Anna Shoultz is a USAC Program Advisor and two-time USAC alumni. Her USAC study abroad experiences took her to Santiago, Chile and London, England. She uses her experiences to help students prepare for their study abroad. Anna shares some of her favorite memories and biggest lessons from her time abroad below.
USAC was my third (and my fourth) study abroad experience, so I still find myself excited to be working with some of the same people that helped me. Though, I admit, I often wonder about my next long-term experience abroad.
As someone who has been fortunate enough to study abroad multiple times, I have a few things I’d like to share that I have learned along the way.
My Study Abroad Journey
For context, let me tell you a little bit about myself and my international journey.
My first study abroad experience was also my first time traveling overseas as a 15-year-old in high school. I spent a summer in Italy, France, and Spain, and traveled back to that same region with family for a graduation trip.
Those first two trips sparked my desire to travel extensively, but it wasn’t until college, and my semester-long experiences, that I found the true value in what study abroad could do for me personally.
After taking a break from international travel my first year of college, I dove back in on a much larger scale. In 2018, I set off for a semester traveling to 12 different countries and living on a ship. This was the experience that catalyzed the rest of my college career and now, my actual career.
I knew that I was nowhere close to done exploring the world. That summer I ventured back to Asia for nearly a month of exploring and backpacking as I planned my next two semesters abroad.
My journey with USAC began as a junior in college in 2020 when I spent my spring semester in Santiago, Chile (Yes, that spring of 2020.). My original plan to study in London, England that fall were affected, and I ended up making it there for my final spring semester of undergrad in 2021 instead.
I was lucky to work for USAC during both of those semesters as a Digital Documenter. It was a wonderful chance to share my experiences during my time abroad through photos, videos, and blogs (like this one!).
Once those semesters ended, I knew I wanted to work in international education and with people all over the world. So, here I am. I now live in San Diego, Calif. and have traveled to multiple countries and cities since graduating, all while helping other students study abroad.
I’ve found that I’m most comfortable when I’m far outside my comfort zone, as backwards as that may sound. Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned have to do with pushing those boundaries. I’m sure the same can enhance your experience abroad, too.
At this point, I’ve been to 32 different countries, thanks to a mixture of educational and personal experiences. As I reflect on what I know now, here are several things I’d like to share with you when studying abroad.
1. Be Flexible
This was the motto of my first semester abroad, and something that has become a fundamental part of my outlook on life.
Flexibility is key. Not only in planning and being open to new adventures, but in reactions to situations that occur while traveling. Say, for example, that your weekend flight is delayed and you’re going to get to your destination much later than anticipated. If there’s nothing you can do about it, practice flexibility and grab some food or explore the surrounding area. Missed a train? That’s okay, there will always be another.
In London, there was a time where a friend and I headed to Cornwall in Southeast England for a few days and a disruption in the city caused there to be only one train we could take home. We did what any college students would do: camp out at the train station and work on assignments while periodically checking that the train would, in fact, still be able to get us home in time for our plans in the city.
A year before that, some friends and I wanted to camp in the Huerquehue National Park in Chile. I wasn’t feeling well, we were on an overnight bus, and it was the first time I was truly overwhelmed in South America. I chose to go with the flow anyway as the bus pulled away from the station in Santiago. I was immensely grateful eight hours later when we stepped into the town of Pucón and got to walk to the lake as the most amazing sunrise appeared overhead. Not having expectations but remaining positive was ultimately what turned a long night into one of the best weekends I’ve ever had.
A positive mindset and willingness to let things unfold can go such a long way.
2. Make Connections with as Many People as You Can
I’ve found the most meaningful part of any of my experiences abroad centered around the people I’ve met. Go beyond just making friends with the people in your program, too. Spending time with other local or international students around you will vastly broaden your horizons and leave you with lasting connections and reasons to return to the places you’ve been. On the same note, if you have a host family to introduce you to the people in their lives, or if you go to a market regularly and speak with the same vendors, you’ll begin to feel as if you’re really finding your place.
The connections you make are what changes a short-term experience abroad into finding a place that truly feels like a second (or third or fourth) home. Most of the closest people in my life are those with whom I have traveled, and I truly believe that nothing strengthens a relationship like the experience of navigating a new space together.
I’m now looking forward to visiting a family whose daughter I tutored years ago so that they can show me around Amsterdam, and I can’t wait to experience Thailand with a friend that I met in Chile. In fact, I live with one of my best friends that I met abroad and frequently go on trips to visit the others.
Having connections with people and places all over the world is a great reminder that there’s so much out there that we’ll simply never understand unless we try. Interacting with those from other backgrounds and visiting areas that are unfamiliar will allow you to see new ways of life and experience personal growth.
These relationships can fundamentally shift your perspective on the world in a way that no classroom could ever teach us.
3. Go Beyond What Makes You Comfortable
This is another topic that may have been brought up by your home university advisors when planning your program, from your parents who want to know all the little details, or from friends that can’t imagine leaving campus for a whole summer/semester/year.
Making the decision to study abroad shows you that you’re willing to step outside of the comfort of your daily life and routines. Leaving the people you spend your time with in search of new friends, new favorite spots, and new challenges might make you nervous, but that is a good thing!
When I first went abroad during college, I was at a place in my life where I felt very lost and unsure of what I wanted. I’d just gotten out of a very long relationship and realized that at 19 I was already changing my vision of the future in a drastic way. Was I nervous to take my first solo international flight and meet 500+ new people? Of course, but even during that first day of meeting so many people and hearing about how excited everyone was to embark on such an incredible adventure, I realized I’d found my place again.
That place wasn’t in one country, because out of the 12 I’ve never been able to name an official favorite, but it was on a ship in the ocean, in the market in Ghana, and as I hiked the Great Wall. My “place” was not needing to have a static place in the world, because I learned I could go anywhere and do anything I wanted. That was far beyond my comfort zone, but I found such reassurance in living a life that pushed me to be better, learn more and find beauty in every new experience.
Also, like I mentioned before, I found community with the people I was meeting and as I was seeing how hospitable strangers can be. I realized then that there was so much joy and growth in the discomfort that surrounded me.
4. Don’t Let Your Travels End with Study Abroad
Since my studies abroad, I’ve visited a couple new countries (and revisited some old ones) all while taking advantage of weekend trips to visit friends in cities across the U.S. It may not always be easy depending on your schedule, finances, obligations, or other realities of life, but prioritizing at least one trip every few months has been a game changer for me.
Trips don’t have to be long adventures backpacking in South America or a summer in Europe, though they could be. Traveling can mean as much as getting out and road tripping around your state or reconnecting with friends from your hometown. Keeping the fire alive for that version of yourself you found while abroad is the best way to make sure that your study abroad experience remains a part of who you are as you continue to grow, as opposed to becoming just a memory.
Live like you’re abroad and seek new ways to connect to your city, go out of your way to talk to new people, and constantly remember that flexibility is a trait that will take you far.