friends) sometimes squabble over small details with people they really like, even over really small things! Most people can get over that, but I find that spending time alone like having breakfast by yourself at the hostel or taking a safe walk in the middle of a large public park in the afternoon can clear your mind tremendously and take the edge off being surrounded by people with their own ideas and agendas the entire time you’re abroad. Make sure to remember to prioritize some self-love and self-care.
- DON’T PACK EXCESSIVELY. I cannot stress this point enough, and it really should be the first point. For cheap flights in Europe, you pay for everything, including checked luggage. That means as a financially-strained student, your best bet is a carry-on full of re-wearable (and comfortable) clothing, one pair of shoes, only the essential toiletries, and 100 mL bottles of any liquids you may need. Save room in your luggage for souvenirs and things to bring back. You’ll definitely thank yourself later! Over-packing isn’t just impractical and annoying, but can actually hurt your experience. For example, in Rome, we found ourselves walking for hours every day because there happened to be a taxi strike! Now, please don’t let this happen to you. Me and my good friend were miserable walking around Rome, trying to find a cab, holding our huge carry-ons. Just remember, anything you might find yourself needing you can buy when you get there. Anything you can’t is probably not a part of this society and you won’t need it to survive. Take the leap of faith and enjoy the raw experience for what it is.
- Do try and befriend locals! The best way to get to a know a place is through its people. Not only will they be able to help you with the practicalities of their home but they will have the best insight on what to see, do, and eat. Plus, you may end up with a new life-long friend.
- Don’t eat at super touristy places, at least not all the time. I get it, you’re hungry. You’ve been walking all day and you see a gimmick food place really near to the last tourist destination you went to. If you can, try to look up places with good ratings or get recommendations ahead of time. I know this is a little bit more work, but it’s always worth it. Those of us coming from big cities know very well that tourist areas are over-priced, and often offer the worst quality of foods that the city has to offer. At first, I thought Rome’s food was waaaay overrated. I was disappointed with the Italian culinary experience I had been fantasizing about for years. It wasn’t until my Roman friends reached out to me on Facebook and gave me recommendations, or when I started looking up popular restaurants on Google, that I found myself in food wonderland. However, keep in mind that if you need something quick and small to keep you going, you don’t have to avoid all the tourist spots forever. Just try not to eat there for all three meals, all the days you’re there!
- Do something every day. There’s no point in wasting time, money, and energy traveling to a new spot just to hang out in the Airbnb, hostel, or hotel. If your friends are feeling lazy, suggest finding a new eatery or a park where you all can lounge. If no one wants to leave, go do something yourself. Being somewhere new is exciting, but if you haven’t been anywhere, what is exciting except for the actual transit?
- Don’t carry tons of cash at once. You might think that cash is practical, in case of an emergency and when you’re going out. You’re not wrong. In this case, I support carrying some cash on you at all times (I myself like to keep 30 euros on hand at all times – enough for a taxi ride home in an emergency). But some folks carry too much, and there are a couple of reasons I advise you all not to do this. The first is that if something happens (which I doubt it will!), you don’t want to lose all the money you have. The second is that carrying cash encourages you to spend more (at least according to most people), and if you’re traveling on a student’s budget you might not necessarily want to do that. As a bonus, most places will accept international bank cards. Stay safe, stay practical, stay financially responsible.
- Do try to supplement your education with some outside learning. I know, I know. I can practically hear the nerd jokes now. But think about it. Schools and classrooms prepare you practically all of your life to learn about the world in practical ways. For me, my high school Greek, Roman, and world history lessons flooded back as I explored ancient sites in Rome we used to discuss. Seeing these places brought real perspective to some of these lessons, and let me imagine history in a deeper context. Learning about different peoples’ culture allows you to critique the world of politics, pop culture, and social norms from broad viewpoints. Understanding what is happening in places you visit and what they’ve overcome as a state or a city or province is critical to your experience there, and the world we live in that is constantly changing around us. Hearing the German perspective on American politics, after beginning to understand the French perspective, helps me understand our own impact around the world as well as how to embrace the differences in our cultures. Some folks in the world never get to experience the intensity of formal education that we as college students get to, and learning practically is how they become informed adults. Even when we finish our education, we never stop learning, so start learning practically now. You will become a better, well-rounded person, and no one can ever fault you for your openness to learn and your expanding depth of knowledge.
