As a child, every year I looked forward to the first day back to school from summer vacation. Many of my friends would bring back mementos for me from the places they’d traveled over the break: engraved chopsticks from Taiwan, spicy candies from Mexico. I dreamed of one day visiting other countries as my childhood friends had done.
My dream came true last fall when I boarded a plane headed for Valencia, Spain to study abroad with USAC Valencia. I picked up my life and everything I’d ever known and moved across the ocean to an unfamiliar country full of unfamiliar faces. As my plane landed, I stepped into a city that would soon become a second home. Excited yet sleep-deprived, I had no idea what the next few months would hold.
Getting Thrown Out of My Comfort Zone
Moving 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean didn’t just push me out of my comfort zone; it threw me. Being in a country where I didn’t speak the main language fluently forced me to become a more effective communicator with all those around me. And, what better way to develop cultural competence than living and immersing yourself in another culture for a season. The relaxed environment of Spain encouraged me to focus on living in the moment and not worrying about what the future holds. I learned to appreciate the differences in others and understand just how much education in another country had to offer me.
Volunteering During My Study Abroad
USAC Valencia is special in that it offers you opportunities to get to know your city and its culture in a more intimate way while you are abroad. They allow you to get involved in the community and take your learning a step outside of the classroom. For me, it was the chance to volunteer at Caritas, an after school tutoring program for the underprivileged. Every Thursday I rode a bus to the other side of the city, to a tiny building in the middle of an overlooked neighborhood. Elementary and middle school aged children came there after school to receive help with homework. We played games together, worked on math problems, and practiced English throughout the entire semester. These kids quickly became one of my favorite parts of my experience.
In the short five months I was abroad, I learned more about myself and the world than I ever dreamed possible. I would never have imagined I would get to be the kid with the mementos to bring home and show others. Now, every day I get the chance to share my story with students interested in similar experiences as a Peer Advisor in the Education Abroad Office at my university.
If You’re Thinking About Study Abroad with USAC Valencia
So, to those who have already chosen USAC Valencia and are starting their adventure soon, I would say to you make the most of your time away. Get to know the streets, the cafes, the campus, and the people. Learn the favorite spots of locals that are off the beaten path. Learn to navigate around the city without the help of GPS. Have picnics on Malvarrosa Beach. Go on walks through Rio Turia Park. Learn how to make paella. Visit the City of Arts and Sciences. Volunteer with Caritas. Don’t be a mere tourist in the city; make Valencia your home.
And, to those who are thinking about studying abroad with USAC Valencia or any other USAC program, I would say to you do it. Sure, you don’t know anyone. You’ve never traveled to another country. You’ll be away from your family and friends and you don’t know the language. But, whatever doubts you are having, whatever events you think you’ll miss, whatever fears keep creeping up: let them all go. Living and studying in another country for a time, whether a summer, semester, or year is completely worth it.
Yet, no country you visit, souvenir you buy, or memory you make during your time abroad, will ever compare to the amazing people you will meet along the way. From the students in your program, to the lady who sits on your bus every Tuesday morning, every single person will impact your life in a way you could never explain. These people will walk alongside you through one of the most challenging and rewarding seasons of your life. I know for me, each person I met breathed a breath of excitement and joy into my life.
Leave your pride and your insecurities behind. Swoon over the accents you hear and the foods you taste. Push yourself over and beyond your comfort zone. Experience the culture. Go on as many adventures as possible. Embrace the little things, the seemingly mundane: the morning walks to school, the flowers at the local café, and the sound of the Mediterranean Sea. But, also embrace the big things, the things you never dreamed possible: riding camels through the sands of Morocco, hiking up a Swiss Alp, and simply living every day in a foreign country.
No matter who you are or what you have planned for your life, studying abroad will open you up to a world of possibilities you would never have by staying where you are right now. The journey along the way really is worth more than the destination at the end. You’ll gain memories, friendships, and experiences in addition to career and academic benefits you from studying abroad.
So, take the risk. Dive in head first. Apply. Go. Learn. Grow. Just do it. Don’t look back and say what if. Make your dreams a reality. And once you do, when you find yourself on a flight to the other side of the world, remember to embrace every moment from your first step off the plane. Because, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself stepping back on, headed home with a heart full of love, a greater appreciation for the world, and a burning desire to do it all over again.
Allyson Ferguson is a USAC Valencia alumna. She serves is a Peer Ambassador at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.