1:00 am. My thirtieth birthday. I sat on a balcony near Frankfurt, Germany. As luck would have it, I celebrated my birthday doing something I’d always wanted to do but was always too afraid.
I moved abroad.
It was the night after we landed in Europe. My 3-year-old daughter was still wide awake from the jet lag, and I sat snuggling with her under a blanket.
We looked at the moon and the stars and watched the jets go overhead, her little finger pointing to each one as it appeared over the roof of our attic apartment.
During my PhD, I lived in France, Germany, and Greece. I had an unusual study abroad case–I went much later than most. But I never regretted it.
With our kids in tow, my spouse and I explored all over Europe, from the top of the Alps to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, from the black forest to the tiny shepherd villages of Crete. For a kid from the woods in northern Canada, this was a dream come true.
When I think of my degree, this is what I think of.
- Careening through London on a double-decker bus.
- The castle in Italy we stayed at where the staff fell in love with our girls. I can still see them laughing as they tried to get them to say “grazie” in Italian.
- Whizzing around Potsdam—a town of Prussian castles near Berlin—with the girls in baby seats on the backs of our bikes.
- Wandering through the Christmas city of Strasbourg in France under endless lights.
- Trudging across snow-capped alps and having a snowball fight.
- That random beach we stopped at in Greece where a school of dolphins just happened to be swimming by.
When I look back now, it seems like something out of a dream.
But, if you’ve never taken the time to study abroad, perhaps it’s time to start planning. Here’s why you should do it!
1. Constant growth
You don’t stop and realize how much you take for granted until you step into a foreign grocery store where you know few of the products, you can’t speak the language, and you don’t understand the money.
The simplest things in life become hurdles.
Some people might hate this.
I confess that I love it. I’m a person who always has a podcast on—if I’m awake and not working I want to be learning something.
Living in a foreign culture forces you to learn every time you step out of your door. It launches you out of your comfort zone
This is the type of growth that makes us thrive as humans, as long as it’s not too over the top. And I loved it.
2. Having your worldview challenged
Try living in a culture where people believe totally different things about the world than you do. It stretches you in ways you can’t imagine, and challenges you to examine your own cultural baggage.
Greece was a wonderful place to raise a family. But compared to my Greek friends, I’m pretty liberal. I had to bite my tongue often when people said things that I totally disagreed with and if at all possible try to understand where it was coming from.
There are different contexts. And people who never leave their home country (especially North Americans) never seem to understand this.
There’s nothing wrong with having your worldview challenged, or at least learning to exist with people who see things differently from us. We need more of this in our world.
3. Acknowledging privilege
Traveling, I felt my privilege. In a lot of cases, I became a tourist, just another walking pile of money looking for self-actualization and a photo op.
I realized that—even as a graduate student—I had access to wealth and opportunities these people only dreamed of.
I met some refugee friends in Greece from French-speaking, African countries that desperately wanted to come to Canada.
They clung to a livelihood, eking out a living in the harsh city of Athens. Meanwhile, I waltzed back to the country of their dreams, where I proceed to complain about stuff like the price of gas and the weather.
One of the best things about a new place is the sense of discovery and inspiration that comes with it.
I find that experiencing new places inspired me. It grew my creativity and my wonder for the world and for people. My thesis progressed, of course. But so did my Instagram account (you can see my photos here and here), as I was constantly seeing new things. As a writer and amateur photographer, this made me really happy.
5. Growing an international network
As a scholar and as a human, studying abroad meant that I met people from all over the world that I considered colleagues and friends.
The research colleagues had different viewpoints on our respective fields and challenged me. This was good for my academic development.
But the best part was the friends I made, especially those who weren’t academics: The people I met at the park while our kids played that we still talk to. Sitting on the roof with friends in Athens, talking into the night and drinking beer as the sun set over the Mediterranean. Talking philosophy in a German pub with another friend as the Berlin winter fell.
These are the times you’ll remember forever.
6. Making more money
I need to tell you that traveling as a student can also be a great way to make some extra cash. Most universities have funds you can apply for to travel. Many international institutions have funds for incoming researchers you can apply for. And there are a ton of travel scholarships from granting agencies, societies, and more.
Apply for everything you can find. You might find that your trip gets completely paid for–maybe even with money left over.
Have you studied abroad? Do you want to? Hopefully my stories will inspire you to try it! Apply! See what happens. It might change your life.