- Don’t forget to LIVE YOUR LIFE. Breathe, and take it all in. Try new things, especially things you wouldn’t back home. Eat something your friends stare at you slack-jawed for trying. Attempt to speak the languages in the first words or sentences you might’ve picked up. Learn the culture by embracing it. Prepare yourself to be changed by your experiences. Try to leave all your preconceptions at the door. If you open up to the world, it’ll open up for you and you might just find many new things that shape who you’ll become.
Hallo! Here in Leuven, Christmas is in full swing! Christmas markets are up, Old City Hall is decorated, and the old church bells have been ringing to the tune of “All I Want for Christmas is You”!
I can’t believe 3 months have passed and now I’m getting ready to wrap up my time here in Leuven. I’ve done so much since I arrived in Leuven. I’ve made lifelong friends, immersed myself in various cultures, and visited cities that I never thought I would.
Studying abroad has taught me a lot about my strengths, my weaknesses, and quirks about myself that I never realized before. I’ve cultivated an appreciation for the smaller things in everyday life. The late morning breakfasts in the hall, the late night talks with friends, and the laughs shared on a daily basis. I’ve learned to take life slower, to love the simplistic beauty that everyday life has to offer and I know that all of these small things will be what I miss the most when I return to the States. As I prepare myself to leave a town and people I’ve grown so attached to, I’ve taken time to be self-reflective on how I’ve changed over the past 3 months.
One of the biggest ways I’ve grown over my 3 months studying abroad is that I’ve become more confident in my ability to travel and navigate an unknown situation. Travelling internationally by myself for the first time has definitely made me become more self-dependent and also pushed me to ask for help when I need it. Then travelling to different countries during the past 3 months, I’ve become adaptable to the different cultures of the cities and learned to take change in stride. I’ve visited London, Rome, Luxembourg City, Paris, and various other cities in Belgium, and each of those cities have different quirks and their own way of life and being able to adapt to those quirks quickly has been something that I developed during my travels and definitely something that I will take with me as I leave. Also, being an obvious tourist in those cities has made me become more assertive and strong-willed against hagglers and others I’ve met during my time travelling. It has also instilled in me a desire to travel more once I return home, whether it be within the States or internationally, I know this trip will not be my last!
The friendships I’ve developed during my time in Leuven have made me develop a stronger sense of intercultural awareness. Living in a hall with students from 6 different countries has made me realize the nuances of different cultures and how it effects someone’s view of the world and how they navigate through it. My interactions with my friends have made me grow in my appreciation for difference and ability to deal with uncomfortable situations when those differences come into contact with each other. Being bilingual, I have grown accustomed to switching between languages and had a love for the languages I didn’t know, but by living with my hall mates I’ve picked up small phrases in Spanish, Croatian, Dutch, and German. My hall mates have definitely taught me things about myself that I never realized and helped instill an even stronger sense of appreciation for diversity than I had before. None of us know if we’ll ever see each other again, we can only hope, but I am so grateful to have met these people. They have made me become a better person and have made my time here in Leuven unforgettable and filled with laughter and love.
Leuven has given me the opportunity to grow so much and it will definitely be an experience that I will never forget and one I will always be grateful for. I don’t know if I’m ready to leave this beautiful town and the unforgettable memories I’ve made, but I know that this experience will push me to explore and learn more when I return home.
Now I’m off to study for my final exams. (Too bad I can’t escape from these!!)
Thanks for reading and I’ll write again when I return to the States!
I have literally just a few days left here in Florence. Saying time flies would be the greatest understatement to describe where the weeks went. Where the different trips, different countries, different types and tastes of food went. Where the memories with new and interesting people went. As excited as I am to go home and be a part of my home country again, it’s clear that no matter how much I try not to think about it, Florence will always be a home of mine. I will always have an attachment to this street, to this historic apartment (we have a mirror that was owned by the Medici family), and to this dirty but special room. There’s that saying you don’t know what you have until you lose it. But in some cases, especially in a case of studying abroad and becoming accustomed to the life you have here, you understand and know what you are losing before you really even lose it. It is through realizing and thinking about this that I have humbled myself and have thanked each professor, each café worker, and each restaurant waiter that I made friends with; thanked them for allowing me to come to this country and sharing a piece of their life with me…
Humble- As simply as I can put it, I am humbled by this experience. It would honestly be impossible to try to show or explain how great and unique this experience was through words or pictures. I know I would just leave so much out and it would not do Florence justice to do that. Being here for three months put my life in perspective in the sense that I’m not really sure what else I could do in my life that would compare to studying abroad here. These final days make me thankful that I made the decision to get on that plane, and it makes me sad knowing that soon I will be heading on a plane back, with the possibility that I may never come back.
