When To Study Abroad

I think the biggest thing I wish I had realized coming into college is that it isn’t always a bad idea to study abroad early, especially if you’re smart about it. It’s just something everyone has to decide for themselves. Coming into the program, I thought I was too young, too inexperienced, too dependent on those around me to manage going abroad on my own within my first two years of college. I was totally wrong. My first semester on campus I definitely wasn’t ready to go abroad alone, and I don’t think I was ready this semester either. I was too new to being on my own and too stressed to handle studying abroad. But those first two semesters change students so much, especially with the courses GEFs are required to take. My world view has expanded exponentially (largely due to the courses I’ve taken), and my self-confidence has increased dramatically. I have grown and changed so much from the overly-excited/terrified/homesick high school student I was when I arrived that I’m not sure that version of me would recognize who I have become. When I started planning my trips abroad I felt like everything was too soon; I wasn’t going to be ready as a person by the time the trip began, no matter how far back I pushed it. As a Chemistry major, this was a really bad way to look at things. STEM majors have so little flexibility in their course plans and so few courses that can really be equated from other schools that waiting until my junior year to take a semester abroad (which is my current plan) is going to make my life much, much harder.

This isn’t to say that studying abroad later is always a bad idea either; I simply wish I had considered the option of going abroad earlier in my college career when I first joined the program.

Now, as I’m preparing to take my short trip to Italy over the summer, I know that I’m as ready as I can be with no prior experience abroad. I’ll be going with an OU program, which I think is a good fit for me. It will let me “get my feet wet” abroad in a setting where I can get help easily, and I’m even staying after the program ends to travel on my own. I plan to make this trip and come back without any regrets for going to early or too late.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I let way too many crazy emotions color my decisions my first few months at school. If I could do it again, I would go talk to more advisors – to Jaci and Ms. Vincent and the advisors for the countries I am interested in. I would talk to other GEFs who have already traveled or made plans to do so, and I would stay open to more ideas and more options. Studying abroad is a huge process, and you have to start planning so far in advance that it’s easy to wait too long out of fear that you’re not ready to go. But talking to people who have gone abroad already can help in many ways, and keeping in mind that you likely won’t be exactly the same person from the time you start your application to the time you get on the plane to leave really helps keep things in perspective.

“Dreams from Endangered Cultures”

Growing up in Oklahoma, smack dab in the middle of the United States, it is easy to forget how diverse the world really is. Listening to Wade Davis talk about so many different cultures and peoples that I’ve never even heard of and could hardly hope to pronounce really pointed out how little I (and likely the majority of Americans and other citizens of “first world” nations) know about the people of the world. Even more humbling was Davis’s description of the 3000 languages – and by extension, roughly 3000 ways of life – that have died out completely in the last couple decades. More languages and cultures than I could even imagine have died out within my lifetime. As Davis said, that is worse than the current extinction rate of species in the world by a massive margin.
The idea that we are steadily moving toward a monochromatic, culturally uniform world is terrifying and depressing. A world like that would be so incredibly boring, and yet many people would argue that it could be better. Davis points out that since some people think it would be good for the entire world to speak one language, we should make it “Yoruba” or “Kogi” or “Cantonese.” We should imagine making it a language other than English and then consider all the things we may not be able to express or pass on without the use of our own language. We should consider all the knowledge about the world and our history that would be lost with the death of our language, because that is what happens every time the last speaker of a language, the last member of a fading culture dies: knowledge and ideas and ways of thought are lost, possibly forever.
Davis talked about so many incredible experiences from his studies in anthropology, from whaling with Inuit to navigating the Amazon with various native peoples and even learning about a shaman’s preferred hallucinogenic plants – experiences that do not exist in American, European, or most other western cultures. But the potential for these experiences is constantly dwindling as the remaining 3000 languages continue to disappear. I think that is part of why studying abroad is so important; it encourages an appreciation of other cultures and a realization of just how devastating the ongoing ethnocide is, and maybe in the long run it will lead to some kind of solution.