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Study Abroad: COVID-19 Edition

As a first-generation student who had never been out of the country before, I saw studying abroad as an amazing opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone and gain some new experiences in a part of the world other than my own. I wanted to take my studies further than my corner of Maine, so I applied to study in one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world: Panama. I packed my bags in January and shipped myself off without knowing much Spanish other than hello, goodbye, and “where’s the bathroom?”. Little did my new friends abroad and I know that a pandemic would hit, shortening our program from 4 months to 2 in a blink of an eye. However, despite the program being shortened, I still gained so much from the experience and wanted to share just a few reasons why you should study abroad, or even just travel internationally, at some point in your life.

1.You might pick up a new language.

Before traveling to Panama, I had taken 5 years of French but no Spanish at all which is Panama’s national language. Although my study abroad program included a 5 week Spanish course, I learned so much more about the language and how to speak it just by conversing with local residents and going out on the town with my friends on the weekend. Since my time was cut short, my experience also inspired me to keep taking online Spanish classes while I’ve been home in quarantine. So, if you’re thinking about studying abroad, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, make mistakes, and speak the local language.

2. You’ll have the opportunity for new experiences you can’t have at home.

Since my program had an environmental fieldwork focus, we all had to learn how to snorkel in order to examine the marine life in our town’s beaches. This was something I had never done before but it quickly became something I enjoyed. Some of my friends enjoyed it so much that they became scuba certified too. I even took a surfing lesson (and swallowed more salt-water than you wanna know) and loved it. Along with the marine experiences, I also hiked a volcano and caught the sunrise at the top! So although there are definitely opportunities for experiences like these in the United States, these experiences were completely new to a lot of students like me who hadn’t had the chance yet to engage in these sorts of activities back home.

3. You’ll try new foods.

Okay. What I wouldn’t give for some good ceviche in this quarantine...I had never had it before studying abroad in Panama and it quickly became one of my favorite foods while I was there. Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to learn about the cuisine and traditional dishes of Panama that I wouldn’t have otherwise tried in the U.S. This also allowed me to share some of the recipes and foods with my family too when I returned home.

4. You’ll gain a stronger sense of yourself and your independence.

I know this sounds like the typical boxed response for people to say when asked about their study abroad experience, but it’s true! There were so many times where I would have to navigate being in town alone and would have to ask for directions or help on my own. With studying abroad there also comes a cycle of highs and lows as you adjust to your new surroundings and lifestyle which takes a lot of self-reliance. For me, I began journaling a lot more in order to stay present and to work through the rollercoaster of emotions I might have felt in one day or week. So, if you end up studying abroad, bring a couple of journals and go off on your own once in a while!

5. It will most likely be a cheaper tuition!

Although I had to earn money over winter break to pay for my airfare and different gear for my field studies, my overall tuition was cheaper than a semester at my home university. This was true for almost all of the students I studied with as well - and I studied with a wide range of students as some went to large state schools while others attended small liberal arts colleges. Refunds for airfare (because of COVID) were a little chaotic, but thankfully my friends and I were all able to get a refund through our abroad university for our unexpected flights back home. Also, many universities are increasingly providing grants to students, especially to underrepresented groups, who might be in need of more funding in order to study abroad.

Overall, I enjoyed my study abroad experience despite it being shortened. If you’re considering studying abroad, just go for it! Even if you don’t know where you would want to study, don’t hesitate to schedule a meeting with someone from your global education department. I had no idea where I wanted to go and changed my mind about 3 times before finally deciding. The study abroad director at my school played a huge role in guiding me to the resources and info I needed in order to make my decision too. After all, there’s plenty of time to start thinking about where you might go with the travel restrictions that are still in place. So don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and get uncomfortable because I can assure that you’ll have so much to gain from it!

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