Wandurlusting for Abroad: Study Abroad for You, Not Your Major

There is a proverbial weight hanging over my head. It reminds me over and over again that study abroad is intended for studying. There’s no way to escape the studying part of study abroad. Attending classes and being an active student is mandatory if I ever want to see a diploma, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not heavily motivated by the abroad piece of the experience.

Even as self-proclaimed a book nerd, someone who adores assigned reading, the studying piece of off-campus study feels minuscule to me. I’m easily excited about lectures… and occasionally I find myself excited in an exam when I finally get to talk about the connections I’ve made throughout a course. I have no doubt that the academic experience abroad will be invaluable, but I care far more, as many students do, about the personal experience.

Obviously, study abroad isn’t for everyone. Some people have what they need and want to explore at Kenyon already, some are abroad at Kenyon, and others have too much they have to do here. (Shout out to the majors who have too many requirements to go abroad! You guys deserve an award, not just a diploma.) Don’t condescend those who are choosing to remain at Kenyon. They’re not “missing out;” they’re making a choice that is best for them.

At the same time, you can simply want to go someplace new. For the first few months of forming study abroad plans, I didn’t care where I was headed, as long as they had an English Literature department.

Then one day as I was narrowing down locations by weather, I started laughing aloud in the middle of Wiggins. One place just felt right. I’d been trying to talk myself into finding a more “academic” location, but my heart already had my sights set on a destination.

There was no particular reason I wanted to go, other than the fact that I like the idea of studying in that one place. Faculty and family members have insisted that’s not justification enough. Our advisors and the OCS  want written proof of the academic integrity behind our abroad experiences. They want to prevent a vacation from academia, but I wonder if this discounts the value of an academic adventure.

I’m not saying we should go abroad in search of #adventure or expect The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants experience, but isn’t there something to be said for novelty? For exploration? More importantly, isn’t there something to be said for placing yourself in an entirely new place—a place that will nurture your personal, mental, and emotional development?

If heading into uncharted water is the best decision for you, what’s the point of proving academic relevancy? The relevance of travel to learning is inherent. Learning is about encountering the unfaimilar and developing as a result. That’s far more important to me than the courses a university offers. Why shouldn’t we study abroad because we need to? Because we feel the urge to immerse ourselves in something new? Because we’re stuck in the sophomore slump that is making us nostalgic for some change and excitement?

Every college student takes risks that challenge their sense of self. Traveling can teach us or force us to take risks in ways classes at Kenyon might never be able to. A great text or a new theory can shift the way we think, but physically experiencing an entirely separate culture, place, and the people in it challenges our everyday interactions with the world.

If that’s what you need at this point in you life, if you’re lusting for the unfamiliar, why isn’t that good enough? Kenyon challenges me daily, but I’m becoming accustomed to the type of challenges it presents.

Staying in one place for four years with provided meals, a free gym membership, and the comfort of stable, easily accessible friends makes every risk I take feel smaller. Because I know each day will primarily stay the same. I don’t hesitate to make changes, because they feel like they won’t change much in my life. Sometimes I wonder if we set a routine for each semester and send the next three months on autopilot, waiting for a holiday break.

We say we’re developing during this, but sometimes I wonder, am I really changing at all?

I’ll admit that I’ve seen people reinvent themselves considerably since my freshmen year. But changing doesn’t necessarily prevent us from being comfortable, even too comfortable. For many people (myself included) being settled is unsettling. It unsettles me because when I am this settled, it is too easy to take risks.

There is no choice or weight in it for me. And that is okay.

Studying abroad is impactful because it’s a symbolic change. We take the internal changes and make them external. When we do this, we come face to face with choices and impacts. Living in a new place shows us what pieces of ourselves are created by our Kenyon surroundings and those pieces which are central to our unique selves.

Symbolic change pushes you further. It makes us ask bigger questions. It makes our risks feel real.  Some of us need to be pushed further. In my case, I need to be pushed off a continent to feel the tug in my gut that says “you’re on track.” Maybe due to On the Road or the sudden publication of several books bearing the name Wanderlust, the prospect of geographically wandering to find yourself is seen as contrived and pretentious.

Maybe the poetic and fanciful tone earns the word “wanderlust” more flack than it should. Maybe because some people equate it with “running away” or wandering aimlessly, it sounds more like traveling as a long-term way to avoid responsibility.

I’d argue that not knowing where or why you should go, but recognizing the need to go isn’t as immature as it’s made out to be.

It feels good to be lost in the right direction.

 

College, in the end, is academic wandering without a destination until we slap a label on it and call it major. We get lost in the direction we call our major and even if you have a major and a dream career in mind, the dream career isn’t a tangible destination you can reach. The dream career doesn’t involve the coffee breaks, the four-hour meetings, or the chances of a lifetime your actual occupation may bring, even though the positions have the same titles.

Even if someone "knows" where they’re going after college, there is no guarantee any one of us is headed anywhere. College is designed to change our minds about how we think and where we are going. Study abroad is too.

If you’re feeling pressure to study abroad and don’t want to go anywhere or don’t know why to go, pick what feels good. Go because it is good for you. If it ends up absolutely terrible, you can come back. Don’t deny a need to travel just because your reason to doesn’t feel good enough. Make one up. Do what it takes to get there, because you are a reason. And you are good enough. Go abroad for who you are as a human being, not only who are as student.

Image Credit: They Get Around, Giphy, Pinimg, No Money Will Travel