Studying Abroad: One of My Best Experiences in College

I’ve had a lot of young adult clients lately and my older teen clients are on their way to college soon. It’s almost like I’m launching my own children, as I’ve been seeing some of these clients for 1-2 years now. One of the themes that came up several times during my sessions is wondering if they should study abroad in college. If you’re asking for my opinion–do it!

During my sophomore year in college, I actually had a roommate from France who was a foreign exchange student at the time. Her friends even came to visit her during their time off from school. And one of them even became such a dear friend of mine who have visited me in SoCal, while I returned the favor and visited her in France. Making friends from another side of the world is one of the biggest bonuses from these programs. You’ll always have people to visit when you travel! I never imagined that I would be doing a program like this too.

I was 19, had just broken up with who I thought was the love of my life at the time, and was getting ready to graduate in the Summer of 2013 at UC Irvine. I only had 2 electives left to take and was getting ready to register for these classes. Then I stumbled upon the study abroad center (UCEAP) on campus and saw all the opportunities that were being presented. At the time, I had only been to Thailand (almost yearly) to visit my family. So going to another part of the world that wasn’t Asia seemed so far fetched. I met with a student advisor and looked at all the amazing places that I could apply in order to finish my remaining courses. Luckily, I had a friend who was finishing her physics courses abroad that summer too. So I thought… heck, if she’s going then why can’t I?

After browsing through all the programs that UCI was offering, I landed on the Italy Cultural Immersion Program in Florence. It was mainly an Italian language program with your choice of a cultural elective. And of course my choice was the Food & Culture course! When I told my mom about my decision to study abroad, she went into mama bear mode. To be fair, it would be the first time I would travel out of the country alone and the only Italian words I knew were pizza and vino. The UCEAP program was so helpful through the whole thing. Once accepted into the program, we had to attend an orientation which covered everything from safety to the emotional rollercoaster that you’ll be experiencing. I’ll be outlining the entire journey in four phases: pre-departure anxiety, homesickness and disorientation, adventure and adaptation, and homecoming.

Pre-departure anxiety

Oh the excitement! Buying plane tickets, researching all the places you can visit, figuring out the living situation, choosing roommates (or getting matched with a host family), and most importantly…saving up money! You will start telling everyone about your upcoming trip from the barista to the person bagging your groceries. There’s nothing to be ashamed of! All this nervous energy can be a good thing especially if it helps you get s*** done!

Homesickness and disorientation

I was so glad my program had warned us about this stage. You arrive at your room, you’re jet lagged, confused, and you don’t know where the nearest convenience store is. For a moment, I thought I made the wrong decision. I was definitely dealing with culture shock. I didn’t speak the language, I stood out like a sore thumb, and heck I couldn’t find Asian food anywhere. You just have to push through it, and remember that your peers are probably feeling the same.

The adventure and adaption

Once you finally settle in, you will reach serenity. You would have established a routine, met some locals, and made plans to explore when you’re not in school. By week 4, I knew all the local spots and rarely needed a map. Of course there will be challenges along the way, but at least you’ll be comfortable with your surroundings.

Pointe Vecchio, Florence, Italy
Roomies and I on the Ponte Vecchio near our apartment

Homecoming

Tower of Pisa

OMG when I was Italy…. blah blah blah. Although you had this big adventure and will feel so excited to tell all your friends and family about it, the truth is that they’re not going to want to hear about it.

Some of my program buddies stayed to travel some more, but my broke ass had to come home. It was depressing to see all the posts they were making on social media while I was back home and unpacking.

Everyone will go through their own process. You might not necessarily go through each phase in this order or you’ll move between the phases but you will be so glad you stuck it through. Through this whole process, I felt like I truly found myself (as much as a 19 year old could, anyway).

Although the program was only a few months, I had such a transformative experience. I was taken out of my comfort zone, learned some valuable lessons, and had an adventure of a lifetime. Til this day, I’ve remained friends with my study abroad buddies (who now continue to travel and share their experiences on social media from time to time) and those that I’ve met abroad. I realized that I had a passion for experiencing new cultures and made a promise to myself that I would work my butt off in order to visit a new country every year.

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