When I say I’m thankful for this study abroad experience, I don’t simply mean just being in Italy or going to other countries. I mean enduring so much, stepping out of comfort zones, making so many mistakes and learning from them and just finding ways to be a part of a new environment. There are people here who did not experience Florence in this way, meaning they simply came here to study because they could. To me, the opportunity to study abroad was a gift that I can’t and won’t ever take for granted.
Humble- I am humbled by the personal and external confidence I have developed in myself throughout these 3 months. Back home, I did not do the traveling thing. I either stayed in New York or Connecticut. And if I did go outside of that, it was something for school and never on my own accord. So the confidence it took to get on multiple planes to fly to multiple countries by myself, the confidence it took to sit on buses for 3-12 hours heading to foreign lands by myself – it’s not like I took time to decide, “Should I do this… can I handle it?” I literally booked these trips and just went with it. I think Florence does that to you without you even realizing it. It makes you want to take risks and take on personal challenges, inside the city and outside of it.
When I’m home, my mother and I communicate here and there. We aren’t the overly affectionate family type, so we check up on each other sometimes, but I know she is always there when something is going wrong or I need help. However, for the past 8 weeks or so, my phone has been messed up and I haven’t been able to talk to her. So when I left my passport in Italy on a trip to Vienna, Austria and almost got stuck there trying to get back to Florence, that’s where this confidence came in. That’s when I didn’t freak out because I couldn’t ask my mom what to do, but instead I took the time to figure out my next move and what my options were, and I’m proud of how I handled the situation with calm and collected maturity.
Humble- I am humbled by my accomplishments: First-generation college student, first in my family to get accepted and attend college, first in my family to have been to another country other than America, and now, first to have lived in another country for an extended period of time. I am truly blessed. Sydney Johnson, my basketball coach back at Fairfield loves to tell us the quote, “We are living the dream” and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing – trying my hardest to live out each and every day and take advantage of any and all opportunities given to me. I visited 7 countries (well, 8 if you want to include Italy): Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Austria, France, and England. I visited a museum and a church in each country and visited each of the country’s national monuments. I visited a good portion of Italy as well, seeing cities such as Venice, Milan, Capri, Pisa, Bologna, Amalfi, and even Rome. In Rome, I went to church at the Vatican and got lucky and saw the Pope give a speech. I visited an intense soccer game and saw Florence beat one of its storied rivals. I pushed through an advanced Italian language speaking class and have done well. My writing was also published in a monthly Italian newsletter, known as Blending Newsletter, here at Florence University of the Arts (FUA), and I was also recently published in the first issue of Blending’s semesterly magazine. I thought it made sense to use my Creative Writing major and utilize it in my academics here at FUA. It’s something that will be remembered here at FUA and it’s an accomplishment I can always look back to.
I have also gotten really good at cooking. I mean, really good. Granted, I wasn’t that much of a chef before so any amount of cooking would constitute as something, but I think I have out-done myself on multiple occasions. I was lucky to have a roommate who is a Food Marketing major but also a chef in training, so I picked up on many things he did in the kitchen to understand what really goes into making a good dish. I’ve been exposed to a new economy, a new way of living, and a new way of building routines. I’ve grown a new understanding of currency and the smart ways of handling money on a big scale. I’m glad for everything I’ve done and how much of an impact these accomplishments have had and will continue to have on me.
