I used to think studying abroad was a luxury, something only the rich and elite did to slack off and party in a foreign country. I wasn’t sure if it was worth the huge investment, considering all the videos I saw of my classmates living it up while abroad. I had a certain idea of what it would be like, and I didn’t think I had the time or money to spend on it. However, my love of learning and adventure inspired me to give it a chance. Now, I am so glad I made the difficult decision to study abroad in my last year of college, even though I would be sacrificing many other opportunities, including writing an honors thesis, building professional relationships with my professors back home, or searching for jobs post-graduation. Despite these sacrifices, I am happy with my decision because I know I would be a much different person had I not been able to study in Botswana.
I believe the country you choose to visit is the biggest factor determining your experience. Had I chosen to go to Barcelona or Paris I would've had a much different experience. I imagine I would've met many young, advantaged students that I got along with quite naturally and who already shared many of my values and opinions. I probably would’ve taken classes taught using similar teaching methods as the ones I had in the US, and I would've used the same techniques to get succeed in them. I would’ve visited all the monuments I’d seen movie characters picnic in front of on TV. I would’ve eaten all my favorite French or Spanish foods that I had already tried in the US (though they would've been way more authentic) or heard about from Anthony Bourdain.
Instead, I decided to try Botswana, and I will admit I knew virtually nothing about Botswana. I met and lived with people who didn’t always understand me or share my values. I talked to people who had never heard of my city or the things we ate or the music we listened to and vice versa. I had discussions about issues that I never considered while in the US. I took classes with professors that had extremely different teaching styles, requiring me to completely readjust my learning and studying methods. I ate foods I’d never heard of and went to places I didn’t know existed. I worked with people who communicated differently from me and had to adapt to a different professional environment. I learned about and fell in love with a culture I previously knew nothing about and one many people still don’t know much about. All of this adjustment required extra time and effort. I had to go out of my way to learn new ways of life and navigate new situations. Sometimes it was uncomfortable. I got a lot of judgmental stares and looks of disapproval. Sometimes it was inconvenient. I often ended up doing the wrong things due to miscommunciation. Sometimes I was angry, other times sad. I met people I am so happy I did, and I met people I never want to talk to again.
But throughout all of this, I discovered more about myself and my culture than I had in 21 years, and I grew in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. I now appreciate and understand the value of spending time around people who don’t always agree with you and reinforce your own beliefs. It forced me to reconsider my worldviews and come to terms with new points of view that gave me the opportunity to decide what I believe in instead of just accepting what I was taught. In some instances, it led me to reaffirm some of my values with greater strength, but more often it caused me to accept new, diverse ways of thinking which will help me in my career, my academics, my spiritual beliefs, my political beliefs, and most importantly my personal relationships. All of this taught me about who I am, who I want to become, and how I want to change the world. The new ideas I was exposed to allowed me to reconsider my career goals and my life goals, and I believe my friends and family gained some new perspectives from me.
So yes, there were many cultural differences, but overall, I saw just how similar human beings are. We share the same fears of abandonment and rejection and the same needs for love and acceptance though they manifest in different ways. We are meant to learn from one another and to help each other reach our collective goals. For this reason, I think every student should have the opportunity to study abroad, and every person should be able to benefit from the beautiful intermingling of cultures.