Studying Abroad: Reflections

Imagine this:

It’s fall semester and for the past year your roommate (and one of your best friends at Lehigh) has been talking non-stop about studying abroad in Ireland. She has filled out her paperwork, been accepted, and started preparing documents for travel. You’re feeling sort of jealous because you’ve always wanted to study abroad but now that the last moment to decide is actually here you’re having doubts about moving a few thousand miles away from everyone you know for the next half-year.

I’m here to tell you to do it.

While my roommate had a year to prepare I filled out an application, got accepted, and started making preparations only two months in advance of getting on a plane (while also trying not to fail my finals!) And do you want to know a secret? Up until the moment that plane was on the runway I didn’t know if I was going to go through with it. We left 3 days after Christmas during the December snowstorms of 2010 (if you remember them) and that day our plane had been cancelled and rescheduled for a week later, but my friend’s father found us seats on another plane – if we could get to Philadelphia in two hours. From that moment on I had two hours to tell my parents to turn the car around, three hours in the terminal to run back to the car and drive home, and 30 minutes on the plane to unbuckle my belt and tell them to let me off the plane. Many times I wanted to, but I did none of these things and I am so grateful to myself for having either the courage or the stubbornness to stick it out.

The first two weeks were rough, it’s true, and there were a few other times when homesickness would hit me pretty hard. But after the shock of living in a new place wore off, every day that I did something new (out of necessity or curiosity) helped me to become more confidant that this was a great decision. For the first month I barely traveled outside of my host city, but by the time I flew home five months later I had been to 14 cities in 6 countries, plus a few small towns and the Aran Islands. I am more confident in my own country now because of the things I learned abroad, and I am more confident in myself because of the daily tests I put myself through in order to thrive during that experience.

Making the decision to study abroad can be just as difficult as actually leaving, this I know intimately. But I also know that just moving to a new place can’t be the extent of your experience. If you do decide to take advantage of the fantastic programs Lehigh has to offer (and I shout to the heavens that I hope you do) then remember to get out of your host city and see the surrounding areas – visit smaller towns and talk to people your age and older, visit places with vastly different natural environments, and especially if you are in Europe take advantage of cheap flights and train networks. If you’re not from a city or not used to international travel, start with smaller trips like I did – getting to know Cork helped me trust myself to navigate Paris or Florence.  But most importantly, take that first leap and apply to a program. My friends and family believed I could do it, and I believe that you can do it. And I believe that you will come back to Lehigh with a renewed interest in life and learning and will get so much more out of your time in college if you take advantage of this opportunity.

Trip to the Aran Islands:

Trip to Florence:

Trip to Monte Carlo:

Trip to London (note: do not travel in London during a royal wedding)

Meghan Zwickl graduated in May 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science.  She intends to move to D.C. and work in either government or non-profit.