The Case for Studying Abroad

My most compelling reason for the experience of a lifetime

My last day in Edinburgh, Scotland

One year ago, I was in quite the dilemma. I was deciding whether I should stay at school and fully commit to my student organization or take a step into the unknown through a study abroad program I signed up for months prior. The deadline for the program’s down payment was arriving soon and I kept procrastinating on what to do.

I kept consulting my friends, most of them who were at the time in my student organization. They told me that with everything I’ve done and all the time I committed to the org, it would be a shame if I threw it all away on what to them seemed like a whim.

“Jesse, you’re a really good leader and it would be hard to fill up the space you’re leaving behind.”

“I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t do this, but you should seriously consider staying because you’re both wanted and needed here.”

This sentiment more or less echoed in my mind for the longest time. I decided when I joined this particular org earlier in my college career that I was going to give it my 100 percent. To leave at what was a critically transitional time was a real gamble, and for a moment, I actually convinced myself that it wasn’t worth it to study abroad.

Then, as I was walking to the library with a friend one day, he told me something that wholeheartedly convinced me to continue on with my program.

“Dude, when are you ever going to have the opportunity to live somewhere for months with no real obligations? I have a job, and you’re still in school so maybe I have a bit more perspective. I can’t quit work to go live somewhere else because I have responsibilities I need to take care of. But you, you have a golden opportunity to live somewhere else, not just travel and be a tourist.”

“When in your life can you afford to really give up months of your time and live somewhere completely different?”

I don’t know what it was about what he said, but from that point forward, I was wholly committed. I chose to jump into unknown waters, without thinking about looking back.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Bidean nam Bian, or The Three Sisters, which is in the Scottish Highlands. I dare you to try and find a more Scottish photo

And now it’s my turn to convince you

Having come back from my program now, I’ve marinated on the most compelling reasons on why everyone in university should study abroad and I always seem to boil it down to what my friend said to me all of those months ago:

“When in your life can you afford to really give up months of your time and live somewhere completely different?”

I think this reason is really important because it concisely sums up the entire experience without resorting to corny reasons like “it expands your worldview” and “you get to meet so many people”. Those kinds of reasons are the results of living somewhere else and should be treated as symptoms for studying abroad rather than compelling reasons to do it.

If we really dissect what I consider the most compelling reason, we can split it into two parts:

  1. You should study abroad because right now, when you have no real obligations, you have every reason to do so.
  2. You should study abroad because it gives you the opportunity to live somewhere different.

You have no real obligations and you have every reason to do so

Going into the first reason: What really matters is that studying abroad is a wholly unique experience that university students are in the position to participate in. As early 20-somethings, we don’t really have that many obligations to tend to relative to the rest of your life, in which you might have a job or a spouse or good lord, even kids.

In my case, my obligations were to my student organization. To many people considering studying abroad, this is one of the first real roadblocks. Most people choose to not study abroad because they’ve already invested a lot of time in their home universities, and it seems really weird to want to restart for a quarter or semester in a new place, and then come back to your home university and have to catch up with your commitments back home. It really does seem easier to stay at home and contribute to what you already know.

But this is small picture thinking. Being in university is about self-growth and discovering yourself at a point in life in which you can sacrifice a lot. If you are facing a great opportunity for change and you say no because it’s unfamiliar or scary, you are doing yourself a real disservice in discovering more about who you are.

Spending a week in Switzerland reminded me on how much I loved the outdoors in high school and why I should have never given it up in pursuit of other things

In other words, your reasoning for studying abroad should be less of

“Why should I do this if it’s not going to benefit me?”

and more of

“This will benefit me if I do it, so why not?”

But I realize that it’s too easy to blanket all obligations and responsibilities into the same basket, and not consider other things like tuition, jobs or family.* My best response to the more difficult responsibilities an average student may need to take care of is that no matter how difficult it is to put something in the back burner, if there’s any remote possibility that you may be able to pursue an opportunity to study abroad and you are even just slightly considering it, then there’s definitely a way to make it happen.**

It all starts with honestly asking yourself, “Why not?” Deep down, you will know if your reasons for going or staying home are legitimate or not.

