“The best part about air planes”, my friend began, “is the take off. How will you know? It’s a sudden release – just, boom. The engines roar like an avalanche, and within seconds you’re suddenly being propelled at several hundred miles an hour. And just as suddenly, you’re in the sky. You will know.”
I was 18. I had never boarded a plane. I had never left the country, and I had only visited one state outside of my native California – about 8 miles in to adjacent Nevada. So when I stepped on board the Italy-bound Lufthansa 737 airliner, I was eager, overwhelmed. I sent out a final text message to my closest of friends, something to the effect of “See you all next year…Italy here I come!” It was late August, and I would soon be peering down at distant landscapes and the Atlantic Ocean from 36,000 feet for the ensuing 14 hours of my life, finally to pop up on the other side of the world.
In 2007, I left for Italy as a Business Administration major concerned with some day living in an affluent neighborhood with an expensive car. If I met an embodiment of that person now, I do not think I would recognize him. Before leaving, I had no expectations of instilling within myself a more informed understanding of global issues, nor developing a more universal perspective needed to balance challenges both local and international in scale. Really, I just wanted to expose myself to something new. I was not sure if this opportunity would ever again present itself – I was young, and the time seemed ripe. And so it was, that I decided to study abroad in Italy for the 2007 fall semester.
I returned from my Italian experience 5 years, 6 weeks and 4 days ago. At this moment, I am writing from the office of the Aspect Foundation, a San Francisco-based international student exchange nonprofit committed to promoting peace and tolerance through international education, study abroad and host family engagement. I have a degree each in International Relations and French. I have cycled through the alps of Switzerland, cooked breakfast with the mountain-dwelling Bedouins of Jordan, learned about sustainable agricultural practices while volunteering on French farms, attended free sailing lessons in Croatia, and spent a year of my life attending university in Paris. But none of this came without tremendous effort.
Studying abroad, visiting another culture is not easy. In fact, it is downright challenging. It requires a incredible amount of maturity, openness and self-discipline. But with all of this comes unparalleled growth and reward. Sometimes, I remind myself of what Clifton Fradiman, a 1900s author and intellectual said. “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
The significance of study abroad in shaping a generation of global diplomats, promoting cross-cultural tolerance and international relations was highlighted by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a message aired during the 2012 Open Doors briefing on international education exchange in Washington D.C recently. “The ties of friendship and understanding you’re building are the most effective forms of diplomacy,” Clinton said. “They truly will help shape our common future.”
Opportunities are abound and unprecedented for American and international students alike. Youth already make up for 20% of all international travellers, with expectations for the international education industry to double by 2020, says CEO Samuel Vetrak of StudentMarketing. U.S. Senator David L. Boren reiterates, “Never in our history has it been more important for America’s future leaders to have a deep understanding of the rest of the world. As we seek to lead through partnerships, respect for and understanding of other cultures and languages is absolutely essential.”
Forget your prejudices, and accept newness. Ask questions, collaborate, and get involved. Embrace your life, embrace diversity, take initiative and expand the world. Study abroad. Challenge yourself. It’s worth it.