Five Things I Learned While Studying Abroad

While I could write a book full of the things I learned in Costa Rica, I figured that I should make an attempt to keep this post at a manageable length. That being said, here are five lessons I learned during my first study abroad experience.

to end all parties

Life rarely follows the plan. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn, but it’s so true. No one can see the future, and the world is constantly changing. From canceled flights to broken relationships, you can be blindsided with a whole host of unexpected troubles. Don’t let that get you down, though, because life can also blindside you with indescribable beauty and unexpected joy. Sometimes life takes us somewhere better than our original plans.

Some things —a smile or gesture of kindness— transcend language barriers.  Of course some countries and cultures are more reserved than others, so it’s smart to do your research before traveling. But generally speaking, a little kindness goes a long way no matter where you are in the world. Don’t be arrogant or treat others poorly. Learn necessary words like “please” and “thank you” if you’re visiting a country that speaks a different language, which brings me to my next point….

You’re bound to make some potentially embarrassing mistakes, especially when studying a new language. Don’t let that scare you, though. Most people won’t hold it against you. In fact, you might even laugh about it later.

There’s a particular memory that still makes me grin and shake my head. It was early in the morning, probably five or five-thirty, and I was in the kitchen with Marta, our fantastic cook and adopted madre. We were cutting fruit for breakfast when I started to recount my Playa Palada adventure from the day before. A great way for me to study my conversational Spanish, right? That’s exactly what I thought, so I pulled out my phone and started to show her some of my favorite snapshots. Next thing I knew, Marta had my phone and was showing them to our not too shabby looking student assistant.

That’s cool… Just please don’t show him any of my painful selfies where I look like a crazy woman from the jungle. 

Then, much to my dismay, I caught a string of words from Marta that made me blush: “ella… la playa sin ropa…”. Our student assistant laughed, but I didn’t catch his response. I was too busy trying to figure out how to defend myself. After all, I was not on that beach without clothes! My cheeks were still red when I reached for my phone and zoomed in to show that my long skirt was tied up around my knees….”No, no es la verdad. Yo llevo ropa– una falda y una camisa.” I pointed at the skirt again. My pleading was only met by more laughter as Marta shook her head and repeated “Playa sin ropa”.

Gosh, I promise I wasn’t skinny dipping. Just look at the picture. I know it’s blurry and dark, but I am wearing clothes.

After about five minutes of embarrassment and frustration on my part, our student teacher finally decided to put me out of my misery. Turns out that I’m still a major blonde in Spanish and missed the obvious. Playa Palada means bare beach— the beach without clothes. What would have been a funny play on words, was beyond confusing to my ears. Thankfully Marta thought it was hilarious, and it turned into a joke that followed me around for the rest of the trip. Anytime I headed for la playa Marta would make sure I’d “remembered” to wear my clothes.

Anything can be turned into a learning experience. You might make a handful of mistakes, but if you have the right mindset, you can walk away with a goldmine of knowledge.

Thankfully you don’t always have to make mistakes to learn. When you’re exploring a new subject, country, or culture, each moment can be turned into a new lesson. Meals are a great time to gain knowledge about local foods and family traditions. A flat tire on the tour bus? No problem! Take the extra time to practice some new vocabulary words. A simple walk down the beach can lead to an eye opening experience if you’re looking at the world through eyes that are willing to learn.

Travel doesn’t make you poor. Okay, so maybe it might damage your bank accounts by a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily make you poor. Chances are you were already a college student with limited funds anyways. Am I right? Either way, you now have experiences and memories that most people would never have! That makes you much richer than the person who refuses to leave their comfort zone. All the money in the world couldn’t replace the joys that so many people find in meeting a diverse range of people and exploring new horizons.

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