Travel Airplane Sky Sunset

Study Abroad Before University

At age fifteen, spurred on by a high school teacher and an itching desire to explore the world beyond Southern California, I enrolled in a study abroad language program where I would spend a little over one month in Taiwan. Before, I had only taken short vacations as far as Mexico—a quick jump over the border from my home of San Diego. I hadn’t traveled anywhere without my parents (I couldn’t even drive!), and my Chinese was almost comically limited. But six months later, I was boarding a fifteen-hour flight to Taipei.

Looking back in retrospect, I could attribute the course of my life to many things—interesting high school courses, losses at volleyball tournaments, taking care of my little sister—but that summer studying abroad was a definitive turning point.

The first few days of culture shock hit me hard. Why couldn’t stores take my debit card? Why does everyone file to one side of the escalator? Why do I have to use the subway?

Theoretically, being parents-less in a foreign country sounds like a wonderland. But at age fifteen, I had to face problems that I would only encounter again after attending university. I would lock myself out of my apartment. The dryer refused to dry my clothes. I lacked the ability to communicate beyond a heavily-accented “Hi, I’m Emily. Nice to meet you.”

Each mess up and unexpected problem brought upon a rush of anxiety, but I found each one more and more bearable than the last. On Week 4, I fell asleep on a bus, awaking with my phone at 2% battery and far past my original destination. Huh… this doesn’t look right, I thought to myself. I got off the bus, checked the timetable, and waited. With my phone at 1% battery, I hopped back on, hoping that this was the right bus. I was worried, of course, but Week 1 Emily would have died as soon as she woke up.

Eventually, the culture shock faded. Although I still struggled to express myself, I began chatting with the local tea shop cashiers on my way back from school, and I would catch up with my TAs about their weekends. While everyone has their differences, people across the world no longer seemed so foreign.

I returned to San Diego with not only a stronger understanding of another language but also a better understanding of myself and others. Responsibility and uncertainty felt less daunting, and the foreign didn’t seem quite so distant.

It only makes sense that years later I would find myself at Duke Kunshan University in China, surrounded by others with the same itch to explore beyond the border. “Back in Germany…”, “One of my friends in Korea…”, “This place I stayed in India…” begin accounts of my classmates’ similar study abroad travels. Studying abroad in high school prepared us for the struggle of leaving home, provided us an awareness of the world and its people, and made us all the more willing to experience life outside our countries’ borders.

When life returns to normal, I would recommend anyone with a similar itch to dive into the deep end and study abroad.