Rachel E. Anderson
At 19 years old, most college sophomores are worried about declaring a major or passing the next big exam.
I decided to move to Europe alone.
Initially, I planned to study abroad in Bilbao, Spain for six months. However, as life so often surprises you, I ended up extending my stay to live in Florence, Italy for two additional months for an internship.
After eights months, I returned to the United States a newer, more independent and self-aware Rachel. Living abroad helped me mature into my own personal identity and a responsible adult, teaching me much more than I had expected.
Going to Spain without any contacts or familiar faces forced me out of my comfort zone immediately. Immersion began as soon as I stepped off the plane.
I had be friendly, open-minded and ready to speak Spanish from the start. Because I was, I developed new friendships with people from all over the world and improved my Spanish day by day. I did not trap myself in an American bubble, speaking English and spending time with other Americans.
The last thing I wanted to do was maintain an American lifestyle in Spain. I was not going to treat my time in Europe like a wild eight month vacation. Instead, I opted for an authentic experience.
Taking a daily siesta and going out for pintxos became the new normal for me. Tortilla de jamón became my comfort food. Spain became my home.
Come summer, my life was uprooted again. I moved to Florence, Italy, knowing about 10 words in Italian and craving every flavor of gelato.
Much to my surprise, I overcame the language barrier, speaking Spanish or English with an occasional Italian word thrown in. Even when everything got lost in translation, I found gestures and a short game of charades could get the point across.
In all my travels, I learned that communication did not solely rely on language. It is a combination of tone of voice, body language, gestures, facial expressions, and words. Moreover, I learned you do not have to be fluent in the native tongue to communicate effectively.
Although learning the basics before traveling to a country definitely helps, I survived my trip to Croatia without any grasp of the Croatian language. However, in places like Italy, you can gain a lot of respect from the locals for knowing basic phrases like “Hello” and “Thank you” in their dialect.
You learn a lot about yourself when you are on your own. Especially, when you are on your own in a foreign city.
Some of my most profound realizations came from the backpacking trips I took during my time abroad.
I proved to myself I could be dropped off in the middle of any city and be resourceful enough to take care of myself while still having a blast along the way. It did not matter if I knew the language, planned an itinerary or booked a hotel. I could live in the moment and take in the experience.
While I had my share of teenage moments, from eating ice cream for dinner or taking duck-face selfies in front of historic monuments, Europe strengthened my maturity. This experience clarified I could not only live, but thrive in environments completely separated from a world in which I had been raised.
This independent journey was a whirlwind of an adventure that taught me priceless lessons about life, culture and myself. No amount of classes or school trips could come close to covering everything that I learned and experienced from my time abroad.
If you are even slightly questioning it, go abroad. Travel. Explore. Live. It is more than worth it.