Humble- Yes I’m glad to have endeavored on this journey on my own, but at the end of it all, I am humbled by the friendships that I have back home. And by friendships, I mean the real and true bonds that I have with people. I am a senior, and so I have been through that four year process of figuring out who is really there for you and who isn’t in college. So being here in Florence for three months without my close knit group of friends really made me think about the people in my life who mean the most to me. I reflected about this because I saw people planning trips together, visiting countries together, and making memories together, and a quick rush of feelings and emotions flowed through my head and body as I thought about who I wished was here for me to plan, make, and create memories with.
However, I have gotten really close with the roommates that I have lived with in the apartment here in Florence, and it has showed me how quickly new bonds can form. Now we are making to plans to visit each other at each other’s colleges. I was able to visit some friends whom I can consider brothers in Rome and in Austria and saw them playing the game of basketball that they play as a career. I value those times with them much more than I can really explain through words. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that I was able to take this challenge head on and come out here by myself. But after having all of these adventures, I am a firm believer that experiences like these should be shared with those closest to you to create memories to look back on, talk about, laugh about, and maybe even cry about.
Humble- I am humble and happy for life. I’m humbled to have the three person family that I have and a mom who did all she could so that I could even jump into this fear of the unknown. I am happy I took this opportunity and came out the same person on the outside, but 100% different on the inside. From having multiple conversations about race relations, to dealing with opinions on America’s new president, to being stared at and always having a free seat next to me on the bus – the cultural perspective I’ve gained here is just so valuable. With the way our world is being more and more internationalized, it is necessary for Americans to understand and gain more knowledge on global issues and societies. I am proud to be able to bring these new perspectives back home and share them with the people around me. I am humbled that I will have memories like this under my belt to help guide me throughout my future relationships, future career, and the rest of my life.
I am humbled by Florence.
Since returning home, I have been experiencing some stages of reverse culture shock. I was initially very excited to return home, however, since returning home I have found it a bit difficult to adjust back to the lifestyle here. It has been particularly difficult because my experience abroad has impacted me so profoundly. While my friends and family have continued to move along through their everyday routine, I am still adjusting to life here and reflecting on my time away. I feel as though I must not quickly forget what I took away from this experience. It is so completely different here in the United States. I had not noticed how accustomed I had gotten to the Moroccan way and culture until returning. It was hard to see then the little things that had made such a difference in Morocco. It is shocking to me how different the culture here is and I was not anticipating that. Things have been very different than I expected them to be once I returned. They have been more sad than exciting, unfortunately. Adjusting back as an athlete has been somewhat difficult. The amount of new teammates unintroduced to me has been shocking and incredibly overwhelming. School started so quickly and I felt as though it was a very quick turnaround and that I did not have much time to spend with my family and adjust. Although it has been difficult, I believe that I am slowly adjusting back to the ordinary here. Things are definitely different from the way they were to me before leaving. Nonetheless, I hope that they stay that way.
I very much miss the familiarity of Morocco. It was great being able to go to one restaurant or grocery store where you know people. I also miss being so close with the group of people I was living in Morocco with, as well as adventuring to different places in Morocco. Lastly, I greatly miss the laid-back and happy culture. On the other hand, I am happy to be reunited with my friends and family in the US, as well as the pool and my sport. I have noticed a lot of differences between the US and Morocco. It is mainly the little things, such as the way people interact, the way of life, the conveniences, the food, the regulations, etc. These are things that I didn’t know were so important to my life before leaving America. But while away, I came to realize that all of the little things lacking were actually all very important to my way of living, which greatly affected me.
After having this experience, I will continue on with my schooling, however I will not forget how I have been impacted. I hope to share my experience with as many people as possible, while also becoming a more involved individual. My experience abroad has only made me more grateful and more motivated to make a large impact for the good of others. I know that I will definitely be better about prioritizing my time to put the things that matter most first, and put others before myself. I know that this experience has made me love life and want to live each day to its fullest.
