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Unique & Unknown: Highlighting the Reasons to Consider Non-Traditional Locations

Guest Blogger: Matt Boyce, Program Assistant at the Study Abroad Office 

One morning, at the ripe young age of eleven, I waltzed into my family’s kitchen after reading an article in National Geographic for Kids and announced to my parents that I would one day bungee jump and study red pandas in the Australian outback. My mom, in all likeliness, gave me the “oh, that’s nice” treatment, and my dad distractedly pointed out that red pandas do not live in Australia, but kangaroos and wombats do, probably while drinking his coffee and working on the Chicago Tribune crossword puzzle. But that didn’t matter. For the rest of my preteen and teenage years the idea of me going to Australia in college captivated my mind. Despite me not knowing what I wanted to study in college, let alone where I wanted to go, whatever major and school I inevitably decided on would also have to be in Sydney, Melbourne, or Perth.

Now, flash forward 8 years. I am sitting next to a crackling bonfire on a beach, s’more stick in hand. My legs are sore after swimming against the strong afternoon currents that rip through pristine coral reefs a short boat ride away. The sounds of friends laughing and waves gently washing ashore surround me, and give the salty air a certain aesthetic ambiance. Several hours later I will retire to my makeshift bed, a yoga mat with a sweatshirt as a pillow, and fall asleep on the cool sand looking up at what seems like an infinite number of stars.

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But am I in the country that marsupials and Aussies call home? No. I am on South Caicos Island, the seventh largest of the Turks & Caicos Islands, an island archipelago lying southeast of the Bahamas. South Caicos, or more simply South (as the locals call it), is an island approximately 368,500 times smaller than the one that mesmerized my mind from the ages of twelve through nineteen. There are no opportunities to bungee jump, there is no outback, and there are no kangaroos. So what happened? Why did I change my mind? And more importantly, why did I “settle” for another experience?

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Studying abroad anywhere is something to be regarded highly. It takes a special kind of person to say, “yes, I want to leave all my friends and family behind and spend a significant amount of time in a different culture that I may or may not know anything about.” The mere thought terrifies some. But of the courageous students who do ultimately choose to study abroad, many do so in “traditional” locations: the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, and Australia. Despite this,  “non-traditional” regions like Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East present students with the chance to experience more meaningful interactions with communities and more personal growth. This was why I elected to go to South instead of Australia.

During my time on South Caicos I was able to conduct my own research, completely immerse myself in another culture, and grow immensely as an individual. When talking with friends back home who studied abroad, almost none of them can say that they bathed in the ocean due to a lack of fresh drinking water, caught sharks and turtles, or went cliff jumping. Still, even fewer can say that they explored a landing craft boat used in the Allied Forces D-Day invasion, got chased daily by wild dogs on morning runs, or accumulated 70+ mosquito bites in a single night. And none can claim to have befriended men that go by the names of “Juice” and  “Baby Blue,” go out in a nightlife culture dominated by the game of dominoes, or get invited into a home to enjoy a dinner of fried conch. As a result of my decision I was able to get exactly what I wanted from my study abroad experience: something unique and meaningful.

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So, without further ado, my (short list) of reasons to consider the non-traditional:

  1. Non-traditional destinations tend to provide unparalleled opportunities to accomplish academic, linguistic, professional goals, and encourage the development of unique skill sets.
  2. Students often have deeper, more comprehensive, appreciations for the local community they experience.
  3. Living in non-western cultures demands larger changes in attitude, perspective, and problem solving skills as a result of (generally) larger culture shock.
  4. There are considerable amounts of financial aid designated specifically to studying in non-traditional regions.
  5. Having studied abroad in a non-traditional location, students will stand out that much more in future interviews and applications as a result of their unconventional experience.

It is because of the above reasons that I don’t view my experience as “settling” at all. Honestly, I feel that had I done anything else I would have been “settling.” But then again, that is just me. I would like to emphasize that I don’t think a bad study abroad experience exists. And if you want to go backpacking through central Europe, or are majoring in Italian linguistics, then maybe a traditional experience would be better for you. But I would like to encourage you to stop and really think about what you want from your study abroad experience. I have a feeling that eleven-year-old me would be ok with replacing bungee jumping, the outback, and red pandas with cliff jumping, coral reefs, and green sea turtles.

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