People always think it’s funny when I bring it up, but I cannot stress enough how different of a person I am now than I was during high school. Like, complete 180º different. Going away to college didn’t just give me a chance to meet people outside of the small town I grew up in, but it also affirmed and challenged different parts of my identity that I didn’t even know were possible. It’s been a long process of coming into myself (and it’s not done), but I have been more in tune with my communities and identities in a way that I had never had before college, and in a way that set me up for an abroad experience.
Many people say that going abroad is a chance to “find yourself.” And, in many ways, I believe that this is true. Spending time in a community that is outside of what you are used to makes you think more critically about how you walk through the world. But there’s also the importance of the period before going abroad that is very important in accessing your identity. Doing a self-inventory before I went abroad was a very important part of putting me in the right mindset to travel and live in such a different space. The communities and bonds that I left behind in DC for the semester have been very important in understanding how important a support network is for me. There is a necessary labor that happens in building a space for yourself, and it is so important to have that space in order to be safely challenged and continuously grow, knowing that you have people around to catch you if you need it.
One of the biggest culture shocks for me since going abroad has been the intense paradigm shift in identifying with the work that you do. In the US, it is a given that your identity is constructed by what you spend the majority of your time doing (perhaps work or school). It’s not uncommon to meet someone for the first time and be asked the age-old question: “So what do you do?” It has been so ingrained in my mind that I began to also identify with whatever job I was doing, or even what courses I was taking. In Europe, the idea of identifying yourself first as your career or job is so foreign, that often it doesn’t even come up in conversation until much later in knowing a new person. Actually, I couldn’t even tell you the jobs of most of the people the people that I’ve met so far in my travel experience. It just simply isn’t as important. And the reason I bring this up, is because it has made me consider my identities even more (ironically). People don’t ask me what job I’m working or what internships I’ve had, but they do ask about my family, my hobbies, and my passions. In this way, I’ve been able to actually take more ownership of my identities because of how much more they mean in this cultural context. People ask because they want to know, and I’ve become prouder to share these parts of myself that previously might have been secondary to whether or not I’m working a “hillternship.”
I’ve seen some beautiful places and met some amazing people, and each part of this experience has been a way to both affirm and safely challenge how I walk through a space. That is not to say that you *need* to study abroad to get out of your comfort zone, but sometimes you need to peek over the other side of the fence to see something new in the world and in yourself. Expanding your mindset, and also your community, gives you a space to become more of yourself than you ever thought possible, and in the best cases, gives you people to always fall back on no matter the circumstances.