Six AIFS alumni were asked, “What is the most valuable lesson you learned while studying abroad?” Here is what they had to say:
Emily Cole (AIFS in Berlin, Germany)
The most valuable lesson I learned while abroad was that I don’t have to be afraid to go off on my own. I chose to travel with a girl I’d met in my German class, so when I got to Berlin I had a buddy the entire time. But one day, I decided to venture off on my own—which wasn’t really something I was known to do at the time. I learned that I don’t have to be afraid of experiencing new things and that sometimes new things can be the most exciting.
It got to the point at the end of my trip where I’d distance myself from the group on trains or when we were walking somewhere together. I’d fall back and take things in on my own. There were often times my friends would worry about where I was or what I was doing, because I wasn’t with the group; I was off exploring Berlin on my own terms.
Learning this caused me to travel more on my own once I returned to the States. It also taught me that even if I’m not in a foreign country, the places around my own city and state can be just as foreign—and in just as much need of exploration—as some of the grander places I’ve visited.
Nathan Herman (AIFS in Rome, Italy)
The most valuable lesson I learned while studying abroad in Rome was to experience something new every day, big or small. When you are studying abroad, every day is an opportunity to experience a new culture or try a new food. But, once classes begin, there are some days where I felt I was sticking to a typical school schedule—with classes filling up my day and completing assignments once I arrived home.
It only took one look outside of the window to realize that I was in one of the most historic cities in the world and there was so much to see only feet outside of my door. I promised myself that from there on out, I was going to try something new every day. Whether it was traveling to a new country or just taking a new way home from school.
Stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking advantage of the opportunities that studying abroad gave me to experience so many new things was an amazing lesson to learn. Even today, as I am back in the United States and continue my education, my experiences in Rome still guide me. I find myself cooking a meal that I normally wouldn’t consider or reading a book that is not a normal genre for me to read. These new experiences continue to broaden my horizon and learning this while abroad was a very valuable lesson to learn.
Katie Shwalen (AIFS in St. Petersburg, Russia)
Don’t be afraid to get a little bit lost. From my experience exploring St. Petersburg, I would often find the most interesting places when I simply wandered without any particular destination. One day a few friends and I were tired of sitting around our apartment and wanted to get out to enjoy the nice weather. We jumped on a metro line that we normally don’t travel on and rode until we felt like getting off. After walking around for about 15 minutes in a new, unfamiliar section of the city, we stumbled upon the most gorgeous mosaic garden. It took up about 1 city block and had so many interesting sculptures and murals made out of stained glass pieces, ceramic, and painted rock. If we hadn’t taken the chance at getting lost, we might not never have found this hidden gem in our host city.
Joanna Flanagan (AIFS in Limerick, Ireland)
The most valuable lesson I learned while studying abroad was to appreciate the world around me. It may be cliché, but leaving the country and spending four months in a new place made me really appreciate everything around me. I studied in Ireland, a country famed for its beauty, and I never got sick of it.
From the University of Limerick campus, to the riverside walk in the city, to the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands, studying in Ireland put some of the world’s most beautiful sights just outside my door. Now that I’m back home, I find myself looking for the beauty in my own environment and appreciating the little beauties of the world.
Mackenzie Hudson (AIFS in San José, Costa Rica)
I feel that studying abroad, no matter where you are in the world or which year in school you are in, you learn many things you never would have imagined. However, the one thing I think I developed even more was to not take the little things for granted. Costa Rica is a developing country, and even though I lived in the city in a nice home with a well-off family, I was able to see the poverty and struggle a lot more than here in the United States. I met families living in what would be considered a shed or shack here and saw how hard they worked to provide for their families—and how happy they still were.
One day I was in a small convenience store in Ostional when I noticed a small Tica girl and her younger sister trying to buy a snack. She kept asking the prices of chips, donuts, and so on, but each time put them back on the shelf. Something we consider so minimal she could not afford.
I finally went up to the cash register and told the man that I would be paying for their ice cream. The girls were so happy! They thanked me then hugged my legs before excitedly ripping open and licking their ice creams. At that moment I realized something I take for granted, to be able to buy an ice cream as a snack, may mean a lot more to some people than I realized.
The culture of Costa Rica has taught me to be more thankful for what I have and take nothing for granted, to open my eyes wider than I could imagine and to challenge myself to accept cultures different than my own.
(Photo Credit: eloisesavesturtles.tumblr.com)
Bridgette God (AIFS in Florence, Italy)
The biggest lesson I learned was that positive facial expressions and body language go a long way when dealing with a language barrier. If you are smiling and look friendly and open, even if you are having trouble communicating with someone, people will be a lot more open to working with you and trying to communicate if they believe you are a friendly, good person.
This especially came into play when building a relationship with my host mom. She could not speak English, and I knew absolutely no Italian before I arrived. This was one of the most humbling experiences to feel helpless at times, because I could not easily communicate what I wanted to say. I did not know the words I needed to use. That being said, I had a wonderful relationship and experience with my host mom. I treasure the nights we would sit together and watch Italian movies (I understood almost nothing, and she would patiently try to explain), and the nights we would go through photo albums of her children and grandchildren.
My host mom and I communicated with a lot of pointing and acting out, but I just tried to laugh, smile and perform kind gestures for her as much as I could. She was able to see I was trying very hard to build a relationship and learn her language. In general with locals, pointing and acting goes a lot farther than you would think.
It was touching and amazing to me how close I could get to someone when we couldn’t even speak the same language. This sounds cheesy, but it really taught me the value of a smile. A smile is something understood in all languages, and it is easier to build relationships with a language barrier when the other person knows your intentions are good. Living with a host mom truly expanded my growth as a person and immersed me deeper in the Italian culture.