Becoming a flexible person through Study Abroad

People spend a lot of time talking about how study abroad will open your worldview and help you appreciate other cultures—this is ABSOLUTELY true and something we at the OIE hope you all get from this experience.  People also talk a great deal about how study abroad can strengthen your resume and make you a stronger candidate for jobs—something I know this blog will be discussing in the coming weeks as well.

However, I want to also bring some attention to the fact that study abroad can help with something else—it can be one more exercise in becoming a more flexible person and help you to adjust to any new scenario that comes your way.

I studied abroad twice as an undergrad—once in the UK and once in Chile—and both experiences certainly helped me with that process.  While I come from an immigrant Latino family and have spent a lot of time in Latin America visiting family, Chile was a new experience for me, as was the UK.  The fact that I had to figure out how to adjust to life in a completely new environment—and do it on my own—helped me develop my ability to be flexible as a human being.

Stephanie picture 1
Me on Easter Island June 2007

Figuring out where to go for goods or information; learning to observe what is going on around me to get a better sense of the big picture; paying careful attention to make sure the person I’m talking to is actually understanding what I am trying to communicate; learning to live without daily luxuries I couldn’t bring with me or couldn’t justify buying for such a short period of time: these are all skills that have served me incredibly well, both in my personal and professional life.

Personally, being open to big moves to new places and taking advantage of international opportunities that have come my way is something I definitely came to appreciate through study abroad.  I have moved around the US several times to start new jobs and in each case have been able to look at the move as an adventure, and have been able to design a mini-strategy for myself to help make each new city home, much like I did in the UK and Chile.

Professionally, my ability to observe what is going on around me has also come in handy.  Starting a new job is always an exercise in coming in to a new “culture” and using the same skills I developed when adjusting to a new community abroad has helped make my transitions into each new job as seamless as possible and helped me manage the unavoidable confusion and stress that comes with being the new person and being unsure of what you’re doing.

My internship placement in Nicaragua summer 2011
My internship placement in Nicaragua summer 2011

In both of these scenarios the main skill set is the same—being FLEXIBLE and comfortable with not knowing everything that is going on.  While study abroad won’t be solely responsible for helping you develop these, it is one more experience to help hone these skills—skills you’ll be able to take in every new opportunity or situation that comes into your life.

Me ending my last job, which had me touring the US raising awareness of international human rights. Out last big even in Washington DC 2013
Me ending my last job, which had me touring the US raising awareness of international human rights. Out last big even in Washington DC 2013

-Stephanie Roberts, OIE Advisor

Readjusting Post-Study Abroad

A few weeks ago was my birthday. Things were going wonderfully, and then I received this text from my friend:

“Happy birthday, my dearest! And to think we left Beijing one year ago today.”

I read it and was dumbstruck. I clearly remembered my birthday one year ago, when my friends and I caught a cab to the Beijing Capital International Airport. It was early, barely 6:30 am. I was ready to return to the U.S., but I also wanted more time in this historical yet modern city. Although I wasn’t flying directly home (there was a detour to Hong Kong), it was the day I left my school, program, and friends from abroad.

Only now, one year later, am I beginning to see how my study abroad affected me when I returned to the States. Initially, all I could comprehend were the immediate things—how clean Colorado’s air is, how much more natural it was to use chopsticks and how clunky silverware seemed. My first quarter back at DU was overwhelming; academics, work, and relationships were different than I expected. As weird as it may sound, I yearned to study Chinese all day and eat sumptuous Beijing cuisine. Yet I had to focus on my final year of undergrad in Denver. It was intense. Things that seemed trivial to me were actually part of a large readjustment process I didn’t realize was happening.

For example…when I initially started drinking coffee again it was like drinking an energy drink. Even coffee overwhelmed me! I mediated this by ordering a tea tumbler off Amazon so I could drink the loose-leaf tea I had brought back from China.  Coffee gets me too caffeinated; I prefer to drink it slowly with friends now.

Readjusting Post Study Abroad_Michelle blog

Also, there were many times post-China I felt silly or disjointed while speaking. I’d pause or not be able to describe something as prolifically as I wanted to—the Chinese word was more immediate to me than the English word. There were three distinct times when I forgot “student” in English. There are countless times when my tongue has been tied.

Ultimately, two things have helped me readjust post-study abroad: 1) getting a routine and 2) working on communication.

This quarter has been my most stable quarter since being back. My routine is also the most stable now since being back, and I love it. A stable routine is one of the most grounding things I have experienced post-study abroad. Also, communication may seem simple, but after returning from another culture, changes in communication styles is undoubtedly one of the most important things to pay attention to.

Not everything ends just because you and your friends are getting on different flights with different destinations, but change is inevitable. Perhaps you won’t notice the change right away. Still, I recommend focusing on communication and establishing a routine—especially if you are gone for a longer amount of time.

Michelle Yeager, Peer Advisor