Travel consists of doing ordinary things in extraordinary places, and the power of studying abroad is that new place become ordinary. By ordinary, I do not mean uninteresting or mundane. Rather, I am arguing not only that studying abroad is beneficial for any student because it prompts the realization that so much of who I am is shaped by the culture in which I live, but also that these lessons manifest in everyday moments.
I studied in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for three and a half months. Because of over five years spent learning from remarkable teachers, I thought I had a solid grasp of the Spanish language. I quickly learned through multiple little moments that perfecting language skills is only one dimension of the multi-faceted experience while inhabiting another culture.
The first of these “little moments” took place at a cafe my second week abroad. I was sitting alone, sipping a Coke and reading when the gentleman at the next table over got up to leave. As he walked past, he smiled at me, nodded and said “Provecho.”
The importance of this interaction is not just that I used my phone to look up “provecho.” More importantly, this moment prompted me to reflect on how the individualistic society in which I live has shaped my perception of what it means to respect and coexist with those around me. I began to ponder the differences between a stranger and a neighbor. This kind of embodied and personal reflection is what no amount of library time can replicate.
Such learning continues after returning from studying abroad because I now get to choose between two distinct conceptions of what “normal” is. I understand that interrupting a conversation to greet someone is not rude everywhere. The difference between “usted” and “tú” has made me more conscious of the tone I adopt when I address those older than I, and the memory of the heat of my host mom’s cooking reminds me at every meal that, though I am now here, part of me remains there.
However, I speak for myself. I speak as a privileged member of American society who can afford both to be in college and to leave the country for several months without losing necessary income. I speak as someone whose largely suburban upbringing drastically limited meaningful exposure to other experiences in even this country. For whatever it is worth, I found studying abroad to be a valuable experience. It deepened my gratitude for the fact that I enjoy the privilege both of being able to go and of having a place to which I may return.
This article first appeared in the Friday, February 23, 2018, Edition of The Echo.