Study abroad is pretty much the best experience ever. You’re in college and are likely subsisting on either loans or your parents’ money, so expenses don’t seem all that real, and you get to be learning and partying (not necessarily in that order) in a foreign country. On top of it, you’re meeting new friends, you’re seeing new things, and you’re doing it totally independently. It’s about the most eye-opening, liberating experience you can have at that young age.
Of course, you’re also bullshitting yourself a lot of the time. Here are some of the lies you tell yourself when you’re studying abroad.
1. “No one else has ever felt this before!”
It’ll take a few months to a few years after your program abroad to come to terms with the fact that your experience abroad was not a new experience — it’s just new to you. This might make you a little bit obnoxious when you come home and start proselytizing to all of your family and friends about the wonders of study abroad. But whatever. It’s the enthusiasm that matters, even if it can make you insufferable at times. I know I was insanely obnoxious when I returned from my abroad experiences, but I also know that I convinced a few other people to go abroad themselves, and that can only be a good thing.
2. “People back home are going to be so excited to hear about my experience.”
Nope. Sure, if you’re good at telling a story, then people will be interested in what you have to say. But they’ll come to dread any story that’s prefaced with, “Well, when I was in Italy…” The story itself will frequently be long-winded and pointless, and they’ll just have trouble connecting with it. The bad news is that for a while, you’re going to get the distinct impression that you just can’t share your amazing experience with people back home, and it’s going to make you feel slightly isolated. The good news is that you’ll eventually realize that there is a way to tell your stories in an engaging way, and it’ll make you a better, more judicious storyteller.
3. “Ah, what the hell, I’ll splurge. I can afford it.”
Honestly, no college-age student in the United States can afford college unless they’ve got scholarships or are going to low-cost in-state or community colleges. They definitely can’t afford to gallivant around Southeast Asia or Europe for three months with no form of income. Whatever the deal you’ve got worked out — whether you’ve taken out loans or your parents are paying for the trip — it’s gonna hurt when you get back.
Of course, that means you’ve got all the more reason to get the most out of your experience for the time being. Delayed gratification is for adults, and you’ve got precisely until the day you get back before adulthood rears its ugly head. Enjoy it now.
4. “I’m pretty much fluent now.”
Eh, probably not. Maybe your hosts are willing to humor you, or maybe you actually went all-in and chose an insane immersion program that forced you into fluency in the span of three months. But if you spent a three-month trip in Barcelona surrounded mostly by other English speakers, chances are you are at most conversant in the Spanish or Catalan languages. Fluency comes either with immersion or with years of study. The good news is that you can still speak more of the language than people back home, so they won’t know any better.
5. “No one on the street can tell I’m not a local.”
The proudest day I had while I was living in London was when a group of Americans walked slowly by taking pictures, and bumped into an older English gentleman next to me. Once they walked away, he turned to me, gave me a chummy smile, and grumbled, “Bloody tourists.” I stayed totally silent, not wanting to make him realize that I, too, was a foreigner, and bragged to all of my friends that I was basically a Londoner now.
But then, a couple of days later, as I paused in the middle of the walk while trying to get my bearings in an unfamiliar part of town, a fast-walking man knocked into me and grumbled, “Fucking tourists.”
You’re never going to totally blend in to the place you’re visiting, but you might fool some people. The main lesson is that there’s nothing wrong with this: people have been traveling throughout history, and being a “local” or a “native” is something you have to either be born into or earn over a tremendously long period of time. Most places are more than happy to have you as a guest.