With all of the travel guides and Bucket Lists out there, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to go everywhere and see everything. We always want our students to have the best experience abroad, but trying to do too much might take you in the opposite direction. Here’s some advice from Ciara Kelley, an alumna of our Cork, Ireland program.
Everyone that goes abroad starts making a list of things to see and do before they’ve even bought their plane tickets. I hadn’t even gotten my passport yet and I was looking up all of the “must-sees” and “must-dos” I could accomplish in my semester abroad in Cork, Ireland: London, Paris, Rome; kiss the Blarney Stone, swim in the Mediterranean… and believe me, the list only gets longer once you’ve stepped off the plane and realize how much of this world awaits you. Between studying in your courses, meeting locals, and trying to be a part of a new culture, it can be hard keeping up with this seemingly never-ending list.
Every guide out there tells you the must-sees as you travel the world are the Eiffel Tower, the Cliffs of Moher, the Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge… So you add those to your list. Then you see how cheap it can be to travel, so of course you have to book that flight to Lisbon and wherever else you can go.
It can be easy to plan getaways every weekend. There’s something enticing about having set foot in as many countries as possible, but what’s the point if you never truly get to experience it? Sure, you spent a weekend in London, but did you really experience it? Did you learn anything about the locals? Did you find the best restaurant? Did you make memories that would last a lifetime, or were you too exhausted from school or your internship or the other weekends you have spent non-stop traveling to even enjoy it?
A semester, or even a year, isn’t as long as it initially feels like, and it certainly isn’t enough time to get to every place in every travel guide. You aren’t abroad to check off every last item on your bucket list. You have your whole life to accomplish the things you want to. Just because some guy with the words “expert traveler” tacked onto the end of his name tells you to go see or do something, doesn’t mean that you actually have to.
You don’t want to look back and realize that although you may have spent every weekend in a new place, you never really got to know any of them. It’s okay if you never make it to the Eiffel Tower or the Cliffs of Moher, I didn’t. And guess what? I don’t regret it. My experience abroad was one of the best in my life. I had the opportunity to be a part of a community. I got to take part in festivals and events that were going on in my new town. I learned about the people. I learned about the customs. I learned about the history. I became a part of that city, and it became a part of me. After my first month in Cork, I realized it had become my home.
Don’t choose a location because you think it might be easy to travel from or because it’s at the top of your bucket list. Choose it because you have a genuine interest in the history and culture of that place. Choose it because you want to know more. Choose it because you want to be a part of it. You can travel at any point in your life, but you can’t go live in another part of the world or be a part of a different culture for such an extended period of time.
You are abroad to have an authentic cultural and educational experience. You are abroad to have the best experience you can have, and take it from me, rushing around, just trying to cross items off a list isn’t an enjoyable experience. You have to go with the flow.
So skip the must-sees. Ignore the travel guides. Err on the side of spontaneity. Immerse yourself in the culture—every culture you experience. Miss the bus. Buy the cheap plane ticket, but don’t feel like you have to because someone said you should or because you think this is your only chance. Do it because you actually want to.
Go alone, or go with friends, just make sure you do the things you want to do. There’s a world of possibility out there. You’re only standing in a small fraction of it and that’s okay!
So tack your bucket list up on the wall and admire it from afar. Cross them off as you can, but don’t make it your obsession. It’s not a contest to see who can see the most places.
I kissed the Blarney Stone, and then promptly caught a terrible flu. I traveled to Barcelona, I swam in the Mediterranean and still the most stand-out memories are sitting around a table with my new friends laughing. I went to Italy, but my best memories aren’t the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Colosseum. The best memories are laughing at myself as I tried to communicate with my new friends at the hostel. It’s trying to talk to the owner of the small book shop we wandered into. It’s sitting in the sun, eating gelato and listening to the quick and smooth flow of the language around me.
More so than all of that, the memories I hold on to most are the simple ones. They’re all the times I walked home late with the light mist of rain sprinkling my face. It’s the memory of a boy singing and music playing around the next corner and the smiles and looks of joy from all of my friends around me. It’s all the time my friends and I spent wandering through the different, beautiful buildings of my new school until we found a secret passage way. Believe it or not, it’s sitting in class, listening to my English professor read Bowen and Joyce and Yeats. All of those memories, those are memories from my host country–those are memories from Ireland.
- Laugh at yourself.
- Speak the language.
- Talk to new people.
- Go somewhere you wouldn’t usually go.
- Learn the ins and outs of your new city.
- Be a part of the culture.
- Live, actually live abroad.
Now I’m back; my time abroad is over. If you asked me what my regrets were, my answer would be all of the people I didn’t get to talk to, all of the streets of Cork I never got to walk, and all of the time I spent looking at a computer screen for my next adventure when I could have been out learning more and more about my new home. Two years later (gosh, that hurts to say), and I still miss home. Not the home where I’m sitting now, I miss the home I had in Ireland.
Ready to set aside the travel guides and bucket lists? Find the perfect program for you!