5 Years Later: What I Really Learned from Study Abroad

by Mary Ellen Dingley

Oh, the memories of little me, traipsing off to study abroad in Lima, Peru, bright eyed and idealistic and utterly enamored with the entire idea of immersive travel. I was so excited, I think I was glowing, maybe even sending off sparks while seated in the airplane (uh, sorry 36B). This was everything I had dreamed of since I was an eight year old, soaking in a National Geographic article about the Peruvian Andes and crinkling my nose at the thought of eating guinea pig. I felt both grown up, and so very, very young.

A woman on top of a mountain

And you know what? Study abroad met all my expectations. It wasn’t always perfect and happy, but it was immersive and educational. Perhaps that last word sounds dry to you, but it was; it was everything education should be. Hands on, exciting, exhausting, transformative. Every time I travel it’s like coloring in a section of a map, and my world expanded enormously with my semester abroad, far deeper and richer in color than any one quick visit could have filled it in.

I chose to study abroad in Lima because I wanted to learn Spanish and delve into the political, cultural, and economic issues facing Peru. I certainly came away with much better Spanish and a deeper understanding of the forces shaping Peru as a nation. But, I also took away lessons that were more personal, lessons that changed how I moved through the world. Lessons that prepared me well for life.

Everyone told me I'd learn a lot, but it’s incredible to me just how much I learned.

The REAL Lessons Learned from Studying Abroad

In the moment it felt real and raw and impactful, but only as I have continued to unpack the lessons from my trip have I come to truly realize the depth of the lessons I learned in Peru. Five years later, here’s what I really learned while studying abroad:

1. To love what I don’t understand.

One of the most important lessons I took away from Lima was that I learned to love what I didn’t understand. To love the strange, or at least the strange to me. That sounds silly perhaps, but I learned to love  the customs I didn’t quite get the hang of, the conversations I couldn’t quite follow, anything that made me scratch my head in confusion. The frighteningly complex, but somehow efficient flow of traffic. The obsession with the bubble-gum-sweet Inka Cola. The many host family members that I couldn’t keep track of because I’m terrible at names and family trees (How was Tia Lucia related to us again? She isn’t?). I remember being at parties with my large host family, not sure what was happening, confused, tired, hungry, and wanting my bed, but still able to look around and just love where I was, love that everything had brought me here. I might not understand the jokes they were laughing at, but I loved that they were laughing.

A woman on top of Machu Picchu

So often our first reaction to something we don’t understand is fear or anger. But study abroad helped me be curious, and to often accept that no, I will never quite figure out why people dressed as giant guinea pigs was considered a great form of political campaigning, but hey, it certainly seemed to work! Why should I judge what I don’t understand? Let me love my confusion, the puzzles, the mysteries to uncover!

2. To let go.

I also learned to let go of many things, but specifically of the expectation of perfection and of my own high opinion of myself. While I could strive for excellence in my academics and in my volunteer projects, I would often end up lost on my way to school and couldn’t possibly speak to a new friend without making grammar mistakes. And that was ok - mistakes helped me learn!

I had to let go of the need to be right or to even to be understood. If you let it, study abroad can be the very best teacher of humility. Once my host sister happened to overhear me speaking English with some American friends (I know, I should have stuck to Spanish…) and she told me she was shocked that I could speak so fast! She had presumed that since I was slow at Spanish, that I struggled with speaking in my own language as well. At first I was offended - did I come across as that dumb?! But it taught me a valuable lesson in how we perceive others via language. And it taught me to laugh it off - I would never be able to convince every Peruvian that really, I’m very smart in English, I promise, while I was also having to ask them to repeat themselves once more, por favor.

3. To value impermanence.

I learned hold people and places and things loosely - study abroad is so impermanent. You come in knowing it will end, and you make relationships knowing you will leave. Yes, you can keep in touch, but it won’t be exactly the same. Everything is so fleeting and quick, but it doesn’t make it any less precious. It teaches you to, as cliche as it might be, live in the moment. I remember being on a boat in the Amazon with some friends, hearing birds and animals around us, watching the clouds reflected in the water and thinking, here I am. In this immensity, here is me, one small person, one small moment. I’ll likely never return to this exact spot, nor be with this same exact group of people again, but to be there in that particular arrangement of quickly flowing time and space was enough.