It gives you the opportunity to live somewhere different

When considering the opportunity to study abroad, one of my other really close friends said this:

“I would never study abroad. I mean, I can just graduate early and just travel without feeling like I need to do anything.”

I can see why so many people share this line of reasoning. Traveling and being touristy is heaps more fun than being a full time student. When you’re traveling, it’s like being the fun kind of busy while in a dream state. You’re constantly going place to place, seeing these unbelievable places, and creating these new stories without having to worry about the crappy aspects of life that wait for you back home.

But I think contrary to this line of thinking, that’s exactly why studying abroad and living somewhere else for months is so unique from traveling. It’s these micro worries and life things that really teach you how to fend for yourself in a completely new environment. All of the everyday things you do at home are brought with you to a foreign land: from doing laundry to asking where the nearest grocery store is, from learning about how medical care works to figuring out who you’re going to hang out with tonight. I think it’s these small, more everyday experiences that have allowed me to be more confident in talking to people back in the states and wholly realize the little differences that make Americans American, and to appreciate the culture I come from a whole lot more.

Also, these small everyday experiences can dramatically shape your definition of what home is. I think if I just visited Edinburgh for a vacation, I would’ve just thought of it as another really touristy city, and if you asked me what was cool about it, I would’ve just said something like,

“Oh, the castle is really cool and haggis tastes really unique! Definitely somewhere I would visit again.”

“Oh, the castle is really cool!” A tourist’s perception of the castle

Having lived there, this is what I would actually say:

“I miss running on the cobblestone streets and jogging along Arthur’s seat early in the morning. I miss going to Pilgrim (my favorite pub) with my friends and talking about life things on a Tuesday night. I miss the friendly people who always smile when you need help. I miss the Christmas market you go to every night in December, when you can eat all of the most delicious foods in Europe in the same place. I miss walking along Prince’s street and just seeing so many people walking on my right, while the castle sits steadfast in the dusk on my left. I even miss the bad things, like the laundry machines that never worked, or the rain that never stopped, or even how the buildings sometimes blocked out the sunlight. I just miss everything about being there.”

My perception of the castle. I will never forget the way Edinburgh castle looked every day at sunset, and how it would light up at nighttime with deep red and violet lights

Do you see the stark difference between the two recollections? Traveling creates exotic memories that you remember for just being able to see unique places. But living somewhere fosters a feeling of home and belonging which can ultimately transform you as a person.

This is why it’s so important to live somewhere else while you can, and to diversify your experiences and interactions with the world. As I’ve learned very explicitly, the world is not an expansion of California, and the best way to really take in what that actually means is by taking opportunities to live somewhere else, especially in a foreign country.

The world is only as scary as you think it is

As much as I’d like to keep convincing anyone who is still reading this about my case for studying abroad, it’s impossible to downplay how scary it can be. I was personally scared because I’ve never really talked to Scottish people before and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to know the environment well enough to thrive in. I was also scared because with the current state of the world, I was a little afraid of being in Europe because it’s been plastered by mainstream news as a target of a lot of terrorist attacks.

A native Parisian named Max who ended up giving us a 2 hour tour, in French, about what he loved about Paris. He said something to me that I will never forget: “You can take as many pictures as you want, but this, being here, is different from a picture.”

But here’s the truth: no matter where you go in the world, the vast majority of people are really nice, even if you don’t understand the language. Additionally, the chances of you getting hurt are quite small, and even if the likelihood was much higher, being afraid is how the bad guys win. All you need in the world sometimes is a friendly smile and to not be afraid.

This is a part of me that I can for sure pinpoint as one of the most drastic parts of my self-growth while abroad. It’s was easy for me before to have skewed perceptions of people and other cultures, but really going out there and meeting some of these people — like Ilias, the kebab shop owner down the street, who dreams of being a teacher and is fluent in French — shows you just how big the gap of understanding is between the Western World and the cultures it doesn’t quite identify with.

