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Temples, Weiqi, and CoCo: What I learned from studying abroad

“I’ve decided to start a journal for no clear reason, pretty much just because I saw this notebook and wanted to buy it. But I think it would be a good habit regardless, because I’m in China having a unique experience that I may want to look back on at some point.”

I put my pen down. I was sitting on the sun-soaked wooden porch of a teahouse, overlooking the shimmering pond below. People strolled along the park paths nearby, chatting and giggling. Old women sang into microphones and danced, children twirled shiny, colorful ribbons, old men practiced taichi and wrote characters in water on the stone walkways. Bright green tea leaves swirled around in my cup. I had been in Beijing for four months now, and it felt like home.

Yandaixie street in Beijing decorated for Lunar New Year 2019

Ever since high school, when I thought about the “college experience,” I thought about studying abroad. Having grown up in Denmark, Greece, and the U.S., I knew that adapting to new and unique circumstances was no easy feat, but the reward was always worth it.

In fact, I chose to attend Hamilton College partly because I knew that the majority of the student body goes abroad for at least a semester. This would be an essential part of my college experience, I told myself. And yet, even I underestimated the impact it would have on me.

In college, several of my classmates liked to poke fun at those who said, “study abroad changed me.” How could four months of your life really matter that much? It wasn’t until I came back to campus my senior year that I realized – it’s not that ridiculous of a statement.

With fellow Thinktown Educational Consultant Olivia in Beijing’s Beihai Park

Take my experiences, for example. When I climbed Mt. Emei in Sichuan province, I felt the peacefulness and sacred nature of a Buddhist temple for the first time, a profound experience that I will never forget.

When I was taught to play weiqi (commonly known as Go), I not only learned rules and strategy, but lessons that applied to my life. To win, I couldn’t immediately jump at every opportunity to remove a few of my opponent’s pieces, but I had to remain patient, waiting for the bigger opportunities to come along.

Even in more mundane situations, like when I embarrassed myself many times trying to order bubble tea at CoCo (a common bubble tea chain in China), I learned from it. The next time I was in that same position, I made fewer mistakes.

The bottom line is this: when you study abroad, you’re exposed to a multitude of new cultures, languages, traditions, and customs. You realize the vast opportunities and resources that exist out there in the world, and your community expands to include more people with diverse experiences to share with you. You confront challenges along the way that allow you to experience deeply meaningful personal growth. Ultimately, you learn things you can’t learn from a book or a research journal, or even a world-renowned professor.

Personally, I find it funny that in my first journal entry, I described my study abroad experience as one “that I may want to look back on at some point,” because I actually think about it every single day. My experiences abroad have become some of my fondest memories, the people I met have become some of my closest friends, and the lessons I learned have helped me deal with many of life’s inevitable struggles.

At Wannian Temple on Mt. Emei in Sichuan province

But beyond the ways in which I changed as a person, I also became a better student. I returned to campus with a much more well-rounded perspective on the world, which allowed me to better analyze and understand the nuances of multifaceted global issues. Moreover, juggling my academics while also adapting to a new country and culture pushed me to develop effective study habits and skills that have been incredibly useful to me throughout my academic and professional career.

There’s no doubt that I was in a unique position, because I knew that studying abroad was a goal of mine before I even stepped foot on Hamilton’s campus. But I would encourage any college student, regardless of their major or academic interests, to study abroad. There may be a lot to explore within a college campus, but the world has so much to offer outside of it too.

You won’t have many other chances in your life to truly experience another culture while developing essential academic, social, and cultural skills. So, take advantage of the opportunity and make room for studying abroad in your “college experience.”

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