Why Study Overseas?
by: Natsuko Tohyama
I would not be who I am today if it were not for studying abroad.
Arriving from a flight from the US, my first impressions of La Coruña, Spain as a teenager embarking on a 2-month language and cultural studies program could be summed up in one word: weird. I wasn't used to the physical closeness that Spaniards displayed so naturally with each other, I couldn't understand why everybody insisted on smoking those nasty cigarettes, and I was determined not to like olive oil (for fear of my waistline expanding). Basically, I was a close-minded brat.
Why the attitude? Looking back, I can see that it came, perhaps, from my fear of the unknown, from my subconscious belief that the customs I had grown up with were the "right" ones, or even from my resistance to change. Although I did enjoy my time in the seaside city, and my Spanish certainly improved, it was only at my home-stay mother's parting words to me that I woke up to the impact of my attitude. "You were not open to our culture," she said.
I had not been open to their culture... What did that mean? That I had not appreciated their hospitality? That I had failed to marvel at the depth of their tumultuous national history or swoon in delight at their countless culinary delights? That I had not expressed gratitude to them for sharing with me their culture? All of the above and much more, I ascertained after contemplation. I felt ashamed. Next time, I decided, I would do things differently.
And I did! Since that first teenage foray into another culture, another world, I have volunteered in Jamaica, interned in Chile, worked in Guatemala, and traveled independently to almost 30 countries. With each step out of my comfort zone, I have grown as a professional, as a learner, as a human being.
Today, as a university admissions counselor, I am regularly asked by clients, "What are the benefits of studying abroad?" My answer? Too many to count! Studying overseas, especially for an extended period, can have positive and lasting impact on your academics and career. Whether you choose to study medicine in the UK, business in the US, or psychology in Australia, you will gain not only a strong education to support you in your career progress, but also the soft-skills to succeed in many life arenas. Through moving to a new geographic location and fighting through the challenges of living away from family, you will learn to be independent and increase in self-confidence. In learning new ways of communicating, studying, even eating, you will engage skills needed to function as an effective adult.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg! Imagine, if you will, adapting to life in a rural village in central Guatemala, where corn tortillas with black beans are served at almost every meal and everybody travels on foot. Or interning for a well-known fashion company in the heart of Milano, Itay. In the first, you would be hard put to survive the experience without obtaining some skills in adaptation. In the second, you could gain invaluable work experience that can clarify your personal and career goals. nbsp; The point is that there is so much you can get out of studying abroad if you are open to new experiences and active about acquiring them - whether they be accepting the friendships offered by locals, trying a new (and yes, "weird") dish, living with a host family, or simply watching the local TV channels rather than cable. nbsp;
In fact, Mary M. Dwyer, Ph. D. and President of the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES), and Courtney K. Peters, IES Communications and Media Relations Coordinator, found through extensive survey research that study abroad benefits extend through many aspects of a person's development. Not only does study abroad leave lasting impact on individuals' academic commitment and career path, but it also deeply influences intrapersonal development and intercultural skills. (You can read more about their study here).
I am, however, a firm believer of this fundamental law: You get what you give. In order that you get the most out of your international experience as possible, I'd like to leave you with a few tips:
Stay with locals.
Living with or, if this is not possible, interacting with locals is the best way to learn about a new culture - hands down! Yes, the prospect of giving up the comforts you grew up with, whether that be sleeping in your own fluffy bed, communicating in your native tongue, or eating macaroni for lunch, can seem daunting. I can almost guarantee, however, that through adjusting to another lifestyle, you will learn much more than you ever thought possible about who you are and what is important to you. You might even learn to see your culture from a different point of view.
Get out of the classroom.
I would never discourage you from showing up to school or doing your homework; I wouldn't have slogged through two years of graduate school if I didn't think academics were important. What I am trying to say is that practical experience outside of the four walls of the classroom can give you skills that are hard to obtain from a textbook, that hands-on learning can deepen your education and give you the chance to apply theory to practice. It might even clarify your career direction. One of my clients, for instance, had known since young that he would become a doctor. Upon completing attachments in a medical setting, however, he realized that he just could not see himself spending long hours in a hospital or clinic. He ended up choosing law as his course of study.
Take a trip.
If you are like most study abroad challengers, chances are that you will pick a country far away from home. Perhaps you will even land in an entirely different continent! Think: When else will you have the opportunity to explore the area? While it is undeniable that the world is shrinking and careers expanding to the international arena, there is no time like the present. While interning in Chile, I flew to Easter Island and learned about an ecological disaster. In the past four years that I have been working in Singapore, I have backpacked through every Southeast Asian country. Not only has my need to explore left me stronger and more independent, but it has also upgraded my intercultural communication skills and made me more street-wise.
Live in gratitude.
Research has finally shown what we have always known instinctively: that people who are grateful for what they have been given are both mentally and physically healthier. This truth also applies to your study abroad adventure. Be grateful for the opportunity to witness and experience a different way of life. Appreciate that your eyes are being opened and that you are meeting individuals you may have never met otherwise. Give thanks especially to your hosts during your overseas sojourn. If you can remember your sense of gratitude, you will get much more from every experience, and you will leave a positive impression of your own culture and people on the new friends you make.
Of course, say "no" to drugs and the whole shebang, but say "yes" to new experiences. I thought classical music was "un-cool" until I listened to a recording of the opera diva, Maria Callas. My friend became passionate about skydiving - only after she tried it. A colleague came to adore raw fish (and consume it for lunch day after day) after just one bite of sushi.
If you allow yourself to take a risk and try something new, your life will become richer, and you might even learn something surprising about yourself.
So say "yes" to study abroad. Believe me, it's worth it.