Leaving Behind the Familiar

By Hillary Mullan, Fall 2012 Alum

When I talk about India now I will usually say, “I lived in India for four months,” because that is what it felt like. It didn’t feel like a semester long field trip. It didn’t feel like vacation. The experience was too raw, vibrant, challenging and beautiful to simply be described as study abroad. I came back to the US a different person because of the people I met and the experiences I had there.

With other study abroad programs geared toward science majors, choosing to study abroad in India on a program focused on cultural immersion and anthropology may seem like an odd choice for me — a neuroscience major confused about whether to go to medical school or complete a science PhD. My choice to study abroad in India was initially based on a desire to leave behind the familiar, to take a break from the numerous math and science classes required for my major.

I landed in India expecting to learn about a new cuisine, a new fashion, a different history and an unfamiliar language. And it is true, I did learn about all of these things. But I think what surprised me the most were the things I learned about myself.

I learned that I am adaptable.

To the heat. To bucket baths. To having less independence. To eating with my hands. To wearing bright colors instead of more muted tones. And more than just getting used to these things, I enjoyed and appreciated them. Now, when I see a woman in a salwar kameez or find a menu that lists dosa my mind immediately goes to the time I spent in Madurai.

I learned about my own biases.

When I went to the doctor because I had a fever, I was surprised to realize I immediately felt more comfortable when he told me he had visited Boston — the place I am from. That brief point of intersection relaxed me. I now recognize how important finding these little commonalities is to making connections and to also helping people feel comfortable around me.

I learned to trust people.

There were numerous auto drivers who helped me get home, those who offered directions (sometimes in the form of complicated charades) and the one woman I am grateful for who saw I was nervous about crossing a busy street. Without saying a word she took my hand and guided me across. Thank you.

I learned that it is okay to take care of yourself.

Sometimes — not everyday — but sometimes, you can’t always give yourself fully to the experience of India. Some days you need to order a Dominos pizza. And that is completely okay. You need to take these moments so you can embrace everything that comes your way tomorrow. (Yes, Dominos exists in India, take solace in the fact that delivery arrives on the back of a motor cycle and comes with a packet of Indian spices instead of parmesan cheese.)

I learned to feel comfortable when things feel out of control.

When the trains didn’t come on time, when the power cut out despite the fact that there was a paper due the next day, when no amount of the strongest back woods bug spray could keep the hoard of mosquitos away, I learned to take a deep breath and laugh at the humor in the situation. And of course, at myself.

I learned that I really enjoy working with people.

I think this was the most important thing I learned about myself. It is the reason why I am currently sitting at a desk in medical school classroom instead of standing at a bench in a research lab. I discovered that I am more motivated by conversations and interpersonal relationships than by other external factors. I discovered that I loved learning from and about people. I feel very fortunate to be able to currently combine these interests through studying medicine. I believe that studying abroad in India was integral to helping me realize develop this passion.

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