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Take it from a foreigner

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APRIL 15, 2014

Famous rapper Nelly once said, “Drop down and get your eagle on, girl,” and while the actual meaning of this phrase is debatable, I believe his true intention was to tell the people of our generation to spread their wings … and travel. Having discovered the benefits of studying abroad, I realize leaving the comfort of my own country and becoming a foreigner was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Although many people seem to doubt they could ever live so far away from home for so long, I am here to tell you that you can and you should. So if you’re about to study abroad or are still deciding whether you want to travel, take some words of wisdom from a pro. And by “pro,” I mean “barely proficient” in understanding how to be a competent exchange student, and by “words of wisdom,” I mean advice that may or may not be very helpful. You’re welcome.

Orientation day for the incoming exchange students of fall 2013 was an interesting experience. Within four hours, I found myself surrounded by Brits, the majority of us having inadvertently grouped together in a desperate attempt to cling to a piece of home. I had barely been in the country 24 hours; I was hot, I was confused, and there’s a good chance that I was hungry. Looking around, I realized this whole traveling malarkey was not going to work if I didn’t stop clinging to home in the form of accents and actually embrace being in America. So, the first step was to avoid British people at all costs, not because I suddenly loathed all Brits but because the temptation to stick to what I knew was way too strong when I was around people whom I saw as “home.” For me, the most important thing about studying abroad is to force yourself out of your comfort zone to enjoy the experience to its fullest. Learn how to be uncomfortable (if only for a little while), be bold in conversation and promise yourself that you’ll compile all the awkward first encounters you’ve had into a book and sell it on Amazon (that last one may just relate to me).

My second piece of advice comes from a bet I made with a friend the day before I left for the United States. As we sat at dinner, she said to me, “I bet you £10 you’ll put on weight whilst you’re in America.” Ignoring the fact she had wagered this in the exact moment I was putting a forkful of sweet and sour chicken in my mouth, I assured her that wouldn’t be the case. Not only would I not put on any weight, but I wouldn’t change at all. Not my weight, not my accent, not my views — nothing. Needless to say, I was horrendously wrong. Refusing to embrace any sort of difference or change was completely missing the point of my going abroad in the first place, and learning to do so exposed me to the beauty of it. Once you stop thinking of how different everything is as negative, you can appreciate the plethora of new food, new views and new experiences that is on offer. As my friend predicted, I’ve definitely had my fair share of new food, and my suitcases aren’t the only things that will be returning to the U.K. a little heavier in May (although she doesn’t know that).

Lastly, savor every single moment. I’ve been here eight months, and it barely feels like eight weeks — that’s how fast the time has gone. Be the annoying friend who takes lots of pictures. Pack lightly, so you can cram a bunch of souvenirs in your suitcase on departing. In fact, buy an extra suitcase and stuff a couple of friends in, just to be sure you have everything. All jokes aside, don’t let anything — homesickness, friendsickness, actual sickness — let you take your time abroad for granted. Being in the United States for a year, rather than a semester, means there have been many times when I’ve pushed things back, convincing myself I’ll get around to them eventually and do them another time. Now, with a mere seven weeks left, I’ve found myself with a California bucket list half-finished and an urge to fit in everything I’ve wanted to do with barely any time to do it. Cliche though it may sound, traveling, specifically studying abroad, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it shouldn’t be wasted. For all the stress, all the anxiety and all the agonizing preparation, the payoff is greater than any worry I could have ever had, and for that reason, I urge everyone to travel. If I can do it, you can too, and you’ll be happy you did — take it from a foreigner.

Gena-mour writes the Tuesday blog on cultural exchange. Contact her at [email protected]

APRIL 15, 2014