January 9, 2009. Heart pounding and stomach in my throat, I stepped onto a massive airplane and into the most significant chapter of my high school career. I was en route to a town called Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, England, where I would spend the second semester of my junior year as a foreign exchange student. As I boarded my flight that morning, I didn’t know what my future would entail, but I wasn’t scared. I just put one high-heeled boot in front of the other, journeying to the unknown.
The England “chapter” of my life was characterized by a vast number of ups and downs, ins and outs, and most importantly, learning experiences. My foreign exchange experience was through a program called Study Abroad UK, which I selected after extensive internet research. Some of the program’s features included monthly excursions to places around the United Kingdom; a pay-as-you-go mobile (or, as we say in the United States, a cell phone!); and a friendly adviser who called to check in with me weekly. When traveling anywhere for any period of time, it is important to check a company’s reputation. Thorough research and reading of documents will ensure that you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. You’ll also want to take cautions against hidden fees, poor quality housing or education, and details regarding transportation and lodging. Maximizing your planning will help you make the most of your international experience!
While utilizing caution is important, don’t be afraid to take risks! Time spent abroad is supposed to be an adventure, so recognize opportunities and be sure to take them. By reaching out and pursing new interests, I was able to make many new friends within my English high school, and still talk to them daily. If attending a school while abroad, be sure to investigate any clubs or intramural activities. My school did not offer these types of opportunities because it had few students, so instead I threw all my efforts into schoolwork. In my Media Institutions class, I worked with other students to make a film trailer, magazine spreads, and a working website. Also look for involvement outside of school – I made new friends by joining a gym and participating in all of the excursions that Study Abroad offered. Even if traveling for just a short amount of time, look for the little opportunities of daily life. Try new foods, visit tourist attractions, and scope the “local” hangouts. Finding an area that isn’t a total tourist trap will allow you to make connections with “real” residents of the area – and they’ll give you the insight to what life is really like in another country.
Perhaps the most important aspect of international travel is that old, familiar motto: expect the unexpected. Traveling to England? Forget those posh Londoner accents; most English people speak in a much more Cockney dialect. Forget delicate China teacups; the phrase “afternoon tea” really means a light meal in the evening hours. Be open to interpretation of how a culture really is, disregarding all previous connotations or generalizations you have from movies, books, or TV shows. Chances are, while you’re learning about another culture, they’ll be learning about how Americans really are, too.
I believe there is not a more enriching experience than international travel, and my desire to attend college and receive a degree in International Business is a reflection of this. My experience in England has taught me to plan ahead, take risks, and expect the unexpected – and of course, to put one foot in front of the other and make the journey toward my future.
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