Before my college career had begun I knew that somehow, some way, I would find an outlet that would allow me to return to Europe. My first taste of international travel was given to me as I embarked on a journey as a Student Ambassador at the young age of 15. I wouldn’t describe my drive to get abroad as a symptom of wanderlust, because it was much more deeply rooted than that. With that being said, as I tediously searched for my version of the ideal college that would give me the ‘dream experience’ I wanted and more, I made sure to include the presence of an Education Abroad in my criteria.
Reflecting on my Education Abroad experience, I have only two regrets. My first regret centers on the infamous ‘comfort zone’. I can break down my faults with the comfort zone in three parts, the first occurring before my experience ever occurred. Countless times I had shared my interest in going abroad with my friends, and countless times we had agreed to simultaneously begin the Education Abroad process together but a concrete conclusion was never set. Finally, I made the decision to research a program specifically for me, free from any influence or needs of my friends. Even though I had initially planned on getting involved in some Education Abroad program, it took until my fifth semester of undergraduate before I would actually commence on my international education program. If I had taken the leap outside of my comfort zone sooner, my one semester abroad in the Czech Republic would not be the sole program filling my Education Abroad portfolio. If I had begun this journey sooner, the opportunity to not only study, but also intern, in an international setting would have been readily available at my fingertips.
The second part of regret number one is one that occurred within the duration of my program. My specific program had me in a classroom with all American students, who also happened to be within my program. This allowed me to gain numerous friends who are now widespread across the United States, but it also served as a crutch for stepping to the outside of my comfort zone to meet individuals who were my age but not my nationality. During my 15-week program, I did not take advantage of meeting Czech students until the last 5 weeks that I was living in the country. By treating the potential awkward first encounters with these foreign students as a negative experience, I missed out on an extraordinary amount of time where I could have been learning the ins and outs of a culture that I had fallen in love with.
The final part of my first regret within my Education Abroad experience occurred after I returned back to the United States. During the Pre-Departure Orientation, I had attended as part of my university credit requirement, I learned about culture shock and how it would affect me during my program. The Education Abroad Staff also warned me about the affects of reverse culture shock that I may also experience after my return. I took all of these warnings with a grain of salt, not thinking that either phenomenon would affect me in any way. My initial culture immersion during the program went fairly swimmingly, so I had nothing to worry about in that aspect—little did I know of the impact that my abroad experience had made left a lasting imprint. Upon returning back to the States, I found myself longing for the numerous companions I had acquired throughout my travels, and the character of my host city that I had to leave behind. I had retreated back from the progress I had made during my time abroad forging out of my comfort zone as soon as I returned to campus. After a semester back at school, I finally reached out to the Education Abroad Office on campus to explore opportunities of how I could share the experiences I had gained through the opportunities their office helped provide to me. Finally, after enduring a long summer, I was introduced to my first Education Abroad Peer Advisor (EAPA) family. I cannot begin to explain what the EAPA program has given to me. Although all of my fellow interns had immensely different abroad experiences than I had had, our diversity was set-aside with our mutual love for the outcome that each individual experience had given us. No longer did my peers roll their eyes at me as I begin every single sentence with, “This one time in Prague…” but instead they hung on to every word that I had to share about my incredible experience. My regret with this is that I wish I had sought out the companionship of my fellow study abroad alumni immediately after returning to campus so that I could have had more time-sharing the unreasonably amazing transformation Education Abroad allowed me to encounter. By embracing the opportunity to share my experience of the time I spent abroad, I was able to reconstruct what courage I had previously assembled during the independence found within in my academic and traveling experiences and finally break free of my, once miniscule, comfort zone.
The second regret of my entire Education Abroad experience piggybacks off of my insecurity with the boundaries of my once inadequate comfort zone. One of the biggest decisions, within the many that accompany the Education Abroad process, is the length of the program in which you want to participate in. I was sure that I would not be satisfied with only a short-term program, which left me to decide between a semester and a yearlong program. Although I did thoroughly enjoy every moment of my program, if I had the opportunity I would have extended my stay for the full school year. Before experiencing how much liberty you gain with the encounters you face while abroad, it seems impossible that you would willingly choose to surrender the experiences occurring at your home university for an entire semester, let alone the festivities that you would miss by forfeiting all of those exciting events for an entire year. I can say without a doubt that after my Education Abroad experience I would have readily given up all of these occasions to endure a few more weeks engulfed in a culture rich in history and completely foreign to my childhood understanding.
Sometimes our identities are embedded within us from the beginning. Other times they are developed from the events and experiences that we endure from our surroundings. Education Abroad helped me gain new perspectives on previous understandings of my studies, my relationships, and my environment. After being faced with adversities abroad, Education Abroad has taught me how to sustain my old identity while adhering to outside viewpoints that differ from what I’ve been taught as the norm. My experience with Education Abroad not only helped my on a personal and spiritual level, but also on an academic and professional level as well. I have taken away many memories and outlooks from my experiences, but also many communicational skills that have already increased my confidence while exploring post-graduate career opportunities. Participating in an Education Abroad program was the best decision I made during my undergraduate career and I continue to learn from it with every account that I share. It has helped shape me into a well-rounded, charismatic, and confident individual with a renewed enthusiasm for what the future can hold for me.
Written by Courtney Henning
Courtney Henning is a senior at the University of Kentucky majoring in International Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies. She studied in the Czech Republic in the Fall of 2013 though an International Studies Abroad (ISA) program.