A vendor selling vegetables in Peru

4. To take risks.

I learned to take risks. Study abroad itself can feel a bit like a risk - going off somewhere new and confusing, living with people you don’t know, often in a language you don’t speak. But within my time of studying abroad, my best memories were times when I took some extra risks.

I signed up for a conversation partner, incredibly nervous that it would be uncomfortable, but then she ended up becoming my best friend in Lima. I went to a party with mostly people I didn’t know, and ended up being taught traditional dances from the jungle region. I struck out on my own to seek a new volunteer opportunity on my very first day, I got horribly lost, ended up at a dinner party for a family I didn’t know, and very clumsily ate guinea pig for the first time.

Even the small risks, like starting a new conversation topic at Sunday lunch with my host family, unsure of the correct vocabulary, but willing to give it a try, were ultimately profound. These risks added up to much further growth, and a lot more fun, than I could have achieved by keeping quiet, or staying home.

5. To stay calm in the face of challenges.

I learned that a lot of challenges can be overcome with a little creativity and nonchalance. By that I mean that when a new confusion or frustration arose, my first response was to sit back and observe a bit. Rather than immediately become upset, I was calm and took a moment to soak in the entire situation before acting.

Whether that was when I realized I was lost, when I was afraid we were going to fall down Colca Canyon in the dark, or when I thought I had offended someone accidentally in my terrible Spanish, I learned to stop, take a deep breath, and then get creative. Lost? Find a friendly taxi driver! Adventuring in the dark? Use your cellphones and walk very, very slowly. Offended someone? Think back to what you said, apologize profusely, and ask for help in learning how to express your idea politely.

Now, when I face frustrating or scary situations, even relatively more mundane ones (like whether or not to grab the last office donut), those times in Peru have taught me that 9.9 times out 10, there is a way out, and I can find it.

6. To appreciate the unseen depths.

But perhaps the greatest lesson I learned while studying abroad is that the world has magnificent depth. It has great beauty, yes landscapes and cities, that enchants us, and sometimes great ugliness, earthquakes, and turmoil that destroys. But under what we first see, the beauty and the ugliness, there is still more to learn.

On the slopes of those beautiful mountains are villages full of people with stories to tell. In that gorgeous city are cultures and traditions and lives being lived that are more important and profound than even the graceful architecture. And most importantly, in the places that aren’t pretty, the places that seem poor or dangerous, there are some of the most wonderful stories.

People in a Bolivian market

In Lima, there is a neighborhood called Villa El Salvador, which is where I was able to volunteer. It is very poor, dangerous according to some, and not much to look at compared to the shiny skyscrapers of downtown. It was built into the sand dunes and sometimes has wastelands of trash. But that neighborhood has the most exciting story: it was claimed and created by refugees escaping violence from Andes, built on ideals of cooperation and peace, and for a long time, had the highest literacy rate, primary education enrollment, and community involvement of any city outskirts community. While times have been tough, they are still proud of their history as a community that stood up against violence. Not many tourists would ever want to spend time in this place, but it was there that I learned the most about the building of modern Peru. Where I learned about hard work, and community spirit, and tenacity. It was my favorite place in Lima.

To conclude…

The world has magnificent depth. And it is waiting for us to come, to sit patiently, to love what we don’t understand, and let go of preconceived notions.

Anyone bound for study abroad (or who is a returnee like me) will understand the layers of experiences a semester in a foreign culture can yield. But even though my 20-something, young-professional-life looks a little different on the surface than my dusty-shoed-days in the Andes, the lessons from studying abroad are deep-rooted, whole-hearted, and applicable to all of my life’s adventures (and I suspect they will continue to be for many years to come).