Lessons Learned Halfway Around the World

Posted by Josh Cai


I’m not very good at traveling. It’s always quite stressful for me – you know, trying to catch a 7am flight on time, trying to decipher thick accents, trying to figure out the public transit, etc. This, coupled with the fact that I have never been a big fan of sightseeing1, caused me to never really understand the appeal of traveling. When people asked me if I was excited for my study abroad, I would usually mumble “Uhh yeah, I guess”, which would be followed by an onset of guilt since it seemed like everyone else would appreciate the experience more than I would.

To be fair, there were some things that I was excited for – the ability to try new food and the chance to learn about the education system at Oxford – yet I still felt anxious overall. Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful to have been encouraged to study abroad by McDermott (because I know I definitely wouldn’t have otherwise). As cliché as it sounds, I really do believe that there are some lessons that you can only learn when you’re 4694 miles away from your comfort zone.

If you’re anything like I was, you’re probably thinking “what can I possibly learn at a school abroad that I can’t learn at school here?”. And maybe that’s the first lesson I learned – that studying abroad is just as much, if not more, about the things you learn outside of the classroom as it is about the things you learn inside of it.

While I was at Oxford, I happened to have a friend who led the Oxford Muse Society, which was a club that helped foster conversations with strangers usually over dinner or tea. After some gentle prodding from my friend, I decided to attend, even though I had a severe (self-diagnosed) case of social anxiety. To my surprise, I really enjoyed my conversations with the strangers I was paired with. Even more surprising, my conversation partners seemed to enjoy their conversations with me! Throughout the rest of the semester, I found myself able to talk to strangers in our college dining hall, on the plane, and elsewhere.

The most memorable event that occurred while I was abroad actually happened while I was traveling in Prague with two high school friends. We were on our way to an escape room (a room with lots of different puzzles that we had to solve in order to “escape”), and since we were cutting it close to the reservation time, we ended up jogging across some of the intersections. After crossing one of the roads, we heard someone shout “Hey, wait!”. As it turns out, the camera in my coat pocket had somehow slipped out and fallen to the ground. To make matters (potentially) worse, it was a camera that my friend had let me borrow, since I had broken mine a week prior. After thanking the stranger profusely for returning the camera to me, I thought about how selfless his act was – he had nothing to gain by returning the camera to me, yet he did anyways. I still think about his act time to time – a reminder to myself that maybe, just maybe, humanity isn’t all that bad.

And so, after a semester of exploring different countries I learned that talking to people isn’t so scary2, that there really are good people out there, and, most importantly, that people should never trust me with their cameras.

Whooshing in front of Trinity College at Oxford.

[1]: I’m the opposite of my mom, who loves to sightsee and take pictures of virtually everything. When my family came to visit me over the summer, we visited San Francisco together on the weekend but didn’t have time to see the Golden Gate Bridge. My mom told me, “You can’t say you’ve been to San Francisco if you don’t see the Golden Gate Bridge!”. They ended up going to see it without me when I had work. Despite multiple other visits to San Francisco, I never actually got to see the Golden Gate Bridge. So I guess I have never been to San Francisco.

[2]: It may just be that my social anxiety is in remission.

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