Growing up in the United States, it can be easy to think you grew up exposed to pretty much the same things as everyone else. Sure, everybody’s childhood is different and we all have a different personalities, but for the most part, many of us (depending on our generation) grew up watching similar shows, reading the same books assigned to us by school, and having the same sensational news lines tossed at us every week. While uniformity is good in some instances, having a breadth of experiences and perspectives can change lives.
Studying abroad in high school, especially if it's your first time travelling, forces issues upon you that can’t help but change you, and what follows are important realizations you’ll undoubtedly come across during your first experience abroad:
1. Your Country is Not the Whole World
It’s easy to forget that the rest of the world exists in your day to day life. You live in your home country, so naturally you are going to hear news relevant to your land, and that’s the way it should be. The problem lies in the lack of exposure you receive from the rest of the world. If you don’t hear news of the goings-on in foreign countries and you don’t research them yourself, your country will dominate your perspective in your mind. While nationalism is never a bad thing, you come to think of your country and its opinions as the world’s opinions. We forget that there are billions of others out there who don’t know or care about your country who live lives just as real as ours. Participating in a high school program abroad is one of the best ways to gain exposure to other countries and perspectives.
2. That All Countries Face Similar Problems
You’ve heard people all your life telling you how run down some countries are, how dangerous country ‘X’ is and how there’s no clean drinking water in country ‘Y’; and while some of these may be true, most countries struggle more or less from similar things. At home people talk about political turmoil, about shifting cultural perspectives, the economy, and the lack of jobs. It’s easy to assume that abroad people spend all their time talking about the same things people have warned you about their whole life: about their water quality, about their criminals, and more of the same; but guess what they actually talk about? If you study abroad in high school, you will see how easy it is to relate to people in other countries, because of the similar experiences you share. You will see that the problems people talk about in other countries aren't that different after all. On that note…
3. You Have More in Common Than You Think With Others Completely Different From You
Don’t fall into the trap that too many fall into before they go abroad in high school: that you have nothing in common with the locals of the country you’re visiting. The urge to do this is especially strong if you are visiting a developing country and/or don’t speak the native language. Once you get out of the country and into a new one, you’ll automatically pick up on every single difference, both big and small, because of the novelty of the experience, and although it’s part of the experience of studying abroad in high school to notice differences, don’t forget that certain things remain the same. Even though you may talk to someone who grew up and lives in conditions opposite of the ones you have back at home, you still have numerous things in common. It’s easy to pick out the differences between you and your new foreign friend and imagine this chasm of differences between the two of you, but that isn’t the case. The reality is that people everywhere are more or less working towards the same thing. Everyone just wants to care for their family and be with their friends, all the while working for a better tomorrow. You have that in common with them, and as such, you can form a connection and have something to talk about. Ask people about their families, and what they and their friends do for fun and you can’t help but be amazed at how closely your life parallels theirs.
4. Almost Everyone is a Good Person
Tell somebody you’re travelling to a foreign country. Tell anyone at all. What’s one of the first things they’ll say? “You can’t go there! That country is far too dangerous! They’ll rob you and scam you and you won’t be safe!”
Crime certainly does happen, and there are certain areas to avoid and things you ought not to do as a high school student abroad, but the same is also true for even your home country. No country is without problems, but use common sense and keep a level head on your shoulders and you’ll be just fine. There is not some grand conspiracy amongst the inhabitants of countries to beat and rob you as soon as you enter, in fact, quite the opposite is true. You meet some of the kindest and most generous people you will ever meet in your life while travelling, and most of the times it’s complete strangers who show such hospitality. Ask anyone who has travelled about such benevolence abroad and they’ll regale you with stories of locals inviting them into their homes and cooking them authentic meals, of being invited to weddings of people they just met, of people showing them the history and culture of their city, and much more. Many travel to distant lands to see the richness of the earth, but stay for the depth and warmth of the people. Being timid and fearful about travelling, and life in general, is no way to live; for far too many people tiptoe through life just to arrive on death’s doorstep safely. You won’t see anything by doing that, so get out and live.
5. A Global Perspective is Better Than a Sheltered Perspective
The thing that you’ll learn that will have the greatest and longest lasting impact on your life is the global conscience you develop. You don’t see the world as your home country anymore, you see it as the country you started out in and the lands you explored when you left your home. You don’t see news of a disaster abroad and think of it as a world removed anymore, you see it as people with lives just as real as ours who have experienced a tragedy. An inevitable part of high school study abroad is the development of your attention and intuition about the rest of the world. You find yourself suddenly caring about the economic crisis in Greece, or the protests in Libya, whereas before you may not have been affected by such news.
You find yourself reading more and more about people’s travels and before you know it, you’ve planned a dozen trips you can’t afford and still intend on doing every single one of them. It’s the call of the void: the allure of the unknown that will lead you to experience everything you can because there is so much to do and see, and because of that, you care about the people who live elsewhere that you’ve never met. You’ll return home from your high school program abroad with a head full of dreams about far away countries, but you’ll live your day-to-day life with renewed vigor and fresh eyes, because you’ve seen what it’s like on the other side, and you see what you have to be thankful for. You work with abundant energy, learn both inside and outside of class, and above all else, you treasure each moment and are constantly thrilled for what the future holds, because it could hold anything.