As my final weeks abroad are coming to a close, I decided to write a letter-of-sorts to future exchange students to share all that I've learned during my experience and to give a little bit of advice, here it is:
Dear Study Abroad Student,
Congratulations! You've decided to commit to the road less traveled (and the better one, if you ask me). Instead of following the typical, dull course that everyone expects you to, that of a normal high school existence which doesn't turn to experimentation and self-discovery until college, you chose the harder, more interesting way. Only a few thousand American teenagers take advantage of this amazing opportunity every year. Those of us who do, like me and shortly you, can't quite fathom why more don't. It is nothing short of life changing, in the most incredible and unimaginable way.
That's not to say, of course, that studying abroad is easy. Quite the contrary. Although one of the most rewarding things you will ever do, studying abroad is also by far one of the hardest. You will be exhausted, stressed, and may even wonder why you decided to leave everything you know hundreds or thousands of miles away to pursue some dream you might not feel like you really even thought through. I'm on the other side of those thoughts to remind you why you chose to make such a leap. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Why did you decide to study abroad? Did you want to learn a new language? See a new part of the world? Do something totally different? Well, all of those things will happen, but only if you put in effort, and a lot of it. Studying abroad is not for those who give up easily. You will probably struggle at least once with grades, friends, your host family, language, or homesickness, and may face problems in all of them. You will probably feel, as I have felt many times over these past four months, that you can't put yourself first, that nobody understands you. And that's true. It's impossible for someone who hasn't studied abroad to know what an insurmountable task it can be just to get out of bed sometimes. They'll underestimate you when they shouldn't and won't cut you slack when you feel like you need it. But that's why you need to keep trying. Don't retreat to your bedroom; don't spend all of your time with people who speak your language; don't get offended when someone laughs at how you say some words or react to a given situation. Pick your head up and spend your time with your host family; force yourself to make the effort, even with total strangers; laugh with them and practice your pronunciation when you can. Do these things and watch your host family become practically indistinguishable from your real family, complete strangers become your closest friends, and people you don't even know compliment you on how well you speak the language when they find out it isn't your first.
Trust me, I've done it. I've gone from speaking barely any Spanish to being praised by waiters, from not understanding what the teachers were saying to doing presentations in subjects as varied as history and biology. I've gone from not knowing anyone in my school to being able to communicate with my friends solely through eye rolls during class, from being nervous to leave my room to laughing at inside jokes with my host family and referring to them as "my parents", "my brother", or "my sister" when talking to my friends. This has become my school, my home, my life. Leaving it all behind to go back to the "real world" will undoubtedly be one of the hardest things I ever do. I still can't believe how much I've changed since September, and I'm sure you won't believe it when it happens to you either.
Though I can write you this letter and tell you that you've made the right decision (even though it isn't the easy one) and bolster my argument with my own experience, I ultimately don't know you and don't know what your experience studying abroad will be. I can't promise you that it will be anything like mine, and I can't even promise that you'll end up liking it (though I'm sure if you are brave enough to even think about studying abroad, you'll love it). I can promise, however, that it will change your life. As for the rest, well, I guess you'll just have to study abroad and find out for yourself.