the life-changing magic of studying abroad
This blog was originally a contribution to outtoseaparentsguide.com, a resource for parents of college-aged children. I'm honored to have been asked to contribute to such a great site! Check out the original post here.
* * *
If you’ve talked to me for more than ten minutes, you’ll know how I feel about the Czech Republic. As someone who isn’t lukewarm about anything, I’ve had passions come and go but Prague has become the obsession to end all obsessions, and it all started with one fateful family vacation in 2013 that rocked my world and changed the entire course of my life. I was there for a week and I was hooked.
Long story short, some of the first meetings I had as a freshman in college were with the beautiful folks at the international office, trying to find the easiest way to get back to Prague. I’d come home during breaks with program packets to peruse and random facts about the Czech Republic (To be perfectly honest, I still do this.), and I’m sure it was (is) really irritating at times, but at the end of the day, I knew I was supposed to go.
Fast-forward three-ish years and I’m in the airport, staring at the looming security line. My parents were waiting and nobody wanted to say goodbye. When we finally ripped off the Band-Aid, I went through the security checkpoint and walked to my terminal and got on my plane. I was scared and, if given the choice, I probably would have gotten back into my mom’s SUV and gone home. Thank God I didn’t.
I’ve got to tell you, the first few weeks were disorienting. I couldn’t understand a word that was being said. I got stranded in the city in the middle of the night and couldn’t even buy my own groceries without help. I remember sending a video to my parents where I said I was scared of the grocery store but I knew I had to go back until it wasn’t scary. I was overwhelmed in the best and worst ways, and sometimes I didn’t think it was going to get any easier.
But the most amazing things happened. Strangers were kind. A woman at the supermarket helped me work the self-checkout kiosk. My vegetable man started to save me pita on Mondays because he knew I’d come in. People offered directions when I learned to ask. I also became more accustomed to life in my new world. I learned the night tram schedule, I became used to learning new words every day and in a few weeks I could order at a restaurant and get what I thought I asked for. It came together, but it took a little time and effort.
I wish I could put into words what that semester abroad did for me. Much like the way cleaning out your house can help you see what’s important, studying abroad helped clarify what I wanted in my life. I was forced to start over, to be independent and to grow where I landed. I found a tribe that became like my family, I learned how to cook (questionably), and I figured out how to handle a missed train, a bomb threat, and some often-hilarious cultural faux pas. It was earth-shattering and made me feel whole all at once, like I was closest to who I was created to be.
Now, I’m not saying everyone’s experiences are going to be similar to mine. I even know people who had really tough study abroad experiences and struggled with homesickness and disorientation. I dealt with those things too and it was really hard to need a hug from your mom and then have to wait another 18 hours to see her face on a computer screen because it’s the middle of the night at home and you have to go to class. It’s not all tours and train rides and Instagram-able desserts. Regardless of the experience, your student will come home with a new perspective on the world around them, and that makes it worth it.
Parents, if your student is studying abroad, the best thing you can do is listen and learn with them. Those weeks and days leading up to that plane ride are going to get weird and your student will probably deal with that stress in some pretty bizarre ways, but seriously, GET THEM ON THAT PLANE. Be patient with them and remember that they are at one of the biggest transition points of their lives. Hug them and distract with movies and favorite foods but, for the love of everything, don’t make it about them leaving you. That doesn’t make it easier for anyone. Just love them and give them your time, even if they don’t seem to want it.
Studying abroad in Prague changed the way I walk through the world— both in my awareness of the world around me and also in where I’m choosing to walk. I’m choosing to return to the Czech Republic in July for my first “big girl job” and could not be more excited if I tried. People often ask me if I’m afraid and the answer is easy. No. Not even a little bit. Taking the risk to study abroad prepared me and lodged Prague so deeply into my heart that I can’t escape its draw. I’m being called back to where I belong, and if it wasn’t for the love and support of my parents, I would have no idea that this was my place.
photo credit: Caitlin Eames