During my study abroad, I definitely came out of my shell. I became more open to unexpected situations and more adventurous and courageous. This was mainly a result of unanticipated conflicts experienced throughout the completion of my project, as well as trying to acclimate to the everyday lifestyle of the Moroccan people. It was also due to various weekend trips spent traveling and exploring the country in a very short amount of time. I definitely improved my communication skills, solely as a result of the high level of interaction with others. I definitely developed myself as an individual throughout my time in Morocco. It has become more clear to me the type of person that I want to be. I believe that this was a result of being in a foreign country disconnected from American society. It gave me a lot of time for reflection, all the while having such an amazing experience. It put things in perspective and allowed me to become more in touch with my inner self. Lastly, my experience abroad has made me more appreciative of everything that I have in my life. Just walking on the streets and seeing how the Moroccan people live was enough to evoke this change. They live the simplest lives and find the simplest jobs, just to get by in life. They also set aside time for the one thing that matters most to them, which is family. But the one part of my experience that made appreciation so much more prominent in my life was hearing the personal stories from families with autistic children that I interviewed for my project. They struggle so much to obtain decent lives for themselves and their children, not to mention proper education, treatment, and diagnoses. It was heartbreaking to hear their stories, all the while eye-opening to see how happy and grateful they still are for what they do have.
In addition, I definitely grew professionally while abroad. It was a new experience for me to complete this project while working with a sponsor. It was enriching to work with a group of students to complete a report, database, and present all of our information collected to our classmates, advisors, and sponsor. I learned how to deal with difficult team dynamics throughout the project and gained a lot of experience presenting my material in a professional manner.
One piece of advice that I would give to scholars interested in studying or interning abroad in Morocco would be to not set expectations, but rather to just enjoy the experience for all that it is and take the most from it. I can guarantee that any person studying abroad will get more out of the experience if they are able to avoid spending time worrying about how things should be. Whatever happens, they should be able to enjoy the once in a lifetime experience and not set their sights on the things that are not going perfectly as planned. I would encourage them to enjoy every moment of such an amazing opportunity while they have the chance, because it will be over in the blink of an eye.
I have never been able to relate to a lot of the people I met growing up unless they came from a similar background as I do. If they did not, a bridge was immediately formed where we stood on opposite ends, speaking still, yet never truly hearing or understanding one another. This was especially true for Asian people (I know how bad that sounds but let me finish). Growing up, I definitely let the media, stereotypes, and Hollywood brainwash my ideas surrounding Chinese people. I always assumed they were very well-off, and super good at math. The fact that the Asians at my schools fit these stereotypes only pushed my prejudices deeper into my conscious. Before studying abroad, I had only met three Asians who did not fit these stereotypes, but still zero I could relate to. Yet still, I have been fascinated with Asia since I was a child, and made it my mission to eventually travel here. This by far one of the best decisions I have made in my entire life.
My first day in Hong Kong was a very humbling experience. It was the first time in my life I saw Chinese people doing regular jobs, like supermarket cashiers, fast food, and plenty of other jobs. I thought wow, these people are just like every other race: diverse. Diverse in every sense of the word, from their fashion, views, and physique. It washed away my idea that Chinese people were people I just couldn’t relate to because we are just so different, but that is so far from the truth. This is the part where I introduce my brilliant co-worker and friend Ariel.
Ariel is like my tiny little sister, even though shes only one year younger me. She is an incredibly hard worker and has taught me so much about Hong Kong culture. We have similar views on most things we discuss, like the governing and policing parties, how life should be more than just working so much, and plenty of other stuff. She is the reason I work overtime practically everyday, her presence is dope. She’s passionate about her people and their freedom, she goes to protests just like us Berkeley folk are known for doing.
Through friendships like Ariel’s and my coursework through the University of Hong Kong, I have learned a lot about myself. I thought I was capable of adapting to any environment, but I discovered my kryptonite: censorship. During my travel to and from Tokyo, I have stopped in Shanghai a couple times. Since Shanghai is a part of mainland China, censorship is very real there. I was blocked from using all my apps, and even e-mail. I firmly believe that no one or governing force should have the power to control the information people can receive. It creates a bubble for that group of people, they become lost in the dark. Knowledge is power, and when access to resources that can provide that knowledge is prohibited, people gain very little power.
Experiencing this censorship was a miserable experience, until I decided to make the most of it. I exchanged my HKDs (Hong Kong’s currency) for RMB (China’s currency) and wandered around Shanghai. I discovered street vendors who were cooking some food that smelled amazing. I was about 3 dollars short, so I gave them the rest of my Hong Kong coins, and they accepted them with intrigue. When I was leaving, one of them asked for a picture with me, and of course I said yes because she had been so kind.
