During the spring of my junior year, I studied abroad in Tunisia, and what followed was the most enriching and intellectually stimulating semester of my life. I may sound like a former professional athlete, basking in my glory days on the court, but in retrospect, if I could offer one piece of solid advice to any undergraduate it would be: study abroad. Do not pass up this opportunity. Here are six reasons you should take the plunge:
1. Cultural Exchange. The cultural exchange is perhaps one of the most important aspects of any long-term experience abroad. I encourage you to pursue a home stay, as this will deepen your relationship with your host country and allow you to develop a strong personal relationship with a family who has generously opened its home to you. The cultural exchange is especially important in countries that have less than favorable views of America. Simple conversations can shatter cultural stereotypes -- a cabbie once told me he was surprised I was American because I wasn’t fat -- build bridges, and deeper understandings in regards to politics. During my experiences in the Middle East, cultural exchanges yielded many interesting conversations, which usually concluded with mutual respect and an understanding that the people of any land are different than the politics that rule them.
2. See your home country and culture in a new way. One thing I didn't necessarily expect, but certainly experienced while abroad was a sincere and deep reflection on my home culture. Only when you are away can you adequately assess and value where you are from. By putting yourself in a new environment, it is inevitable that you will reflect on your roots and compare how cultures around the world tackle issues from marriage to identity to politics.
3. Learn a foreign language first-hand. Whether you plan to go into business, law, non-profit, dance, medicine, or something else, in today's ever shrinking world, knowing another language will prove to be nothing but a genuine asset. In fact, in every job interview since graduation, I have been asked about my foreign language skills. Being totally immersed in a language will reveal nuances that often don’t come across in the classroom, as well as boost your credentials when applying for both jobs and graduate school.
4. Enhance your resume. Language skills aside, knowing how to maneuver through another culture is an asset for any employer. I encourage you to seek volunteer or internship opportunities while abroad, as this will provide great working experience as well as add a nice touch to your resume. In some areas of the world, volunteering is not widely practiced, but don't let this deter you. If you push hard enough, you will find something. Such was the case in Tunisia, and we were able to find two opportunities through two separate NGOs: one that worked with special needs children and another that worked with women through microfinance. These experiences not only yield valuable professional practice, but also allow you to interact with facets of society that are rarely seen by those merely passing through the country.
5. Make life-long friends. The relationships I developed while abroad have proven to be some of the deepest and long lasting friendships I have. I acquired what I like to think of as a second family, and I developed strong bonds with many of the Americans in my program as we tried to make sense of and articulate what we saw and experienced. I also developed strong relationships with professors whose lessons continue to educate me today. The unique environment created by your living situation fosters irreplaceable bonds with everyone whom you share the lessons and experiences. These bonds allow you to see your time abroad through more than one set of eyes, and remind you of the invaluable lessons learned well after you have returned.
6. The food. If personal growth, a boosted resume, and bridging cultural gaps aren't enough reason in and of themselves, then go for the food. Seriously, you will eat the best food of your life.
Ultimately, studying abroad will be what you make of it. If you leave your school with the intention of partying continuously and seeing 50 countries in 4 months, you certainly can accomplish this. But alternatively, I'd encourage you to seek something deeper, and ultimately what will be a much more rewarding and enriching experience. Push yourself and immerse yourself in another culture. It's not going to be easy, and you will certainly make mistakes, but in these chances and mistakes you will learn incredible amounts about yourself, society, the world, and your respective host country.
Photo Credit: Lindsay Novis