Posted by Aubrey Kinser
The past year has been a whirlwind, full of wonderful opportunities that I can still scarcely believe I was given. Last summer I studied in Rome and London; in the fall, I returned to the States to intern in D.C. as an Archer Fellow; and this past spring, I participated in an exchange program with the University of Orléans in France. After a full year away from campus, I returned to UTD about a month and a half ago.
When I began writing this blog post, I started off with the idea that I would somehow be able to communicate the incredible experiences I’ve had and the way they’ve changed me as a person throughout this past year. Of course, that turned out to be far more than I could convey in just a few pages, if I could ever find the right words! Instead, I’ve turned to a much lighter topic: the unanticipated benefits from studying abroad that I’m only noticing now that I’ve returned stateside.
- Speaking your own language seems so much easier
I’m not known for being a talkative person, as my fellow McDermotts can attest. From small talk to presentations to interviews, verbal communication has never been my strong point. But after spending a whole semester studying and living in French, communicating in English just seems like a breeze in comparison. No more rifling through my mental dictionary, no more struggling with the subjonctif, no more apologizing for my atrocious grammar! Ninety-four is ninety-four, no longer four-twenties-and-fourteen!
Of course, my French improved immensely over my months in Orléans, and by the end of my time there I had gotten into the habit of even thinking in French. This only made the ease of English all the more startling when I was able to return to it full-time.
Now that I’m back, I’ve noticed that I’ve become much more comfortable conversing with new people, participating actively in class discussions, and reaching out to people I don’t know. And speaking of…
- The kindness of strangers
Nearly three years ago, I started as a freshman at UTD. The university was very welcoming, but Dallas itself seemed impossibly huge and impersonal after living in a relatively small rural community for eight years. As is the nature of cities, everyone on the street goes about their own business and barely acknowledges anyone else.
Studying abroad gave me a greater appreciation of how often these distant, bustling strangers are willing to offer their assistance. Being a clueless American wandering around in foreign cities, you wind up accepting help from a lot of people you don’t know—whether it’s with simple directions, carrying a heavy suitcase up the stairs, or making it to the train station when the city transit is shut down for a holiday.
The Dallas atmosphere hasn’t changed much in my absence, but now I find myself with a more benevolent attitude towards strangers in this city. They may be walking briskly past with earbuds in, or enclosed in air-conditioned cars without any acknowledgement of pedestrians or other drivers, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be willing to help if someone needed it, or that they don’t need help that I could offer.
- The U.S. suddenly seems incredibly organized and reasonable
Each country certainly has its own way of doing things, and no one place has a perfect system. There were times when I greatly admired another country’s public transportation or city organization; there were also times when I became frustrated with some kind of inefficiency or disorder that would be rare in the States.
Of course, these inconveniences were nothing in comparison to the wonderful things that each place had to offer, and the U.S. certainly has more than its own fair share of flaws in the system. But upon returning to the States, I’ve gained a new appreciation for a semi-reliable postal service, water and public bathrooms that you don’t have to pay for, people who follow the concept of waiting in line, and a myriad of other things that I didn’t think to miss when I was away. It isn’t that the U.S. is necessarily superior, either, only familiar—even its faults and foibles are comfortingly predictable after months of struggling to figure out the workings of a handful of other countries.
- Difficult situations aren’t the end of the world
Studying abroad, traveling thousands of miles away from everything and everyone you know, invites challenges. Sometimes they’re academic difficulties, such as being faced with eight final exams that aren’t even in your native language. Sometimes they’re travel-related, like possibly being stranded late at night in Palermo with no place to go. Facing these kinds of obstacles with composure is something you just have to learn by doing.
I tend to be a bit of a worrier, with an overactive imagination that reacts to predicaments by envisioning the worst possible outcomes in vivid detail. But being caught in these scrapes without anyone to turn to has taught me to accept the situation before me and deal with it instead of wishing I’d been able to avoid it or picturing how badly it could go. Back in Dallas, faced with the same problems of normal college life that I left behind last year, I can handle them with a new equanimity.
Reading back over this post, I realize that it doesn’t paint a very cheerful picture of my time abroad. If any reader has this impression, it’s far from the truth. I have seen and done countless things this past year that I never could have imagined when I first came to UTD as a freshman, and I wouldn’t trade a one. I’ve fallen in love with so many places, and encountered so many wonderful people, and constantly had my breath taken away by beauty that can never be captured in a picture. Above, I’ve only described the little perks of studying abroad that I’ve recognized upon my return; the deeper and truer blessings of the past year are a topic for another day.