One of my reasons for interning in Hong Kong was because I imagined the work culture here being extremely intense (it is). So I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to force myself to improve as a professional. I can say mission accomplished. Through my internship with the social enterprise Mircoforests, I have written website content, drafted a grant proposal, designed workshop newsletters, and produced press releases. I have gotten used to working 8 hours a day plus the usual hour or hour and a half overtime (keep in mind my internship is unpaid). I can focus on tasks better, I have learned how to write grants, press releases, and effective newsletters. I know the inner-workings of social enterprises which are similar to non-profits, and I plan on starting my own non-profit or social enterprise once I have the means to do so.
I came here under the impression I was open-minded, then discovered I could be very narrow-minded at times. It feels like someone has pried my mind wide open with a crow bar, showing me a beautiful aspect of diversity and human connection. This experience has prompted a conscious metamorphosis.
It’s been 2 months and I am still very much in love with Lüneburg.
It has remained beautiful, it has remained welcoming and, as I predicted, it has proven itself to be the perfect place for me to achieve my study abroad ambitions.
As my time here draws to an end, I often find myself thinking about what I expected to happen. I find myself thinking about the excitement I felt during the very first hour of arrival. I find myself remembering how anxious I was to experience what Germany had in store for me. And I often find myself looking back on something that my German professor said to me right before I left for my program.
She said, “You don’t know it now but you’re going to change so much”
I really didn’t know what she meant by that. I mean, how much could a person really change in just 10 weeks?
A lot, apparently.
“Change” somehow implies that one can spontaneously develop new characteristics when placed in a different environment. I’m stubborn, so I would prefer to think that being here has made me more aware of who I have always been. That my experiences in Germany have helped me nurse the characteristics that would have otherwise been suppressed or ignored. This has, in turn, modified the way I act, how I communicate, and my general world view.
The most important way I’ve changed is in that I have become a lot more confident in my point of view. Previously, I spent most of my time fitting my perspective into the narratives of others. Instead of letting my unique point of view shine through, I sought to blend in. Blending in made it easy for me to make statements, engage in discussions, and be involved without exposing the facts of my life that make me who I am.
My cultural identity is a prime example of this. I was born in Houston, Texas but raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Despite my purely American accent, I spent more of my life in Nigeria (11 years) than in the United States (7 years). Yet I had always felt the need to hide this fact because I genuinely believed that, in order to connect with people and to be a good communicator, I had to be totally and completely relatable. Even if that meant ignoring the “Nigerian” in “Nigerian-American.”
Being here, and being a foreigner on both fronts has made me a lot more comfortable with being open about my cultural identity. It has actually helped me figure out exactly what that is. This happened with encouragement from the curious locals and fellow study abroad students who saw my name and asked me to talk about my background and went even further by asking about how it has shaped my personal identity. I realize now that there is so much value in being “all of me” while connecting and communicating with others. I don’t think that I would have been brave enough to come to this realization myself or change in the way that I have while in the United States, especially at this moment in time. So I have my study abroad experience to thank for this.
As I sit crammed on Hong Kong’s famous subway system, the MTR, I am surrounded by tired souls. Gaunt figures that fade in and out of consciousness, as their limp heads sway with the train, returning home from their workplace.
Hong Kong’s work culture is like nothing I have ever experienced. It is a culture where unpaid overtime hours are expected almost daily and are the norm, where off days feel like a holy grail, where people are unable to de-stress by going to the beach, bars, or just sleeping all day. My local friend’s commentary on their work life is practically identical: It is a beast that consumes and spits you out with scars in the form of sunken eyes, irritable moods, stress, and fatigue. Perhaps this is why the people of Hong Kong are so strong willed and resilient. The work culture strengthens them, something that I’ve noticed is happening to me too. One of my reasons for studying abroad here was to develop myself as a professional, and Hong Kong’s work ethic is forcing this development in ways I did not imagine. This one of the many reasons why I love Hong Kong.
Dozens of smiling faces came rushing towards us with open arms. As my own arms opened, so did my mind, and soon after, my heart. A whole minute had passed and the children were still hugging us as if we were their long lost loved ones.
How do people change? By being inspired. By knowledge and experiences. By love.
