It’s been three years, three months, twenty days, and roughly eleven hours since I stepped off the plane back from Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was there that I chose to study abroad through the Cherington Global Scholars program at DU in the fall of 2008. I reminisce often, both with friends and family, or just in my head. It’s interesting looking back on it, mainly because I am in a completely different stage of my life now. Since then, I have graduated from the University of Denver, attended and graduated from graduate school at Daniels College of Business, moved to Dallas, TX, lost my father to lung cancer, and landed a job at an advertising agency. Needless to say, a lot has changed since my return home.
It literally feels like only yesterday when I was a 19 year old sophomore, living with my best friends in my fraternity house and enjoying every minute of it. It seemed to be all anyone in my class could talk about: “Where are you going abroad?” Prague, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, London, Sydney, Auckland, Capetown, Dubai, Beijing; the list went on and on. I really thought long and hard on where I should go. I had been fortunate enough growing up to have traveled to Europe three times before the age of 18 (two school trips, and a hockey trip). I wanted to go somewhere I’d never been and somewhere off the beaten path.
I remember one day sitting in the I-House talking with my advisor and looking up at a sheet hanging on her wall. It was a long list of global cities and next to it was the number of DU students that traveled there the previous semester. Obviously the European cities were the big ones, Australia after that, and then I saw it: “Buenos Aires: 5”. I had some decent Spanish under my belt and always enjoyed Spanish culture. Up until that point, I hadn’t really thought about South America. It seemed…not far away enough, if that makes sense. I didn’t really know anything about it. I gathered as much information as I could about Argentina, Chile and Brazil and rushed home to look into it.
Buenos Aires immediately went to the top of my list. Everything about it sounded so…for the lack of a better word: awesome. I’d be lying if I also didn’t choose it because no one else seemed to be going there. Summer flew by and on July 31, 2008 I boarded a plane for Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires is a great enormous city. In the beginning I often felt anxious and very overwhelmed. Like I said earlier, my Spanish was pretty good, but that was only if the Spanish was coming from my high school Spanish teacher who was talking to me like a five year old and teaching me colors, numbers, or days of the week. I knew how to read a map, but not what busses to take to get there. I knew how to ask “Where am I?” but any answer I got made no sense as I had no frame of reference. Anyone that says study abroad isn’t scary at times is lying.
Eventually it all started making sense and it became routine. That’s a guarantee. One of my favorite things about studying abroad is that you meet people that you normally never would in the United States. Obviously that applies to the natives of that city but I’m talking about the Americans. Everyone was just…friendlier. This is very simple. It’s because you’re a bunch of twenty year olds in a foreign country, away from your family, your friends, your home, your favorite fast food, your pets, your car, your girlfriend or boyfriend, your favorite radio stations, most of your clothes, and so on and so on. The only familiar thing with you is yourself. That’s it. I didn’t recognize it at first, but it was the most liberating experience of my entire life.
What I mean by “liberating” is that you’re completely set free from all of your “social baggage”. (I know there’s a better word for this but it’s been four years since I took Sociology and I’m a little rusty.) By “social baggage” I mean all of the things that society tends to define people with: your friends, your family, the car you drive, the people you date, the late night shenanigans you may or may not involve yourself with, the town you’re from, the money you do or don’t have, etc. All of this didn’t really seem to matter in (Insert Your Destination Here). The only thing that mattered was me, myself and I. Everyone is in the same boat and so people are a lot less judgmental. You really can be the person you want to be. If you’re someone who already is the person they want to be than that’s fantastic. But for me, it took living in South America to figure it out. It isn’t real life almost.
I’m not someone who by any means, NEEDED to rid myself of my “social baggage”. I’m just saying that it did feel like a weight was suddenly lifted off my shoulders. For me personally, it was the first time I was completely and genuinely myself. It was something I got used to; something I loved. Studying abroad changed me for the better because I allowed it to. It wasn’t just a trip; it was a challenge to grow from the experience. I still talk to and hang out with dozens of people I met there. I even lived with one of the guys I met there when we got back for a year and a half.
Another unique aspect was that when we were all abroad, the recession hit. I remember talking on Skype with a girl back home and her saying, “Yeah it’s pretty bad, everybody is really stressed out.” I didn’t concern myself with it at the time and probably went back to watching Family Guy in Spanish. While the US economy was collapsing, I was sitting on a beach in Brazil watching the sun come up. When people were losing their savings left and right, I was hiking in the Andes. When the stock market was crashing, I was on a 20-hour bus ride to the largest waterfall in the world. And when the world was in a panic, I was falling in love with South America. We all were, really.
If you’re someone who is about to go abroad, I encourage you to not be swayed about where to go, and pick somewhere YOU want to go to. You only do this kind of thing once. When you go, don’t hold anything back and experience everything you can. You don’t have to go on elaborate trips to have an experience. You can have an experience anywhere if you have an open mind. For those of you who have already been abroad, I encourage you to look at your time there and think about what it meant to you overall. Or get in touch with someone you were friends with there and see what they’re doing nowadays. You’d be surprised.
Jonathan Armstead, DU Study Abroad Alum, Bueno Aires ’08