For some students, studying abroad is the opportunity to experience a new culture and expand your understanding of the world. For other students, there is a requirement for study abroad to help improve language skills or intercultural communication skills to graduate with their specific major. For me, it was both. I wanted to study abroad to gain a broader worldview and learn about a new culture and people. But also, I was required to study abroad to graduate.
I am an international relations major, and as such, studying abroad is a huge part of my degree. It takes the concepts we learn in class to reality. It also is a test to see if we chose the right degree. Consequentially, studying abroad was an incredibly important experience for me. It literally decided if I chose the right field. Studying abroad in Costa Rica taught me four things about myself which will help me in my future endeavors in the field of international relations.
As an American studying international relation, it is important to remember you don’t represent your country
The United States is the global hegemon. Many of our operations around the world do not reflect the ideals by which we define ourselves. Hence, criticism about your country is very likely, and you will have to answer for the fault of American foreign policy. It is important to recognize that you are only one person. Your view of the U.S.’s foreign or domestic policy does not represent that of the entire U.S.
I distinctly remember a few occasions where there were issues surrounding some of President Trump’s foreign policies in Central America. I was often asked to be the spokesperson in my international studies classes for the U.S. I got a lot of questions about policy, which I absolutely loved. But I had to remember that I don’t represent everyone’s opinions about certain issues. It is necessary to be respectful of other’s opinions. At the same time, you represent what people will perceive of Americans abroad. So, it is important to acknowledge this as well and be respectful in the articulation of your opinions.
Go Outside Your Comfort Zone
This is such a cliché. Whenever anyone talks about study abroad, the first thing they say is go outside of your comfort zone. But there is a reason that it is well-repeated advice. Going outside of your comfort zone not only lets you have more fun abroad, but you will actually learn more.
I was not completely comfortable traveling alone before I went abroad. My parents were worried about me traveling alone because they couldn’t reach me easily. Yet, traveling alone, and being comfortable doing so in a foreign country is a vital skill if I want to work in international relations. So, I travelled with people until I became comfortable with the hostel and transportation systems. Then I began to travel alone across the country. I was able to prove to myself that I could do so comfortably. I also got to see some amazing volcanoes and beaches along the way!
Adapting to a new society is important, and hard.
Adjusting to a new culture, norms, and society isn’t easy. It is important to give yourself time to acclimate. But don’t spend too long missing home, or you’ll miss the fun! Seeing if I could successfully live in a different culture was important to me because it would determine whether or not I could do my job and travel to different posts around the world. In order to transition easier into Costa Rican society, I asked a lot of questions and tried to be open to new ideas.
For instance, my host mom and I became very close. One night, I came home, and she had asked how my day was. I said it was good. That is a perfectly acceptable response here. We as Americans are very direct in our speech. However, my host mom was expecting a full run-down of my day. My response was rude in its directness.
She and I talked about this difference, and it explained a lot. When I was talking with friends at la Universidad, I often got odd glances after I responded to questions. I had thought I mispronounced something or messed up on grammar. The next day, I went to my friends and asked them if I had been too direct in my responses. They all laughed and said yes. There is no way that I would have known that this was a cultural difference which made me rude had my host mom not told me. Being able to not just transition into but adapt to a different culture in order to develop intercultural communication skills is an important skill that I will continue to hone.
Everyone is scared of messing up
For me, learning another language is vital to my degree. I felt a lot of pressure to not learn but be fluent in Spanish by the time that I came home. As a result, I didn’t want to mess up while speaking. It wasn’t until I began tutoring students in English that I fully grasped the importance of messing up while learning a new language.
The students I taught were always nervous about messing up their English, and I was terrified of screwing up Spanish. One student and I became good friends, and we would spend hours talking in both languages, often messing up. We would tell the other when they said the wrong word or their grammar wasn’t right. We were able to be comfortable with our mistakes. In doing so, I became comfortable making mistakes. And that is how you learn the best.
Studying abroad helped me develop life skills which would follow into my field of study. I learned that I absolutely chose the right degree. Most importantly, it helped me gain confidence that I could be successful post-graduation in my field of study.
Sierra Tanner is an International Relations and Public Policy student at the University of Denver and studied abroad with IFSA at la Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica in Costa Rica in Fall 2019.
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