It doesn’t take a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist to figure out the short-term benefits of studying abroad. You get to spend a semester traveling the globe, eating exotic food, meeting interesting people, and immersing yourself in a different culture. You’ll have enough stories to last you all year, enough pictures to cover every wall of your apartment, and priceless knowledge about the world.
But some people see a semester abroad as being a self-contained event – an “intermission” in their college experience, so to say. They want to separate their study abroad friends, memories, and experiences from their “real” college life. But that just simply isn’t the case. Studying abroad isn’t just a four-month long vacation or a transient adventure. Living in another culture, on another continent, will change your values, your goals, and much more. There is a very tangible and wonderful long-term impact of studying abroad that often goes overlooked.
Catching the Travel Bug
I was fortunate enough to spend the fall of 2014 in Cork, Ireland, through IFSA-Butler. Since my grandfather hails from a small town in Ireland, it was great to be able to live in the land where I trace my roots. While abroad, I was also able to take trips to London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Rome, and Cinque Terre, Italy. It was the first time I had been out of the United States, and I definitely caught the travel bug.
My semester abroad is over, and I am now in the middle of my senior year of college applying for medical schools. Before my months in Cork, I was perfectly content to remain in my hometown of Saint Louis or my college town of Tulsa. But now, I can’t wait to do more traveling. I am currently preparing for a research trip to the rainforests of Costa Rica, and I’m sketching out plans to return to Europe after I graduate. I’ve used medical school interviews as an excuse to take road trips across the Midwest.
Studying abroad makes you realize exactly how huge and vast and diverse the world is. You could spend your whole life jumping from city to city and still never experience half of the beautiful, awe-inspiring things that fill up the Earth. Studying abroad gave me an appreciation for that diversity; I’m no longer satisfied with just sitting around in my town. I want to go out and explore the world, learn about new cultures, and turn myself into a more worldly man.
Bringing the Culture Back With You
Studying abroad isn’t like a vacation. You do more than ride around on a tour bus and take pictures of landmarks. You get to be an active participant in the culture of your host country, completely immersed in something new and different. After you leave, you can’t separate yourself from that engagement with your host culture- you take some of it back with you to share with your friends and family.
For me, two things that I really discovered a love for while in Ireland were hiking and music. While Ireland doesn’t have many huge mountains, they have breathtaking green rolling hills and miles upon miles of rural land that is great for hiking and exploring. I participated in my host school’s mountaineering club to get to know rural Ireland, and once I got back to the United States I didn’t want to stop hiking. This summer I hiked part of the Grand Canyon with my family and traveled out to rural Oklahoma to hike a gorgeous state park called Natural Falls. It’s not quite the same as green Ireland, but it’s something that I brought back with me.
I also love Irish folk music. In addition to my repertoire of rock, pop, and indie music, I now have a playlist on Spotify devoted to Irish folk music. Musicians in Ireland rarely get up on a stage to play – they pull up a booth in a cozy pub and play for themselves just as much as for their audience. They really love what they do and I love the sound of the music they make. Nothing lifts my spirit more than listening to a few Irish songs and bringing back memories of my time in Cork.
Don’t Let That Spark Fade
It’s easy to go back to “real life” after your time abroad, stepping back into old routines. But don’t let your experiences become just memories or stories. It’s an amazing opportunity to simply be a student of the world and a traveler for just a few months, so don’t let the spark of curiosity and adventure fade. You can either let your experiences abroad be something you keep in a dusty photo album, or something that you continue to live out every day. I chose option #2.
Studying abroad gives you a perspective of the world that you can’t easily shake off. Personally, I couldn’t just step back into the old routine after realizing how much more was out there. I’m itching to learn more about the world, to travel and explore and take part in many more cultures around the globe. I hope you’ll join me.
Brendan McEnery is a Biology student at the University of Tulsa and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College Cork in Ireland.