I asked my friends who made the bold and brave choice of studying abroad—in Paris, Budapest, London, Cape Town, Buenos Aires—how they would, in one word, describe their time abroad. This was a challenging task: condensing an eclectic experience, one that many of us are still processing, into one succinct word. The words were, as I expected, as distinct as each of our experiences:
COMPLICATED, INSPIRING, ANONYMOUS, OVERSATURATION, MARVELOUS, EMPOWERING, FRIENDLY, and INDEPENDENT.
When probing my friends further on these words, I got a wide range of answers. My friend who went to Paris and answered “friendly” told me:
“The small-group dynamic of the program allowed for real connections to be made between American students and for the possibility of the same to be done between Americans and students of the native culture. The opportunity to live with a host family made for an incredibly safe and loving space, which facilitated the rest of my experience.”
My other friend who studied in London and answered “independent” discussed how the ability to make her own schedule and travel plans gave her a sense of unparalleled freedom.
In some ways, I felt these eight words beautifully captured my own experience abroad. They acknowledged the highs and lows, while simultaneously addressing the growth I felt by the end of it. COMPLICATED. INSPIRING. ANONYMOUS. OVERSATURATION. MARVELOUS. EMPOWERING. FRIENDLY. INDEPENDENT. They seemed to say it all.
I recognized, however, that I too should attempt to express my abroad experience in one word. How was I going to do that? Was it even possible to reduce my 5-month experience into a single word? I wasn’t sure, so I thought it would be best to start at the beginning. Why did I even choose to go abroad in the first place? Pre-New Zealand, I was feeling somewhat uninspired. I wanted a new environment, one that deviated from the monotony I often felt at my college. In other words, I was in need of fulfillment. Studying abroad undoubtedly fulfilled me.
So I arrived at my word: FULFILLED. Choosing this word helped me to reflect on the ways in which being abroad allowed me to evolve and gain a new perspective. I was craving untouched places and unexpected adventures, and New Zealand handed me both on a silver platter. I did so many unforgettable things during the semester:
- Hiking Mt. Cook at sunrise
- Canyoning with people I had just met in frigid water
- Exploring new cities in Australia and unexpectedly discovering Melbourne’s
- Becoming close to a family who lives in Auckland
- Traveling to a family-run island in Fiji and being able to attend their church services and go with them to catch fish for dinner
- Road tripping in a camper van along New Zealand’s South Island
- Proving to myself I could navigate a city on my own
Even the horrid, unforgettable food poisoning I began my semester with left me cleansed, refreshed, humbled, and eager for what was next. I felt engaged and challenged by my surroundings and the people I shared them with. I felt, in a word, FULFILLED.
Now I am no longer surrounded by the pristine beauty that defines New Zealand. On the weekends, I take walks rather than hikes. I no longer leave school Thursday nights to hop over to Melbourne, Australia. My school gear has taken priority over my camping gear. And New Zealand candy (i.e. anything Whitakers chocolate, JAFFAS, milk bottles and pineapple lumps) is no longer readily available. Coming back from being abroad is a challenge, as I am still making sense of my experience while at the same time needing to move forward and adjust to life back at my home school. I have to learn how to reconcile the two experiences.
More than just a change in scenery, my study abroad experience instilled in me that I can still find ways to FULFILL myself. I can replicate how I felt abroad by being more intentional and creative with my time, with New Zealand, of course, never far from my thoughts.
Sasha Stahl is a Psychology student at Wesleyan University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in 2015.