Study abroad, as the cliché goes, is a time for self-discovery. Living in a foreign country means stepping outside of your comfort zone. It’s a chance to meet new people, explore new places, and unearth new passions. And then, at the end of the semester, you go home.
I’ve told a few of my friends that I felt like a completely different person in Quito than I am in the United States. Everything in Ecuador was new and exciting; I was motivated enough to get out of bed at 5 a.m. when it meant I could go on an amazing hike. I’ve always been a planner, but I grew accustomed to the way Ecuadorians make plans at the very last minute—I could put on my makeup in 10 minutes and catch the bus into Quito after dark on a Tuesday night, and I learned to flag down interprovincial buses from the side of a highway when there was no bus station nearby.
I’m typically an introvert, but, knowing that my time in Ecuador was limited, I didn’t want to waste a second. A day spent in bed watching Netflix seemed like a day wasted. I planned trips nearly every weekend. When people invited me placed, my answer was almost always an enthusiastic yes. My neighborhood security guards laughed at me on multiple occasions because I would arrive home at 2 a.m. after a night out with friends only to leave three hours later for a day trip.
I didn’t just change my schedule in Ecuador; at times, I had to change how I presented myself. I tried my best to always communicate in Spanish. For the most part, I was successful, but I had to leave behind my brand of cynical sarcasm that my American friends know so well. I knew that if I tried to be sarcastic in Spanish, my intended message would get lost along the way.
Living in Ecuador didn’t only mean adjusting to the country, it also meant dealing with the way the country adjusted to me. Learning the bus patterns was great, but my blue eyes and pale skin still revealed that I was a foreigner. My Spanish improved a lot, but no one believed that I was a native Ecuadorian—in my best moments, people asked if I was from Argentina or Uruguay. No matter what I did, I was part of a minority. I stood out.
I got used to the weird privileges of being a white woman in Ecuador. Most people were happy to help me when I asked directions and were exceedingly tolerant of my imperfect language skills. No one ever approached me and my English-speaking friends and told us we should speak Spanish. As I’ve written before, white women in Ecuador are considered uniquely attractive; my friends and I joked that we’d have to get used to being average again when we went back to the United States. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I enjoyed being the center of attention when I went to clubs or parties—and it gave me a sense of confidence that I’ve rarely experienced back home.
I really liked the person I was in Quito. I felt like I could go after the things I wanted. I wasn’t scared to ask for help. I sought out new adventures each weekend. I spoke Spanish really well.
Returning home, I want to hold onto these things. I can’t repeat the experiences I had in Ecuador, or even imitate them. My home college is more difficult than my study abroad; I have work on top of my classes; I have internship applications and a gym schedule. And that’s a good thing—while studying abroad was a fantastic four-and-a-half months, the goals and dreams I had before I left for Quito haven’t changed.
As I return to my normal life, I’ll change a few things. I’m watching a lot more Spanish television, and thinking about other avenues to keep up my language skills.
When I reflect about my semester abroad, I know that self-discovery isn’t something that only happens in foreign places. I don’t have to be in Ecuador to have adventures and form relationships. I’m still the same person I was in Quito. I just have to take the best of my experience this past semester and put it toward the next version of myself. It’s my future, and I’m excited.