I’m lying on my couch, wrapped in a blanket and watching the West Wing. I’m eating my mom’s delicious chocolate chip cookies and enjoying the warm winter of Tucson. For all intents and purposes, I’ve picked up right where I left off four months ago.
So...did it all really happen? Did I really spend a semester living in Germany? It sure doesn’t feel like it, at least on the surface.
While I was abroad, I let my hair grow wild and I grew a (scraggly) beard. When I got home, I cut my hair and shaved, returning to my pre-departure look. On the surface, I’m the same as before.
While I was abroad, I learned to venture out of my comfort zone and to employ my independence to explore the world around me. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been lounging and enjoying the care-free life of a vacationing student once more, with no desire to do anything but stare at the television screen.
When I think about it more, I realize that, well, of course I’m still the same on the surface. Four months is nothing; it’s just a fragment of a year, just a small slice of my college career, a blink in the face of my life so far and my life to come. Of course the surface is unchanged and I want to embrace the comforts of life at home - but that doesn’t mean I have come back unchanged.
Everything I learned in Freiburg will stick with me for the rest of my life. The knowledge from school, from my field trips; the lessons from my successes and failures of living in a foreign country; the relationships and friendships I developed; the conversations; the self-reflections; the memories; these internal indicators have shaped me and will continue to shape me in the future.
But...who am I now? Throughout my life, my experiences have helped to define me, a statement which is especially true while abroad - but it’s hard to reflect upon tangible changes in the short term. That definition will likely take a while to manifest itself. Perhaps as I enter back into the ‘real’ world at my college next semester, I’ll be able to understand how I’ve changed.
However, it is important to note that going abroad is not *life changing.* You will likely not return a radically different person, nor will you find enlightenment in a foreign country. But through broadening your horizons, through embracing and exchanging with other cultures, through participating in traditions, meeting new people, and trying new things, you will find yourself with something far more important than a *life changing experience.* Being abroad provides new perspectives; perspectives which are difficult to develop in the United States, where try as one might, it is simply impossible to displace yourself from the society around you. By escaping from that barrier and seeing the world from a new angle, all kinds of lenses are opened. Perspectives on those in your own country and those around the world, on how your norms and customs may be strange and contrived, on the roles you play relative to those around you, and on how you fit into the world at large. As a student of history and world affairs, being able to better place myself in a worldly context will be invaluable for years to come.
I’m incredibly thankful that I chose to go abroad - a feeling which is surprising given how I felt in August. On my first night in Freiburg, I stared at the ceiling and thought “I’ve made a huge mistake.” I was filled with regret and fear. But that's partly why I decided to go in the first place - to challenge myself to do something that I knew would be hard. And now, having pushed through the difficulties and experienced some of the most important months of my life, I only have one thing left to say: if you have the opportunity, study abroad!