I am thirty thousand feet in the air as I write this, gripping the armrest against the turbulence and the rain, trying to breathe evenly. The United States is gone, lost behind the curve of the earth; the next ground I step on will be the soil of Madrid. And to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel.
I’m excited, of course—I think. And I think I’m thrilled. But it’s difficult to disentangle the emotions from each other. Because on top of the joy and the jitters, I am deeply nervous. I’m worried about what taking classes in 300-person lecture halls instead of my 10-person liberal arts college seminar rooms will feel like. I’m nervous about making a good first impression with my host family and fitting into their routines, patterns, and cultural norms. And I’m anxious about having to do all of this in a language that I speak haltingly, less comfortably.
A few months ago, a sophomore friend of mine asked for my advice as she began considering study abroad opportunities and weighing the costs and benefits of each university and program. I told her that I recommended she begin by asking one question of herself: did she want the primary purpose of her trip to be fun? If so, perhaps she should look at programs in countries like Australia, where they scuba dive every day; or programs where students live on a sailboat; or a wilderness trip during which students backpack and live in tents for months.
But maybe, like me, fun wasn’t the most important thing for her. Maybe it was challenging herself to truly immerse herself, not just live adjacent to, an entirely different culture. Maybe it was interacting with local people instead of just traveling with a program cohort. Maybe it was learning to function in a foreign language, to filter the way she sees the world through the lenses of a different vocabulary, grammar, way of knowing.
There are programs, I told my sophomore friend, that you could do that could be completely, totally, 100% fun, where you would be snorkeling or sailing or camping every day for months on end. That’s not what I’m doing; that’s not IES Abroad. My program is going to challenge me to exist in a language I am less comfortable with. It will force me to live within a new culture in the most intense way possible, by living with a local family. It will stress me, asking me to work far harder on academics than I would in my native language; it will push me; it will be painful, sometimes.
And of course it’s going to be fun too. I’m going to go on IES Abroad-sponsored field trips to Segovia and Toledo and Aranjuez. I’m going to see beautiful old palaces and world-class modern art. I’m going to make friends and read novels and take exhilarating university classes and watch the sun rise over the city. I’m going to eat dinner at a table surrounded by the four children of my host parents, and travel across Europe on spring break, and laugh, and love. It will be fun, often. But when I was offered the choice to pick something purely fun and something where the fun was intertwined with the stress and the struggle and the anxiety, I picked the latter. And whether you want to go the pure-fun route or the success-through-struggle route is one of the most important choices you have to make.
No one choice, of course, is better than the other. I’m impressed by, jealous of, and happy for my friends who are going to spend their semesters scuba diving, camping, and taking classes in a language they know and are able to put on a back burner to focus on exploring a joyful new world. Those programs are amazing at helping students find joy and excitement in new places. Study abroad is a challenge by choice, and no one pick-your-own-adventure track is better than any other. Fun is its own reward, a legitimate and valuable end in its own right; but I have picked the track of grit, and challenge, and frustration, and fear, and growth, and joy, the track that will make my first two weeks infinitely harder and, I hope, my cultural and language and interpersonal skills infinitely stronger.
Last week I went hiking near my home with a friend, a farewell as we headed back to our respective colleges. I gave her the rundown of what I was expecting for the upcoming semester with IES Abroad Madrid. I expected her to say, “That will be so fun!”—a common sentiment, but one that has always left a little anxiety gnawing away at me, because while it is true, it will also be scary, stressful, and hard. Instead, my friend said, “That will be so worth it!” And I gaped at her, and I grinned at her, and I told her that this was the most helpful thing someone had said to me about study abroad. “It will be worth it” feels completely true, without denying the truths of difficulty and stress, and it also takes the pressure off of making every moment feel fun. I will not always feel happy, and it is freeing to not expect myself to. “It will be worth it” holds space for those moments, not as an aberration or a failure, but as the very heart of the experience—the challenge is the meaning, not tangential to it.
I’m going to remember what you said, I told my friend. It will be worth it.
I am gripping those words, and holding onto them, as my airplane hurtles at hundreds of miles per hour across the dark ocean, across the expanse of the world, away from everything I know and towards everything I will learn, away from the place I feel safe and to the place I will grow. I am holding on tight.
It will be worth it.
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Hi!! My name is Maple and I'm a junior at Bates College, where I am a member of the sailing team, the orchestra, and everything in between. I am the Editor in Chief of our student newspaper and am interested in pursuing a journalism career.