Shay Harris—I have a pretty vivid memory of my youth. Once when I was on a bus with my mother, she told me about a flight she took to visit family down south. As she spoke I remember looking toward the sun and squinting my eyes so that rainbows flared in them. What I remember most about that moment was my mother recalling how people “looked like little ants” the first time she had ever flown.
My family doesn’t come from money, prestige, or time-testing legacies. My family is a group of hardworking people that have done their best to help get me to where I am today. As young as the first grade, I knew that college was a place of opportunity. Throughout the years, people have told me about the wonders of studying abroad, and I’m here to give my take on the experience.
Over winter recess, right after New Years, I embarked on a trip that has forever changed my life. For the first time in my life, I was going to leave America and have the pleasure to travel throughout Italy and Greece. Up until January I had never stepped foot inside an airport, let alone an actual airplane. I could go on and on about my time overseas, but for the sake of this post I’ll leave you all with five key lessons that I took away.
- Traveling is a privilege. Period.
I don’t care if you’re walking to a friend’s house down the block, driving to the nearest state, traveling to Canada, or internationally. Traveling in all of its modes is a privilege too many of us overlook. While eating my first airplane meal (which was pretty darn good), I thought about the many young boys and girls back in Brooklyn who may never have the opportunity I was fortunate enough to have. There are many people who won’t learn that the world is larger than their 10-block radius, quiet suburb, or farm. I used to get jealous when my peers used to tell me about their family vacations in places like Florida or Spain. I vocalize my dreams to my family often, and my uncle (who’s travelled internationally before) always told me to be patient. “Your time will come, but until then, keep working hard.” I waited, continued working hard and I can say that the wait was worth it. Whenever something unexpected happened while abroad, I reached into my bag of gratitude and continuously reminded myself of the privilege I was experiencing.
2. Life is deeper than money.
Before leaving, I made sure that I had a decent amount of money that would carry me throughout my 15-day trip. I didn’t intend on spending a ton of money, but I wanted to be safer than sorry. My savings and money that I received from my family gave me a sense of security and accomplishment. Unfortunately, before even leaving the country, I ran into an issue. On the way to the Buffalo airport (where I was scheduled to catch a bus transferring my group to Toronto), my friend’s car literally died on the side of a road. AAA was called, but they wouldn’t arrive on time for me to catch my bus. After reaching out to a friend, I learned that the group wasn’t going to wait for me and that I would have to find a way to get to Canada on my own. Fast forward and $300 later, I had arrived in Toronto with a significant chunk of money gone. This should have ruined my mood, but, while I was upset, my eagerness to travel never faltered. Ultimately, it was immersing myself in foreign cultures, enjoying the company of those around me, getting creative with my spending, and remaining appreciative that kept me afloat. Besides, I still managed to come back home with some pretty dope things!
3. Be yourself. It’s worth it.
Now, this is technically a cheat since I’ve known about this for a while. However, I only knew two people that were on the trip before leaving. While my intention wasn’t to make friends, I made many by being myself. This is important because when I was younger, I spent too much time trying to be someone that I wasn’t for the recognition of others. Not anymore. I was unapologetically me throughout our tour of Italy and Greece, and the amazing people I met, the wonderful friends I made, never complained.
4. Your ideal career should be fulfilling.
Throughout my travels, a very eccentric woman by the name of Gloria served as our primary tour guide. She was AMAZING. The first time we met her was in Milan, wearing black leather boots and a blue and purple cha that made her look like Sulley from Monster’s Inc. When we followed her through the crowds of Venice, she held a guiding stick with a little Pinocchio figurine attached to it. Gloria knew a lot about the various places we visited. She would tell us which shops were inauthentic, which restaurants provided the most bang for their buck, and so much more. When Gloria spoke, you would learn a lot, but most importantly, feel the passion that she had for her job. Ultimately, it was a tour guide in Athens who told me something I won’t forget for some time. She said, “My job doesn’t make me rich, but what I get is fulfillment. I see the Acropolis every day, but never do I get tired of seeing it.” This woman, who is also an archeologist, has been giving tours for about 40 years. People I know can barely stand a job after three months. Whatever I end up doing (landscape architecture and publishing?), I want to be happy and fulfilled.
5. Critical reflection. It’s key.
I’m a firm believer that critical reflecting on our experiences—big and small—is important for our health and growth. While studying abroad I had multiple internal moments, usually when writing in my travel journal. By writing down the events of each day, I was able to record things I may have forgotten, but something else. By recording my experiences, I made it easier to review and think. I thought about my feelings, new and old friends, my future, fears, joys, and so much more. By reflecting on my life before, during, and after the trip, I’ve been able to adjust some of my actions and ways of thinking. I was able to become a better person and will continue to do so.
In the end, I wold recommend studying abroad to anyone in college. A short-term program worked for me because I didn’t have to leave any of my jobs and it perfectly fit into my schedule. A large part of life is taking chances and giving yourself the chance to be vulnerable. If you were thinking about studying abroad before, I hope this post solidified the idea in your mind. If you hadn’t considered or had dismissed the idea, I hope you give it a second thought. I mean, at this point in our lives, what do we really have to lose?
Until next time,