Confessions of a Meaningful Traveler: Why I Wish I’d Studied Abroad in High School

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I left the country for the first time during my third year of college when I was 21 years old, and yes, CLICHÉ ALERT, it was life changing. 

Well, maybe there’s a better word to use. Yes, it was life-confirming. My life, my dreams, my independence, my dependence (we’re more connected than you think), my humanity was confirmed on that trip. Three life-confirming months during my study abroad program in South Africa helped put me back on the course I was truly destined to take.

Highway leading into the horizon

Studying abroad in high school can pave the road for future academic (and personal!) successes.

Somewhere between my childhood dream of being Mother Teresa (yup, not just being like Mother Teresa, BEING Mother Teresa…I was five) and heading to college as a pre-physical therapy student instead of anything related to social services, during years of homework and peer pressure and wanting to fit in, I veered onto a path that wasn’t fully me. The consequences of this are much longer than this article, so I’ll spare you the details; luckily, studying abroad and some life experiences leading up to it, brought me back. 

If only it could have happened sooner. 

I wish I had known that study abroad existed for high school students when I was in school. Would I have gone? I don’t know, to be honest, but here is what I think would have been different if I had taken the chance to do it:

1. I would have gone to college more confident in what I wanted to study.

 “You should be a doctor.” “You shouldn’t be a teacher.” “You’re good at math, be an engineer.” “Why would you want to work in social's not respected.” 

Like many 17 and 18-year-olds, I was undecided on what to study in school, even though everyone else had an opinion. I took a route that made sense based on the subjects I was good at (math/science) and some interests I had (kids/dance). It took a year and a half for me to find courses that excited me, drop out of those that weren’t serving me, and transfer to the school of education and social policy. 

Studying abroad allows you to connect deeper with yourself.

Your interests and your ideas for the future come to the forefront. And the keyword here is YOU(R). If I studied abroad in high school, the experience could have connected me to my inner social worker. I would have come back with a clearer picture of the career path to take and selected a concentration from the beginning to help me get there.

Maybe I would have chosen a different school to attend, one that was farther away, but more in line with my values. Knowing you can survive across the world without your family and friends makes you much more confident in surviving college across states.

Hiker triumphant at summit of mountain during sunset

There’s a lot of self-confidence to be found studying abroad in high school!

2. I would have known early on to take any opportunity for international travel I could get. 

When I was five, I had childhood fantasies of volunteering and working in other countries. When I was 18 and entering college, I had zero knowledge on how to go about studying abroad. I didn’t know what opportunities there were or how to find them. They weren’t really talked about or encouraged, especially in my Midwest high school, and I felt the pressure to focus on studies and internships that were “logical” and would directly push me forward in the job market (Now I know that study abroad IS respected professionally). 

When I learned that a global health minor REQUIRED you to study abroad, I jumped at the opportunity. My childhood dreams resurfaced, and I left for South Africa unsure, of course, but excited nonetheless. Afterwards, I took the first chance I could get to go abroad again. 

I am envious of my peers who studied abroad in college every summer or for a full year. That wasn’t on my radar until it was too late. Had I studied abroad in high school, I would have gone to college looking for opportunities. I could have planned to include study abroad, internships abroad, and volunteer trips abroad within my coursework and college years.

3. I could have given more during my study abroad experience in college. 

The more you go abroad the more insight you have on meaningful travel and having a positive impact. I realized after my second trip abroad in college that the money I spent to get there could have been more useful than the week I spent helping out. I learned of the impact mindless and unaware travelers have on the local environment. Now, every time I travel I do my research. I try to find ways I can give back without taking, to embrace the local culture and lifestyle, and to do my part in helping, not hurting, the environment I’m leaving behind. 

It’s only after first-hand experiences abroad that you become aware of the potential positive and negative impacts while traveling.

It would be incredible to learn this awareness earlier on in high school and enter college globally minded. You can use your interests to join or form international campus clubs or even raise money to donate during your next trip abroad. Learning global interconnectivity and the impact you have on the world at 15 prepares you to have even more success with your travels in college.

Teenage girl with stylish shoes talking on train tracks

High school study abroad programs teach you to take any travel opportunity that presents itself.

4. I would have gained the self-confidence I didn’t have when I was a teenager.

How easy is it to lose yourself a bit to social expectations when you are young? How hard is it to speak your mind and stand up for what you believe in when it is different than the majority around you? 

When I studied abroad, I became more than just independent; I became more confident in being myself. Social norms, beauty standards, and character values change from place to place. In opening your eyes to a different world, seeing beauty and strength in new ways all around you, you learn that you don’t need to conform. Everybody, including yourself, can live powerfully.

Studying abroad proved to me that I have what it takes to travel and live in communities very different from my own. I proved to myself I could sleep in a tent with a lizard under my bed, jump off a bridge with a cord around my ankles, and make a strong connection to a local nurse regardless of a language barrier. Imagine finding out in the midst of high school that you cannot only survive abroad, you can thrive. Returning home with that newfound assurance, and that newfound vision of beauty and strength, can do wonders for your confidence in being totally and uniquely you. 

5. I would have gained a lot of new perspectives on life a lot sooner. 

In our increasingly interconnected world, a global perspective is necessary. This is just one of many perspectives you gain with study abroad, and it helps you grow as a self aware, informed citizen and professional in whatever field you choose. 

Finding a new form of happiness, figuring out and focusing on what really matters to you, appreciating where you are and what you have…all these perspectives come with study abroad.

If I had studied abroad in high school, I would have come home with a sense of inner-peace I don’t think I would have been able to find at such a young age. A peacefulness within myself and also in seeing the joy in the world. I would have stopped spending money on trivial things and prioritized what is most important, what I actually needed (and saved for more travel!). I would have started donating and giving much more often and understanding my part in taking care of the world. 

Palace in Siena, Tuscany, Italy

There’s a world of new perspectives to be gained.

But I didn’t study abroad in high school….

And that’s perfectly OK. I took my own path and got there eventually. There’s no one right way or right time to do anything, and when I studied abroad it surged me forward in the personal and emotional development I needed at the time.

I’m incredibly thankful I was able to find study abroad in college and rekindle my desire to be a global philanthropist and social advocate. I came home with a head full of possibilities of what I could do with my life and career. My inner passions came alive and there was no turning back.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to have gained these insights earlier on and have been more prepared to enter college had I studied abroad in high school, which is why I encourage you to do so. 

It’s ok to have the jitters and be scared. It’s ok to break out of your comfort zone, find a new normal that may be different from your peers, and take steps out into the world. If you have even the smallest interest now, you will be glad you started study abroad early. Take the leap, embrace the change, and watch your life come alive before your eyes.