My professor scheduled our class to visit a school that is providing poor children in the Lurigancho district with quality education. During the car ride there, I was shocked to see the beautiful bustling city of Lima disappear into dusty street roads, makeshift shack houses, and crumbling buildings in a mere hour from where I was staying. Even now, it continues to boggle my mind that the physical landscape in Peru can shift so dramatically according to the level of poverty and inequality in the area.
As we neared the school, our group was greeted by Patricia McLaughlin, a benevolent Irish Catholic nun who helped build the school from scratch when she came to Peru in 2001. Today the school continues to enroll children from the surrounding shantytown, providing them with proper nutrition and education. What makes this school’s story even more amazing is getting to see the incredible results. Recently, the 7th grade students have performed higher in reading comprehension and math than any other 7th grade students in all of Peru. Furthermore, many students have moved on to university level education and some have even been admitted into the most prestigious university in Peru.
As a future educator, being able to witness my dream career lived out before my eyes is incredibly inspirational. I feel motivated now more than ever to teach English to children in underdeveloped countries. In addition, I have a newfound desire to learn my native Spanish language and a greater appreciation for my own Mexican heritage.
Living in Peru has also helped me become a more independent person. Although I still rely on others for some things, I can now proudly state that I can cook food for myself, take public transportation by myself, go grocery shopping, and complete other adult tasks. Additionally, I am better at problem solving when presented with a difficult or stressful situation and I have become even more open-minded than ever before. Furthermore, I am more aware of my surroundings and can ask for directions and find different places. For the first time ever, I actually feel like the young adult that everyone around me sees.
Reviewing my experience as a whole, studying abroad has given me a new perspective of how to view the world I live in. Before, my world was centered around me and the people that I interacted with. A successful life was one in which I landed a secure job, had a beautiful home, and became married with a family. Now, I see the world and all the people in it. I appreciate the life I have and know that I can live without all the luxuries and material things. I am blessed to have a roof over my head, nutritious food to eat, and a safe community to live in. To me, a successful life is one that involves helping people in need and inspiring them to follow their dreams.
As my month here in Peru comes to an end, I look forward to sharing my study abroad experience with others and using the knowledge and skills I have learned back home in the United States. Until my next adventure, ciao!
Studying abroad is an incredible experience that makes you grow tremendously as a person. All of the challenges and experiences you go through teach you new things and new perspectives. And the people you meet help you learn about different countries and cultures. I believe that every student should try to study abroad because you learn about the world and yourself in ways that you never will in your home country.
Before coming abroad I always considered myself a very independent and open-minded person. But coming to Thailand on my own, a completely different country, made me realize that I still had a lot to learn. And while here I did learn a lot. I feel like I can confidently say I am able to adapt to new environments and be more flexible now. When moving to another country you have no choice but to embrace this. I have also learned a lot of the language and now at the end of the semester I can navigate Bangkok and speak Thai for everyday needs. Learning the language of your host country is very important not only because it allows you to be more independent, but also because you pick up on more of the culture of the country’s people as a whole, and allows you to create bonds with the people in your community. It’s been an experience getting over the language barrier– I am now also a master of pointing and talking with my hands.
As I learn more about the language and culture, I’ve been feeling more confident in this place I called home. During my time here I have also stumbled upon political and cultural issues that are very controversial. In my opinion, this is still an important part of coming to another country as visitor: trying to understand why things are the way they are, and if you need to, expressing your opinion in a very respectful way. This has made me more tolerant, open-minded and knowledgeable in global issues.
Additionally, before coming here I had pride in being independent and not needing to ask for help. But being thrown in a completely new country forces you to ask for help and now I’ve learn that that is not a bad thing. This dependency has also opened doors to speak with many people and learn from them.
One of the things about Thailand that has really captivated me and taught me a lot is seeing how people interact with each other and the sense of community they have. Bangkok is a very hectic city full of people and everyone is always on the go. But if someone is struggling, you see people stop to help, be it local or foreigner. People are always willing to help you even if they don’t speak your language and they are always doing it from their heart. Watching this and living it has taught me many things about compassion and how to always be aware of my surroundings.
I am so blessed and grateful for this opportunity to experience and learn so many things about Thailand. When I get back home I will recommend studying abroad to everyone I know, and tell them about amazing opportunities like the Gilman Scholarship that exist to help you go experience the world.