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Final Thoughts: Post Studying Abroad

Happy New Year!

It’s easy to go into the New Year with the frameset of “new year, new me”, and as I greet 2017, I’m optimistic about diving headfirst into my professional and personal goals for the year.

2016 was a hard year. I know personally that I’ve been struggling to attempt to clarify exactly who I am, and what I want to do with my life and how to move forward to reach a point where I’m happy.

But indubitably, I can point to studying abroad as being the highlight of my year and an experience I’ll treasure for years to come, for a variety of reasons.

I try my best to live frugally. It doesn’t always work to a tee, given the chaotic nature of life (losing my leapcard for three weeks and having to pay the full bus fare each way) and various indulgences (impulse buying a jacket my last day in Dublin).  I had always dreamed of going to Ireland when I was younger, but always figured that cost would always be the big obstacle in my way. Paying my tuition payments in each month always felt like an uphill battle that I barely conquered each semester. This has been my first semester since freshman year where I haven’t had a job or two, and it’s been a weird feeling. I don’t think I realized how much working was a part of my life until I told one too many stories to my suite mates.

Through the study abroad process, I realized just how much aid there is out there to help people access this experience and offset the fact that you can’t necessarily have a part time job while abroad (I know there are exceptions to this, so I’m drawing largely on my own experience). I am grateful to have been given aid through IFSA Butler through scholarship and their UpFront programs, which eased some of the stress that can come from the entire study abroad application process. I found out about school scholarships, and was able to utilize them. Yet, I learned valuable lessons about time management and persuasive essay writing before I ever stepped on a plane.

Beyond that, I met so many amazing people in the program and in the country that I hope to maintain contact with. I cannot offer enough praise for the IFSA Butler staff in Ireland, who provided a thorough orientation and always kept me ahead of the curve when it came to cultural differences, and answered my silly but pertinent questions like “will I need a watch for exams???” (The answer to that question, in case you’re curious, is a firm no, which is a blessing because I can attest to the fact that I could not find a cheap watch after going to five different stores.)  I loved the University because it was such an eclectic mix of international and local students, to the extent which that it never felt weird to be an international student, and there were always a ton of events I could go to in order to see new faces, from the international lounge to the school club. The people are always an important part of discovering a new place and it helps when you can spot a few friendly faces in the crowd.

One of the other important things that I realized is how important it is to be self-sufficient and independent. I’m not a stranger to this concept—going to school across a country as large as the United States means being isolated from a lot of what you consider normal and your traditional safety nets, which can still reverberate even if you’ve been studying for years. Yet, being in a foreign country is a unique experience altogether. It can be scary to plan trips alone in a different culture, to sit by yourself on the train, with music to keep you company instead of a companion.  This was my first semester without a meal plan as well, so it was a new experience to constantly have to go grocery shopping (Irish food expires really quickly!) and having to fit solid meals into my schedule. I learned how to handle myself under pressure. I was aware before going to Ireland that it’s largely seen as a “safe choice” for studying abroad since it’s an English speaking country and that it’s easier to be independent in a country where there isn’t a language gap. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. When I had the opportunity to travel abroad this semester, when I was in foreign-speaking countries, I was always tongue-tied because I was always trying to focus on internally translating what I saw, and often deferred to not talking instead of nervously stammering the few phrases I knew under pressure.

For instance, I’d like to share a personal story. For the longest time, I thought I wanted to study in Germany. I was taking German, and I felt the pressure to live in the foreign country to hone my skills. My school recommended a program that went there, and I applied because it felt like it was what I should do.  Even though everything about the program seemed incompatible with what I wanted and I knew that my grip on the language wasn’t as firm as I wanted it to be.

Then, in an instance I can only refer to as serendipitous, I stumbled across the IFSA-Butler page, and I remembered how my younger self had always wanted to go to Ireland (I even tried learning Irish). The program emphasized everything I wanted—group outings, a thorough orientation, integration with the school, and flexibility in what you could study (as a double major, it was exceedingly difficult to find programs that would allow me to engage with both Politics and Psychology).  I found myself enjoying the essays that I was writing and then I had the opportunity to see that studying there was everything I thought it would be and more. I found that there was more meaning to me in going to a country that I knew a lot about and valued highly even if it was a “safe” choice, rather than going to a country because you think you should. (This is not a knock against Germany, Germany is a lovely country and I’m sure it would also be amazing to study abroad there.)

To any prospective students considering study abroad, I implore you to keep searching until you find a program in a country that speaks to you. You may be skeptical that going to a different destination for such a short period of time would drastically change you for the better, but studying abroad is what you make of it, and if you go out of your way to maximize your time spent, you’ll learn a lot about yourself, what you value, and how you want to move forward even only a matter of months.  You may be worried about the small details, but I promise the big picture is worth it, even if you have individual gripes. (I’m still not over the lack of oven in my living space, I swear). You may think that there’s too many options and it’s impossible to decide where to go and I completely emphasize. I’m one of the most indecisive people I’ve met, and I’m positive that through the process of looking at programs you’ll realize what you’ll value and find a program that compliments it.

In all, I’d like to thank IFSA-Butler and my friends and family who helped me along this whole journey, and kept updated with this blog. I wish you the best of new years and I hope this final post helped clarify how grateful I am for what I got to experience fall semester in 2016.

Sincerely,

Rachel Wallen

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