There is one big difference between people who study abroad in “traditional” locations and those who study abroad in places that are truly different from their home cultures. After speaking with hundreds of returned students, one group almost always tells me the same thing:
“I traveled a lot, made tons of friends, did new things and learned so much! It was amazing!”
Can you guess which group it was?
Here’s a hint. This response from the other group is usually a bit more like this:
“I traveled a lot, made tons of friends, did new things and learned so much! It was amazing — and it changed my f***ing life!”
Pretty sure you’ve figured it out by now.
As a general rule I’ve found that the further a place is from your home culture, the more differences there are, the more it will push you. This is a good thing. The more you are pushed, the greater you are challenged, the more you will grow as a person. If you want to experience new things, learn about the world and learn about yourself, then going to a place that is a total 180 from your home culture is the fastest way to do it.
It’s also the hardest.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that living abroad is going to be a cakewalk. There will be some particularly tough days or weeks, especially the first time. One of the hardest days of my life was the first day I arrived to study in Istanbul. With nothing but an address scribbled in a notebook I had to find my way from the train station on one end of the megacity to my university on the other. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, I didn’t know a single word of Turkish (not even “hello”), and I had six months’ worth of gear on my back.
After many false starts and half a day spent lugging my worldly possessions through the summer heat, I found the dormitory. I picked up my keys and headed up into the empty room. Covered in sweat, I laid down on my bed with no sheets, no pillows. It wasn’t until that moment, with the rough fabric of the mattress scratching at my skin, that I realized the situation that I had gotten myself into. I was in a place I’d never been before where everyone spoke a language I didn’t understand. I didn’t know a soul within 5000 miles, and I had blindly committed myself to spending six months there. I was absolutely terrified and felt that I had made a terrible mistake. I wanted to go home that instant, but didn’t have the resources. I’ve never felt so alone in my life
But you know what? It got better. It got a hell of a lot better. After the panic subsided, I realized that I was committed to this new place for half a year: I could sit there alone and be miserable, or I could do something about it. It was essentially a sink-or-swim situation, so I left the room and just started chatting with random strangers in the hallway. Before the sun went down I met about a dozen new people, some of whom are still good friends of mine to this day.
Over the course of the semester I was constantly challenged, not just by the general experience of living in a foreign land [which will present itself to all who live abroad], but by the very real differences between my home culture and my host culture. I learned new things every single day I was there, and it was a much more intense experience because of the large cultural divide. It was without a doubt the most interesting and fulfilling six months of my life. Had I gone to a place a lot more familiar, somewhere with a similar culture or with the same mother tongue I wouldn’t have been pushed as hard.
Of course, I’m not saying that everyone should necessarily go to the most ‘foreign’ location they can find. I know that if I hadn’t traveled for a few weeks in Western Europe before studying abroad, I wouldn’t have even considered a place like Turkey. It just wasn’t on my radar. I write this so that you can learn from my experiences, and maybe skip over some of the baby steps I needed to take in the early stages of traveling. If you’ve already expanded your options for places to study abroad, then you know that you don’t need to limit yourself to familiar, “known” locations. Only now you hopefully have a better idea about why the act of going to unconventional, unfamiliar places can be a much better choice.
Most university students can only study abroad a few times at the most, so why don’t you push yourself and do something beyond your comfort zone, something that might be a little intimidating at first? It will be harder, but I promise that you will get more from the experience. Besides, you can always go to the rich, “safe”, “civilized” places when you’re older and don’t need to live on a student budget. The cost to take the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower is more than what I paid for five nights in a rural Chinese hostel. For me, the choice is obvious.