When you begin to think about going abroad, anybody who has spent time studying in another country will tell you that it was the best semester/year of their college career. They tell you about the people they met, the classes they took and the things they saw. Just by talking to them, you can tell their stories are genuine and all of their experiences were simply as they said, “amazing.” When you arrive in your country of study, your orientation staff tell you about the highs and lows and show you the diagram for culture shock. As you listen to them discuss the diagram, you think to yourself, “Yeah I guess, but I just don’t think that’s going to happen to me.” It’s not necessarily arrogance, its mainly just being in that honeymoon phase and the excitement about what adventures will come over the next five months. Maybe this wasn’t your experience, but it was definitely mine.
For me just ‘studying’ abroad apparently wasn’t enough. I swim at my home university, Washington and Lee. So part of going abroad meant staying in shape for the season when I got back. While not the only reason, a deciding factor for me studying in Dunedin, New Zealand for my abroad experience was because they had a 50 meter pool and a club team I could train with during my time away. Before I left the states I had planned out a training schedule, seven practices a week, 2 mornings at 5 AM and 5 afternoons at 4PM interspersed with lifts on the other 3 mornings. Needless to say that schedule lasted less than 2 days. The pool I was training at was about a mile away (I had requested the closest flat to the pool to make this walk easier). However, the 4 AM wake up on the first Tuesday made me realize that these mornings were not going to be as easy as I had originally thought. Dead for the rest of the day, I skipped the afternoon and tried again Wednesday. This is probably a good time to tell you that I was out of swimming shape at this point (early July) of the summer. The way our season works back in the states is we swim from September to March and the rest of the time we have off to train ourselves. Typically, I take a break till June and train over the summer to get in shape for the next season. This year I had not been able to train in June due to traveling with my brother in NZ prior to the start of my semester abroad. If you don’t know getting in shape for swimming, it is a rough and long/ discouraging process, but its something that you just have to get through.
Fast forward, and now I was trying to get back in shape, with a new team, new coach, in a new country on the other side of the world from my home. The process was a little stressful and emotionally draining. However, what I gained far outweighed the negatives, and in my opinion, made my experience better than it would have been had I not trained. Firstly, this helped me learn to go into any new experience with an open mind. Always go in with a plan, but make sure that you can adjust your plan according to your actual experiences. Had I forced myself to adhere to my original training schedule, I have no doubt both my experience abroad and my swimming would have suffered. Another thing you often hear about going abroad is that you learn more about yourself. Not only was that the case for myself, but I also learned more about why I swim and what swimming means to me.
Perhaps the most valuable thing that my training abroad gave me was a unique perspective of New Zealand. While I didn’t maintain my preset schedule, the training schedule that I eventually settled into was still rather rigorous. If anything brought me out of the honeymoon phase and into reality, it was the rigor of a daily study/training routine. I don’t think that can be considered a bad thing though. Can you get accurate perspective of a culture if you remain in the honeymoon phase? To a certain extent, yes. For me though, struggling though practices, dreading wake-ups and cold mornings, with my New Zealand teammates helped me feel more connected to them and gave me a more realistic view of New Zealand as a whole. I think study abroad often romanticizes life in other countries as there always being something new and exciting to do. However, because of my training over there, I was able to see that life, no matter the location/culture, can still be difficult, and there are still things that you have to do each day that you don’t want to do. Nothing bonds people like adversity. By facing adversity with the kiwi swim team, I feel like I got to know them better than I would have if I had met them in class or on a hike. In addition, this experience has helped me find value and to appreciate the monotony of daily life back home. It also has helped me realize that the excitement that I found in New Zealand is very much attainable now that I am back in the States. While there were things I missed out by staying in Dunedin Monday through Friday, it made weekend trips and breaks more valuable. For my mid-semester break, my parents were able to visit, and we got to travel all over the south island doing different hikes and even made it down to Stewarts Island (the southern-most part of New Zealand off the tip of the south island). Breaks like this allowed me to refresh and reset.
In the end, I left New Zealand in shape for the season, and just like everyone else, having the best semester of my college career. If I got to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, it was by living everyday life in New Zealand that I got the most out of the experience. Now that I’m home, I am still able to apply the lessons I learned on the other side of the world to my daily life here back in the States.
Noah Schammel was a Neuroscience major at Washington and Lee University and studied abroad with IFSA at University of Otago in Otago, New Zealand in Fall 2016. He served as an alumni ambassador for IFSA.