I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of study abroad programs, I just remember wanting to go. I took my first trip abroad when I was 14, and I was hooked on traveling, so the idea of going to another country for a longer period of time was really appealing to me. When I finally went, I experienced things I never imagined, and it changed me in ways I didn’t even realized until much later.
I studied Spanish in high school and really enjoyed the language, so for years I dreamed of studying abroad in Spain. I always thought I’d do a full semester, but I ended up with a summer program instead. I spent six weeks in Spain, two traveling, four in classes. During that time, I not only improved my Spanish, but I also learned more about the culture, I saw many different parts of Spain, I took side trips to Portugal and Morocco, and I met incredible people. These are just a few of the reasons why study abroad can be a wonderful experience for anyone.
(Warning: Many of the photos in this post were taken in 2000 with film, so they’ve been scanned in and aren’t the highest quality.)
See more of the country
On a normal vacation, you’re probably in one country for a few days to two weeks. But by studying in another country, you can stay longer and take in a lot more of your surroundings. During my program, we spent the first week visiting Madrid and nearby Segovia and Toledo before going to Salamanca for four weeks. After classes were over, we spent another week visiting Sevilla, Granada, Córdoba, and the beach town of Fuengirola. A bunch of us also spent a weekend in Pamplona to see the Running of the Bulls.
If Spain isn’t your thing, replace all those cities with ones in the country you’ve been dreaming about. If you go for a full semester instead of a summer program, just imagine how much more of the country you can experience.
Learn more about the culture
You can read about a culture in books, but seeing it and experiencing it right in front of you is much more meaningful. Before going to Spain, I was fascinated with Flamenco. While we were in Sevilla, we went to see a Flamenco dancing performance, and it was so beautiful, I can still remember the emotions I felt about actually BEING there.
We stayed with families, which is a great way to connect with the locals. The woman I was living with showed us how to cook traditional meals like paella, gazpacho, flan, and tortilla española. I still have those recipes, quickly scribbled in Spanish on notebook paper.
Aside from the wonderful recipes, we also realized one day that our señora had a pig leg in the kitchen that we had apparently ate from. I’m sure it’s completely normal to keep these unrefrigerated since they’re cured, but at the time, Amanda and I thought it was very strange.
We learned so many other things you can only learn from spending more than a week in one place. Some were culturally specific to Spain, and others were probably just quirks of living with the particular woman we stayed with. But it’s definitely not an experience you can get staying in a hotel for a few nights.
Visit other countries
Unless you go somewhere more isolated, you can probably take side trips on the weekends to other countries. Our group spent a weekend in Portugal, and we took a day trip to Morocco. If you’re studying in Europe or South America, you can easily get to another country on a weekend or a school break.
You can also work in some extra time before or after your study abroad program to travel to other nearby countries. One of my biggest regrets about my study abroad trip is not doing this. I think I was too afraid to travel alone, so I didn’t even consider it. But even an extra week or two on my own in Spain or another country would’ve been a great confidence boost.
Meet interesting people
I didn’t know anyone in my program when I signed up. I showed up to orientation a month or two before the trip, and when it came time to sign up for roommates, I thought I’d just wait to be randomly assigned. That’s when Amanda, the same Amanda I’ve mentioned traveling with many times on this blog, came up to me and asked if I needed a roommate. We lived with each other for six weeks in Spain, and now more than 12 years later, she’s one of my closest friends.
You might not have the same experience. You might hate your roommate, or you might not even have a roommate. But you will certainly meet other people like you who are trying to figure out how to navigate living in another country. You will make friends, whether temporary ones or lifelong ones, it doesn’t matter. You’ll also meet locals who will show you a different perspective on life. You can’t get that by staying at home.
Study abroad at any age
Some of you reading this might be a little older than the typical college student who participates in a study abroad program. Don’t think your chance has passed! There are plenty of language schools you can go to that have nothing to do with college. Just two years ago, when I was 30, I spent a week in Quito, Ecuador taking a Spanish class and living with a family. Andy has gone to Italy to take Italian classes a few times on his vacation. You can do this as a vacation alternative at any age. You can even go for a cooking class or an art class instead of a language. There are tons of options.
Joining a study abroad program was one of the best decisions I made in college. I may not have realized at the time how much it changed me, but I doubt I’d be who I am today if I hadn’t had that experience. You will learn so much about the country and culture, and so much about yourself, by going on a study abroad trip. If you’re considering this at all, either as part of your college education or as a vacation learning experience as an adult, I strongly encourage you to pick a program and go!