Studying in Japan more than 3 decades ago had a profound impact on the life of Paul Watson, the Executive Director of AIFS Study Abroad. He recently extended an invitation to all students to have their own study abroad adventure – and shared a few stories of his own:
If you ask anyone who has studied abroad about their experience, you will in all probability hear common themes that may sound cliché. They will likely say “it was life-changing”; “It was the most amazing semester of my college experience”; “It was the best decision I ever made”; “l learned more in that semester/year abroad than I did during my entire time in college.”
Really? Truth or hyperbole? Is that possible, or is it just what those who study abroad learn to say?
For me, they are completely accurate descriptions of what I experienced. It has been 35 years since I had the incredible good fortune to live and study abroad in Japan for a year, and the memories may have slightly faded, but the impact continues.
Prior to deciding to study abroad, I was not adventurous and had not dreamed of getting away from campus to do something exotic. I had developed an interest in Japanese history and culture from a couple of history courses I took as a freshman from a truly wonderful professor. However, the idea of going there to study came to me almost accidentally. I saw a simple poster on a campus bulletin board promoting a year in Japan program. I had no grand plan, but something sparked, I applied, and things fell into place. I got on a plane for only the second time in my life and headed for Japan.
I could write pages about all of the amazing experiences I had. I could share stories about being accepted into a family and treated as one of the children. I went knowing only a few words of Japanese, and my three young host sisters and brother were perhaps my best Japanese teachers. I was with thirty-three other American students from across the country, who had diverse backgrounds and experiences far different than my own, with whom I developed wonderful friendships. There was a campus organization of Japanese students interested in learning more about the U.S. who helped us navigate a new and vastly different culture. More wonderful friendships developed. My courses were excellent, relevant and energizing, and learning to function reasonably well with the Japanese language turned out not to be impossible. There were myriad travel opportunities, both organized excursions and independent exploration.
During those nine months I was fascinated, challenged and at times frustrated by the complexities of Japanese culture. But I cannot think of another period of time in my life where I learned and experienced so much. It did change the way I viewed the world, and my small place in it. It contributed to my maturation. It did ultimately impact my career path. Although it was a number of years after my study abroad experience that I decided to pursue a career in international education, it is impossible for me to imagine what direction my life might have taken had I not studied abroad.
My message to you is if you are even remotely considering the possibility, do not let the opportunity to study abroad get away. You may not have a specific plan that ties studying abroad to your academic and career goals. You may think learning a language is not something you are capable of. The thought of leaving family and friends for any extended period of time may be daunting. Put those concerns and fears aside. There likely will never again be an opportunity quite like this open to you.
There is a fitting quote by Mark Twain that goes:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I sincerely hope you choose to accept the invitation to experience the world!