Some years abroad, some lessons learned: the study-abroad experience

In today’s fast-paced world, it can be difficult to stop and reflect on how we have changed over time. So, for my last article as an international student, I will deviate a little bit from my usual econ articles. This time, I turned to an incredible group of students or recent graduates who also moved to either Switzerland, the US, Spain, Czech Republic, or Korea to pursue their post-graduate degrees. We explored what being an international student has taught us, and now, I am going to share the main lessons that my friends brought up, as well as some of my own.

So, what is on our list?

Multiculturalism is at the top of what we’ve learned. Studying abroad has helped most of my friends to overcome stereotypes or prejudice towards other cultures, and in turn, to embrace diversity with empathy and respect. As mentioned by some of my friends, while differences among cultures are not always minor, you soon realize that you share more similarities than differences with people who grew up in widely different environments. If there’s anything I can add to these observations, it’s that gaining some insights about various cultures has not only been enjoyable in and of itself, but it’s also helped me to appreciate new things, such as hiking and handcrafted details, and to put my own behaviors and beliefs into perspective.

Apart from obtaining a better understanding of different cultures, most experiences focused on learning either about how to relate to others, how things are done in another country, and, of course, about oneself and even one’s culture.

For example, moving from a competitive setting to a more collaborative one, allowed one of my friends to perceive other students as fellows of the same journey rather than as competitors. Likewise, another friend noticed that being in a very open-minded environment prompted her to reconsider her worldview and beliefs. Furthermore, another friend pointed out that learning about cutting-edge technologies that are only available in a few places, opens your mind to new approaches to problems that seemed irresolvable before.

Another friend realized how powerful it can be to share the same mother tongue. As native Spanish speakers, both my friend and I realized how strong the Spanish speaking community is on both sides of the world, and how language creates a shared identity, even when each country has their own culture and traditions. For me personally, being abroad helped me to embrace both my mother tongue and my roots. In Switzerland, I was not only lucky to find a welcoming Latin-American community, but also to meet people from all over the world who enjoyed Latin traditions and were incredibly enthusiastic about the Spanish language. The opportunity to bond over my own culture surprised me every time and taught me to see my culture from a different and more positive perspective.

If you come from a developing country, being abroad might affect how you see yourself. Particularly, you might realize that your background does not define your capability. As one of my friends mentions, while it can be daunting to study in more advanced institutions (or the top university in the world as one of my friends!), with effort and a learning mindset, you will soon find yourself in your way to graduation.

While this last experience may be unique to some international students, it can be applied to any restrictive label we have assigned to ourselves. As briefly discussed in a previous article of mine, carrying a specific expectation about ourselves influences how we behave. Therefore, instead of boxing ourselves in, we should choose to believe in our full potential as we embark new experiences.

But, as we all know, in life, there is no such thing as a free lunch! Studying abroad also comes with its own set of challenges. Some are temporary, and some come up from time to time. For instance, you first need to adapt to your new environment, which means, among other things, learning and embracing the local customs. This process can take some time, even when your native culture is similar to the one you are moving into, or if you move to a place where the language is your mother tongue as well. Nevertheless, as discovered by my two friends, you will find that if you put in the work, you will end up feeling at home in no time😊.

Coming from the other side of the world, it’s been difficult for me to long for the safety and security of my home and family, particularly during rough times. While a loved one’s hug can never be replaced, we are fortunate to live in a time where we can always connect in some way, no matter where we are. Seeing the glass full, these moments also help you to become more resilient and confident in your abilities to face difficult or uncertain circumstances.

Furthermore, I never imagined I would live in a French speaking region and believe when I say, the struggle is real when you do not even know the basics of the local language. But once again, do not let this discourage you, if you are determined this will only be a temporary setback.

I have saved the best for last, and we will close this article with friendship. While friendship would certainly make it to the list, it struck me how international friendships were described with the same intensity by the ones who mentioned it. I can only say, I completely share the feeling of having met friends that I will never forget and to have found friendships that will last through time, regardless of how far we are <3.

To sum up, all in all, our experiences abroad reflect an immense amount of gratitude as well of growth fostered by being exposed to new people, new cultures, new technologies, new topics… and the list can go on. As a result, this article serves both as an appreciation letter for this amazing experience, as well as an invitation to others to consider studying or temporarily moving abroad. As you have seen, while it certainly comes with challenges, and saying good-bye can be even harder, I’m sure all of us will always cherish this experience in our hearts.

Special thanks to Anna, Belen, Fabiola, Gustavo, Julie, Mauricio, and Raul for sharing their experiences abroad with me and making this article possible. Also, special thanks to Khadija for reading the first draft of this article 😊

Alejandra Diaz Fuentes
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