I spend a lot of time at school convincing my friends and peers to study abroad. Truthfully, I think it is an experience that too many people pass up during their college years and one that’s nearly impossible to recreate once you’ve received your diploma. Every year, I hear alumni woefully proclaim, “I wish I’d taken the opportunity to travel when I was still in college.”
As students, we tend to fill our lives to the brim with extracurricular activities, work, and courses for our majors. Every extra minute in the day belongs to friends, or sleep, or relaxing. For me, studying abroad was a way to get away from all of that and explore a new culture and language. I wanted to go to the most unfamiliar place I’d ever visited. For me, that was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – ranked that year as the New York Times #1 Best Place to Travel. I couldn’t have been more excited about visiting the land of beaches, Carnaval, and samba, all while learning Portuguese and (hopefully) making some new friends.
At 20 years old I felt ready to move to another continent by myself for half a year. Crazy, right?
So You Want the Truth About Studying Abroad?
So you want the truth about studying abroad? Honestly, I grew a lot and was humbled greatly by my experiences in Brazil. My story is marked by challenges and obstacles, but also by pride and compassion. The honest truth is that every component of my study abroad experience shaped the end result, and helped me learn in ways I could not have experienced here in Houston.
The Bumpy Beginning
During my first month in Brazil, I lived with a single woman in her two-bedroom, high-rise apartment. She spoke no English and talked at the speed of light. Her apartment was filthy; so bad, in fact, that I broke out in hives the first day I was there. On my third day, I contracted food poisoning and was nauseated throughout my entire city tour. The amazing sights of Rio were blemished by the fact that I couldn’t stand up straight for more than ten consecutive minutes. After just four days in Rio, I broke down crying to my mother that I couldn’t stay there. I wanted to go home. I was completely unprepared for this.
The Honeymoon Phase
After a few weeks, I finally started to make friends. I went out to bars, hung out at the beach, and met a ton of people. I switched homestays and formed a tight-knit relationship with my host mom, who became one of my best friends throughout my time in Brazil. Life was good – I was spending almost every day at the beach, learning how to cook, and even exercising in my free time. Rio really was panning out to be everything I’d hoped, plus I was getting a nice golden tan to boot.
Studying was going well, too. I was learning Portuguese at lightning speed and excelling in all of my classes. Not only was I taking all of my classes in Portuguese, but I had also started volunteering at an Italian NGO in Rocinha, one of Brazil’s largest favelas. I couldn’t believe I was actually teaching classes in Portuguese and bonding with local high school students too. With a growing affection for my new city, I felt like I was on top of the world.
One of my greatest hopes, when I came to Brazil, was that I’d make friends with Brazilians. It didn’t quite happen. Many of the Brazilian students at my school, PUC-Rio, were grouped off into cliques like some kind of high school movie. I felt lonely. After almost three months of being away from my boyfriend, friends, and family, I started to really miss the feeling of acceptance and love. I was running low on money and couldn’t go out every night like the rest of the exchange students. I didn’t identify with the intense party culture of studying abroad but wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to stay home all of the time. I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t connect with anyone.
Luckily, this was the time when I found my favorite group of friends, a group we appropriately called “Gente Boa,” or “good people” in Portuguese. We were all American exchange students (and one from New Zealand) from different backgrounds, but we really hit it off and began to spend more and more time together. We went out for sushi at 11 PM in the city’s favelas, explored new beaches, sneaked into luxury hotels, and of course went out on the town. At this point, I knew the slump would soon be over.
The Finish Line
Once I finally found my place in Brazil and began hanging out with my new friends, my remaining time flew by. My mom visited and I got to spend a week showing her around the new niche I had made for myself in Rio. I had saved up enough money to travel to a few other cities in Brazil, so after classes ended I picked up my bags and headed to the Northeast region, where I saw some amazing places like Salvador, Recife, and Jericoacoara. After that, I spent the holidays with my boyfriend and his family in the North Zone of Rio, meanwhile saying goodbye to all of the amazing friends I had made in the process.
If I could go back and redo any part of my time in Brazil, it would have been the last month of my stay. This was when I felt like everything had fallen into place – I had a solid group of friends, lots of amazing visitors, and of course, a fair amount of travel. However, I also attributed a lot of my happiness during this time to having experienced the hard times I had faced earlier. Deep in my heart, I knew that I had grown by leaps and bounds from this opportunity and that studying abroad truly had changed my perspective on life. For this, I was truly thankful.
Learn More About Travel in Brazil!
In the end, I was appreciative of the variety of experiences that studying abroad gave me, the good and the bad. I learned from them. I took them to heart. I apply the lessons I learned to situations in my life back at home all the time. Studying abroad was kind of like running a marathon – something I wanted to do for myself, despite the pain and hard work, to prove that I could indeed survive for half a year in seemingly one of the most foreign countries I could have chosen. There were highs and lows, but once the end was in sight, I knew I had made the right decision.
The honest truth about studying abroad is that it’s a comprehensive experience. You’ll create amazing memories and build lifelong friendships. You’ll feel lonely and you’ll miss home. You’ll crave the comfort of familiarity and the ease of life without language barriers.
Learn More About the Study Abroad Experience
There are a number of things students can do to improve their time abroad. Communicate. Reach out to others. Get involved and own your experience. Even when you’re down, pick yourself up and try to see what new things you can learn and explore. Every ounce of energy and effort you put into your experience will be returned to you exponentially. While it takes a great deal of willpower and strength, the truth about studying abroad is that it will open your mind and heart.
Most importantly, the experience at large will become a part of you, something you’ll take with you wherever you go and share with whomever you meet. No matter how difficult your difficulties and obstacles were, this is the real value and the truth about studying abroad – the chance to bring a different place and a new culture a little bit closer to your heart.
Done with college but still want to travel? Here are 5 Ways to Travel Post-College!