A Letter to the Students About to Leave to Study Abroad

The graffiti on the desk wasn’t very entertaining.

It looked like whoever carved it into the soft wood was as bored as I was right now. Finally, the teacher was finished with the announcements and looked in my direction to signal my introduction.

“Okay class, before we get started with the lecture, we have a special guest today who’s going to give a short presentation about the study abroad program. I’d like to introduce you to Forrest.”

Of course he called me by the wrong name. Should I just introduce myself as Forrest anyway? It might be funny.

I make my way to the front of the class of roughly 400 students and stare out at all the curious eyes.

“Hey guys, my name is Foster (coward!), you guys look really excited for class to get started so I’ll keep this presentation short,” *Pause for laughter*. “I studied abroad in London this past semester…”

This is part of my job as a student assistant in the study abroad office. I’ve given this same speech to close to 5,000 students this semester. I have it memorized. I’m a machine. Most of the students in this class have heard this same exact speech in at least 2 of their other classes. Ninety percent of them don’t pay attention, so they all stare at their phones instead. I don’t blame them.

I’ve given this speech so many times I zone out and think about other things (Whataburger for lunch today?) while my muscle memory takes over and my lips and vocal cords become robotic and do everything for me. Finally, after a couple minutes and some awkward, nervous laughter from some of the students, my speech is winding down.

“And that’s pretty much it. If there’s no questions, I guess I’ll…” A girl in the middle of the classroom raises her hand. Shit. No one ever asks questions, especially in a class this big. I’m frozen in place.

Yes? You have a question?”

“Yeah. What would you tell someone who is about to board the plane to study abroad?”

Whoa. What a loaded question.

This question is a distant relative to the question that every student who has studied abroad gets asked a million times: “So, how was ______ (insert city/country)?” There’s no good answer. There’s too much to say. You have to heartbreakingly water down your experiences and emotions into one word (“It was good/great/amazing/incredible/awesome.”)

I don’t know where to start, but the look on this girl’s face screams excitement and longing. It’s obvious she’s studying abroad this upcoming semester. I have to tell her something.

I want to tell her and all the other students that all the cliché ways used to describe studying abroad are too easy and usually wrong (Life-changing! Broadened my horizons! Eye-opening! Cultural awareness! Unforgettable! Once in a lifetime!). These phrases don’t really mean anything, they’re just boring, lazy fillers used when you don’t know what else to put in your essays and speeches.

I want to tell them that studying abroad isn’t easy. If they could see how miserable the first week is, they probably wouldn’t want to study abroad anymore. They’d see me awake at 3 am in a hotel room, failing to fall asleep, second-guessing and questioning my decision to spend the next 6 months in an unfamiliar foreign country.

If you’re about to study abroad and you were standing in front of me, I would tell you that you need to accept the fact that there will be days when you want to give up and go home. There will be days when you miss the U.S. so much that you’ll want to consume everything that reminds you of home. You’ll skip class, get McDonalds, watch Saturday Night Live, and read the Wall Street Journal just to try and feel like you’re back in the U.S.

There will be some nights when you’ll find yourself alone and lost and scared in the middle of the city with no way to get home and you’ll ask yourself what the hell you’re doing here. You’ll want to just sit on the curb forever. But eventually you’ll take a deep breath, stand up, and start walking home.

There will be days and nights when you get bored. When you won’t care that you’re in London or Paris or Rome, because the novelty has worn off. You just want to sleep in or stay in your apartment and don’t want to go to class or go out drinking with your friends. And this is okay. You need these days and nights to take a deep breath and recharge. But don’t make these nights every night.

There will be days and weeks abroad that are exactly like your days and weeks back home. You might have been expecting your life to change radically because you radically changed your surroundings, but a lot of the time it will feel as if you simply picked up your regular, normal, boring life — with all your problems and insecurities — and dragged it halfway across the world and picked up right where you left off. And this will frustrate you and might worry you because you were expecting your life to change.

But don’t worry, because I want to tell you that you get better. Culture shock will get bored with you and look for someone else to pick on. Novelty will welcome you back like an old friend and you’ll feel alive again. You’ll start missing home less. You’ll be excited to get up every day and explore.

You’ll still have those moments and nights where you feel alone and don’t want to see anyone or do anything.

But please let your friends drag you out of the house and make you go out and socialize even when you don’t feel like it. Because this night will be the night you meet Benedict Cumberbatch walking down the street in central London.

This will be the night you find something out about yourself that you never knew before. You’ll find yourself alone in the middle of Piccadilly Circus at 4 am, staring out at all the lights and you’ll think to yourself, Man, I never want to forget this feeling.

This will be the night you fall in love in Budapest with that girl from Argentina and she breaks your heart when she says, “I have to leave now. I’m traveling the world. Come find me.”

Ask a million students who have studied abroad for advice and you’ll get a million different answers. There’s a billion more answers on countless internet forums and blog posts. There’s just so many adventures and experiences waiting for you.

But I want to save the best advice for last. I want to tell you the most important part. This part you’ll hopefully remember.

I want to tell you that everything you experience and every country you get to visit and every souvenir you buy and every memory of your time abroad can’t compare to the amazing, wonderful people you’ll meet. No matter where you go in life, no matter what you do, it’s the people you love that matter most. All the heartache and culture shock and loneliness and regret and second-guessing that you’re going to experience abroad (and you will, I promise), none of that matters anymore.

Because every minute I spent with my friends abroad, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

There will be times when your friends annoy you, but you’ll probably annoy your friends more often. There will be times when you say things you probably shouldn’t and times when you probably should say something but don’t. You’ll take your friends for granted more often than you care to admit and you’ll lie to yourself that you won’t miss them just to spare yourself some heartache. But deep down you know how wrong you are. You know that without them, your entire trip would be meaningless.

I can guarantee that when your friends’ Uber arrive outside your apartment to take them to the airport, you’ll tear up and the minute you get home you’ll start a group message and 90% of the conversations can be summed up like this: “I miss y’all.”

The class is staring awkwardly. I’ve been standing in front of them in silence for too long.

I want to tell this girl everything. I want to tell every student this. But I can’t. They won’t believe me. There’s too much to say. They have to experience it themselves. I want them to go now. Don’t waste any time, just go abroad! All your questions will be answered! Just go!

One day they’ll understand that the journey really is worth more than the treasure at the end of the map. That all of the memories and experiences and relationships and friendships infinitely outweigh all the resume, academic, and career benefits.

Before I leave, I look into the longing, excited eyes of the girl who asked me what I’d tell everyone before they leave to study abroad.

There’s so much I want to say to all these students. But there’s no time. They have no idea. They have no idea what they’re about to experience.

There are so many twists and turns and excitements and broken hearts and street tacos and what ifs and highs and lows and mistakes and bad decisions and great decisions and all-nighters and lost passports and hurt feelings and I’m sorry’s and hellos and goodbyes and awkward moments and occasional hangovers and long train rides and missed opportunities and spontaneous trips and boring days and amazing days and surprises and tears and smiles and laughter (there’s so much laughter!) and annoying tourists and mended hearts and inside jokes and some regrets. And I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything in this world.

Except maybe to do it all over again.

I can feel the tears starting to swell up and I know it’s time to go. So, what would I tell the students about to study abroad? Before I make for the exit, I look back with my own excited, longing eyes and answer her question the only way I know how:

“Don’t blink.”

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