This realization was a catalyst for growth in other areas for me. I wanted to get to know these cultures and people myself, not just read about them in the news or in my books. As a result, I pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone and visited ten countries in the course of four months, and was able to live in a prolonged period of time in one. I learned a lot about myself and what I’m really afraid of, and how to confront those fears while being in an extremely unfamiliar environment. Most importantly, I learned that being happy is not about material wealth but having priceless experiences burned into your memory, which will always be with you no matter where you are in life.

And in truth, it’s these memories and lessons that I will bring to the table at my student organization, my eventual job, and any difficult endeavor I tackle in the future. Sometimes, it’s the wisdom you gain from experience — and not the intelligence from your genes or the knowledge from books — that can help you with dilemmas that require a fresh perspective. In this sense, studying abroad turned out to be quite the investment into myself, and I’ve realized that sometimes the best way to help the people you care about most is to improve yourself first.***

Final thoughts

By pure happenstance, my philosophy professor this quarter is from Glasgow and has lived in Edinburgh, the city I studied abroad in. I asked her about it after my first class of the quarter and told her about my study abroad experiences.

She told me, “That’s quite terrific. I love Edinburgh. I dream about that city sometimes.”

Edinburgh, a city I will always call my home

I do too. Sometimes, I will dream that I’m back in my dorm, looking out at Robertson’s Close, ready to throw on my winter clothes and trudge onto the computer lab to finish a project, maybe stopping by the supermarket for a meal deal and a Coke. Other times, I will look at the vast open space in California and compare it to the almost crowded, yet beautifully historic buildings of the Royal Mile, and how it stretches all the way from the castle down to Arthur’s Seat, which was easily one of the most magnificent mountains I’ve ever seen. And there are some days I will just feel the rain (a rare sight where I live) and remember what it felt like my first week in Scotland, where it rained incessantly but offered some of the best memories of my college career.

Looking back, was it all worth it? To sacrifice my place back home in search for something new and challenging? Yes. Yes. Absolutely yes.

I can’t wait for the day when I can walk along those cobblestone streets again. And I hope anyone who is convinced by this piece longs for their own second homes in the future, wherever in the world they may be.

*The ultimate reality is that some students might have to work part-time jobs to help support their families or pay their tuition, and that if you decide to study abroad you might feel the weight of those responsibilities carry over with you. However, there are definitely things like scholarships and financial aid that can transfer over to help fund your program. I would recommend seeing a dedicated study abroad counselor at your university to discuss what your options are, or checking out this if you want to do your own due diligence.

**I was in this position: there was a remote possibility of this happening and I was slightly considering it, so I talked to my adviser and asked how feasible it was to study abroad. He said that the deadline for the best program for me already passed, and I was a little bummed. But he actually moved mountains to make sure I could get into it despite being a week late, and I scrambled for a day to turn in the necessary paperwork. This is what I mean when I say there’s definitely a way to make opportunities like this happen: even if all paths seem blocked, just taking the right initial steps can be the difference between pursuing an opportunity and falling back to a comfortable routine.

***It’s worth noting that many great leaders who have undoubtedly transformed the world in some way have studied abroad. Eric Migicovsky, the founder of the Pebble smartwatch, built the first prototype of the wearable in his dorm room while studying in the Netherlands. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the Manhattan Project, studied in various places and universities around Europe before his tenure as the director of Los Alamos. Elon Musk, the famed entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, did a stint of odd jobs in Canada before studying at UPenn. Here are some more examples. This isn’t to say you need to study abroad in order to be like these people, but I think to some extent, it makes sense to have some degree of worldly wisdom before you try to change the world itself, right?

Thank you to Kat Phan, Jillene Ma , and Nick Lopez for reading drafts of this and giving me suggestions on how to improve it. Also, thanks Deen for convincing me to do this all of those months ago. Not sure if you really remember telling me what you said, but it really pushed me over and convinced me to do this experience of a lifetime 😄