The importance of studying abroad

Hannah Wishart is a proud graduate of Indiana University where she double-majored in International Studies and Spanish, while also completing a minor in Non-profit Management to achieve a Bachelor of Arts degree. She is a currently serving Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia where she lives and works. She teaches students of all ages in a public school alongside Georgian English teachers. Hannah loves traveling and new experiences and is currently planning her next adventure after her Peace Corps services ends.

This is not going to be some “list-icle” about the 25 reasons that going to another country will change your life, or the 43 things you must do before you… blah blah blah. No, this article is about how my study abroad experience has shaped by life since college for the better. It started out as a pleasure cruise of exotic locations and crazy nights, but it ended up being a crazy adventure that I’ll never forget.
So, first the basics: I did my study abroad during the second semester of my junior year of college at Indiana University. I chose that particular semester because it was the recommended semester to do so and it fit into my plan for an on-time graduation. I chose to go to Seville (or as the Spaniards say it, Sevilla), Spain. Seville is in the central southern part of Spain, about an hour and a half inland from the coast. Spain was the perfect choice for me because I had been studying Spanish since 7th grade and I felt that I had a good handle on the language. So off I went to live in this unknown country (to me) for 4 months. Soon after arriving, I was whisked away to live with a 60 year old woman named Asunción in her tiny apartment just over the Guadalquivir river. During my stay with Asunción, I took classes at my program’s headquarters in the heart of Santa Cruz, the old Jewish neighborhood. On top of those classes, I also took classes designed for foreigners at the University of Seville, which is situated in a beautiful old tobacco factory. As you might expect, my daily walk to class was amazingly beautiful and included a 900 year old cathedral, more orange trees than I could count and old, winding cobble-stone streets.
The experience that has stuck with me the longest was my opportunity to volunteering during my study abroad. Once a week, my friend Laurel and I would go to the far side of the city to volunteer at an organization called Gota de Leche (Drop of Milk). This organization provided breakfast and lunch to underprivileged school age students in one of the rougher neighborhoods of Seville. Gota de Leche was run by one woman who bought enough cereal, milk, bread, cheese and meat to serve 10-15 children 2 meals per day. Laurel and I’s roles were to help her prepare the food in the mornings and help to serve it to the children as they came in. Oftentimes, she would use her own money to buy the food due to a lack of funding. Her commitment to these kids was astonishing to me. She knew that the food she was providing would likely be the only food they would eat all day. I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience of volunteering at a one-woman NGO would be the first in a long string of volunteering I would do.
Throughout the experience of studying abroad, I learned things about myself. I learned that I have a high tolerance for not having a clue about what is going on and that sometimes it really is just better to go with the flow and hope for the best. I learned that if I really want to do something, I will have to push through barrier after barrier to achieve it. To put labels on these things, I can now say that I have a proven track record of self-reliance, determination and flexibility, all as a result of this one semester of independence on another continent. You are forced to learn these things when you run into problems and your nearest source of help is literally an ocean and a continent away.
So what does a semester abroad say to an employer? The answer to this question is entirely up to you. You can frame it as a fun time in another country, or you can frame it as a semester-long learning experience, both about yourself and a new culture. Being dropped into a new country and thriving speaks volumes about a potential hire. It says that this person is willing and able to handle what comes at them and they are able to find solutions to their own problems. Self-reliance is a huge plus for a potential employer – no one wants to hold a person’s hand for their entire career. Employers want self-starters who are not afraid to take calculated risks for a potential payoff.
Beyond having a new-found love of travel, my semester in Spain has shaped my life in ways that I could have never imagined at the time. My volunteering experience at Gota de Leche was the first in a long string of volunteering and has lead me to a new career choice: joining the Peace Corps. I am a currently serving volunteer in Chiatura, Georgia (no, not the state) and I will be here for the next 22 months. I began my 27 month stint of service at the end of April and will be here until July of 2016. If I had not studied abroad, the thought of travel on this big of a scale would not have even crossed my mind. Living in Spain for 4 months opened my eyes to my potential for a lifetime of travel. Before heading to Spain, I had never been outside of the US – not even to Canada or Mexico. It was a huge step for me to take on my own and I have benefitted for it ten-fold.
If you are even slightly considering going abroad – Do it! Just give it a try! The worst that can happen is that you’ll come home. But even then, you have taken the step to go out and find something new, and that in itself is more than most will ever do. Everyone’s experience may be different, but everyone’s experience is worth it. Studying abroad during college is an opportunity that not every student takes advantage of, but should.

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