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The 3 Most Important Things I Learned from Study Abroad Without Realizing It

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

When I was really little, I used to think that if I ate the cheese that hangs off the end of a piece of pizza I would choke to death and die. Fortunately, I was wrong. When I was a little older I believed that I if I lost a tooth, a little, magic fairy would come and replace it with a dollar. A little more unfortunately I wrong about this too. I also thought that when my best friend and his family visited “Marco’s Island” they just knew some wealthy Floridian who owned his own island, because if you were in a position to own an island, why wouldn’t you name it after yourself. When I started dating my first girlfriend, I thought that dousing myself in AXE body spray would make me more attractive. And when she left me (probably because of how I smelled), I was once again wrong. In high school, when I began to apply to colleges, I thought that there was no way I was going to end up going to school in the same state I’d grown up in. Then I ended up choosing the University of Illinois over schools in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and New York.

Going into my study abroad experience I thought that I was going to be learning a lot about fish, marine ecology, and conservation biology because I was going to be studying coral reef conservation and ecology. I soon learned that my study abroad experience was no different than melted cheese, the tooth fairy, “Marco’s Island,” girlfriends, and colleges because I was wrong yet again. Clearly I have been wrong about a lot in my life. Probably about everything at one time or another. And while it isn’t always fun, I hope this trend continues for the rest of my life because it is when you are wrong, and recognize it, that you learn the most. You learn without trying. You learn without realizing it. Being wrong means eating arguably the most delicious part of the pizza, recognizing that there are better ways to spend your money than on an island named after yourself, reaping the benefits of living close to home like only needing to drive for 3 hours to get home for Thanksgiving break, and learning about marine biology but also about yourself and life. Here are some of the important lessons I learned from studying abroad:


While painting the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo became ill, had to come down from the scaffold, and had the opportunity to view his work. He realized that much of the detail he was putting into his work was invisible to the eye from the floor below. As a result he changed how he did his work and the biblical scenes on the ceiling actually grow larger and less detailed as you look at them. Michelangelo saw the big-picture. Studying abroad will do the same to you. It allows you to see first hand how cultures mesh, what is unique to your culture, and what is universal to all cultures.  You realize that humans are mostly the same, with the same needs, desires, irritations, and goals. You realize that no matter how much you see, do, or learn there is always more — that with each new place you travel to there is so much more to the people, culture, and customs than you can even begin to fathom. You realize the necessity of looking at the world in a larger sense, broadening horizons, and refining your perspectives to allow you to turn your life into a masterpiece, just as Michelangelo did with the Sistine Chapel.


Not quite the Sistine Chapel, but a pretty darn good mural my friends and I painted on South Caicos.


Well that’s a bit harsh. I’m sure there are plenty of family, friends, and professors that care about you. But as college students at home, more often than not, we say hello to the same people, walk to class the same way, get coffee from the same coffee shop, and complain about the same classes. We fall into routines, that when you think about it are really rather boring, and lead to dumb ideals.  If you say “hi,” to that one girl you had chemistry lab with freshman year but she doesn’t say hi back, it’s just going to be awkward the next time you see her. Or if you slip on ice walking to class, well tough luck, you walk to class the same way every day and now you’re going to be “the guy who fell and ate it that one time” to everybody you walk past everyday. Really, truth be told, you’re probably better becoming a hermit and having Netflix marathons by yourself because you’re just a walking case of embarrassment. But while abroad, you can’t help but constantly embarrass yourself. Whether it’s trying to understand new accents and languages, or having friends laugh at you during moments of confusion, you will inevitably have a lot of awkward moments. The great thing is that you soon learn something important – literally nobody cares. Not now. Not in an hour. Not in a day. There is no one to impress or please. The vast majority of the the time, it’s just you, yourself, and your mind inventing stories. You realize that people are actually quite accepting and that you have no reason to not be exactly who you want to be.


One month, and too many embarrassing moments later this was where my new friends and I were at.


I’m fairly confident that it is impossible for children ages 5 through 10 not to lose their winter clothing. Coats, mittens, gloves, hats, scarves, take your pick, they almost always end up lost at some point. They then embark on a journey from playground, to oversized cardboard box, back to their rightful owner. When studying abroad people embark on journeys all the time. In the literal sense it may be to class, to that one bar with the really cheap beer after a tough exam, or on a weekend excursion with friends. In the figurative sense, they probably embark on a journey to “find themselves” or on some higher, personal quest. Still, that one email saying that lecture is in a different classroom will end up in the spam folder, you’ll forget which street to take a left on, or that shortcut you took will turn into a total inconvenience when trying to go on your mini vacation. By removing external influences — the overbearing advisor, the inquisitive parents, the peer-pressures of unsavory friends — you should gain an unprecedented clarity of your life and values and finally achieve that self-actualization you learned about in AP Psych senior year of high school, but just can’t seem to make it click. You end up confused, frustrated, and lost in uncertainty. But at some point you come to terms with this and you grow. You learn to listen for the announcement ahead of time in class, to ask for directions, or how to read a map. You learn to be analytic, open, and non-judgmental. You learn the important life skill of how to thrive in uncertainty. You learn how to be lost and found.


I could have sworn we were supposed to take a right on Fort St…

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