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Girl on a swing in Ecuador.
Girl on a swing in Ecuador.
Original photo by Alyana Nurani
Life > Experiences

A Plea From An International Student: Leave The Country Once Before You Graduate

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCLA chapter.

I have been sitting in the Lima, Peru, airport for 17 hours, waiting for my connecting flight to Cuzco. I have not slept since we left Toronto, 36 hours ago. I have eaten three meals of Peruvian food court pizza and four cans of pineapple chocolate from a souvenir store. I am fifteen, with a group of my classmates who I love very much but are now driving me bonkers, and my friend Ben is at the police station because he dozed off and someone stole his bag. Chaos. I need a moment of peace, so I go searching for the airport chapel (this may be sacrilegious), where I sit and read the first two books of the Divergent series and cry a little from exhaustion. And sitting on that hard chapel bench, wishing I had never left Canada, I decided I will never, ever, go abroad again.

Fast forward five years, and I’m literally an international student. I know people see Canada as, like, the 51st state, but it really is a whole other country and a huge culture shock. And not only did I decide to go to a different country for school, but I spent last summer in Prague. I was lucky enough to go to the Galapagos Islands just before the pandemic and I’m trying to piece together a spring break Iceland trip for next year. So how did this happen? How did someone who wanted nothing more than to be curled up in her bedroom in Toronto for the rest of her life become someone who wants to see the world?

Girl standing between two alpacas.
Original photo by Alyana Nurani

Well, once we got out of that insanity-inducing airport and finally landed in Cuzco, I stepped off the airplane (it was one of those terrifying little dinky planes with the stairs) and into the world. We were surrounded by mountains, forests, mist. I had never breathed such clear air; it felt like I was wiping my smoggy lungs clean. You really never know what you’re missing until you leave home.

The trip was ridiculous. The lady whose house I was staying at only spoke Spanish and I was allergic to her cats and couldn’t explain why I kept wheezing. I sprained my ankle doing a cartwheel and then had to hike the 4-day-long Inca trail. I met some alpacas, and I accidentally ate some alpacas. My friend lost his passport; another friend lost his wallet. Another friend brushed his teeth with tap water and got a parasite. With this play-by-play, it looks like the trip was a complete disaster. It absolutely was not. I came back with a million life lessons, silly stories and unbreakable friendships. When something goes wrong in a foreign country, it’s a whole different can of worms. And once you handle that kind of situation, you feel pretty unbreakable.

Girl standing on ruins in Peru.
Original photo by Alyana Nurani

I know it’s not feasible for everyone to go abroad. I’m very lucky. But there are options. For example, UCEAP has great scholarships to study abroad and backpacking can be done for really cheap in certain countries. It is so worth it. I know, the paperwork and searching it takes sounds terrible. I know, the organizing and the packing and the showing up in a country where nobody knows you sound like a recipe for disaster. But once you’ve pushed through all that, a) you’ll know you’re capable of organizing anything and b) you’ll be abroad. In a foreign country, making friends, seeing sights, having fun.

When you’re in college, you haven’t quite jumped on the work hamster wheel yet. Once that starts, it gets harder and harder to take a pause to plan a big trip. The opportunities you have, right now, to go abroad for a quarter or for the summer are practically endless. Please, take advantage of them. Since I’m not from the U.S., trust me when I say, the rest of the world is so, so wonderful. Go see it as soon as possible.

Girl standing on a bridge in Prague.
Original photo by Alyana Nurani

My summer in Prague was perhaps the scariest trip I’ve taken yet because I went completely alone. But there is something about being isolated from your home life for six weeks that forces you to figure out who you are and what you need. There are no expectations of you to be the daughter your mother expects, or the sister your brother knows or the friend your friends want. Our college years are all about understanding ourselves, and I have a theory that you have to get away from everyone who thinks they know you to figure out who you really are.

For me, there’s always a moment when I’m abroad where I transcend. When I’m standing on Machu Picchu, inhaling pure fog. Or when I’m drifting down a river in the Czech Republic. Or even when I’m flying down a palm-tree-lined road in LA. And for a moment, I’m not Alyana, a second-year English major at UCLA, but instead I’m just a human being in the world. All the stress and chaos and crying in a Peruvian airport chapel becomes entirely worth it. And that moment of transcendence, above all, is the reason why you need to go book that trip.

Alyana is a third-year English and philosophy student at UCLA, from Toronto, Canada. She is the Editor in Chief of HC at UCLA. She loves stories in all forms, whether that be watching coming-of-age films, getting lost in a book, or putting on a show. You can also catch her playing team sports and crocheting plants in her free time.