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The Study Abroad Chronicles: An Expat’s Return To Reality And The Most Valuable Realization I Brought Home

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

“Study abroad changed my life.”

We’ve all heard it, we’ve all rolled our eyes at it, and we’ve all selectively turned off our hearing for the story that followed.

So when it was my turn to go abroad and study in Italy for a semester, I promised myself I’d never let those words cross my lips when I returned home. And while I hope to keep that pact I made with myself, I do still have some reflections that I’m dying to share with you.

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Cameron Smith / Her Campus

First and foremost, the greatest lesson I learned was not one I learned in school or even in some epiphany of world-changing self-discovery on a weekend trip. The most important thing I learned while abroad came in my everyday life: how to truly appreciate speaking English as my native language. This was something I’d always kind of known in the back of my mind, but had never really grasped until now.

Everywhere I went, all over Europe, if someone spoke a second language it was undoubtedly English. There were countries where the English text on signs was bigger than that of their own language. Some countries only had English signs and none in their native language.

I would find myself in countries where I didn’t speak a word of their native tongue but somehow they would be apologizing to me about how bad their English was… while I am in their country! This absolutely floored me every time.

I was also lucky that my host university offered classes in two languages: Italian and English. I’d find myself seated in a classroom of 100 students, all from different countries, where I was the only native English speaker. Not even the professor spoke English as their first language. I’d sit next to Italian students who are taking my same classes in English, even though we were quite literally in Italy, because those classes weren’t offered in Italian.

Even my own apartment was comprised of international students from all over the world — Israel, India, Ecuador, and Iran. But the only language we spoke at home was English. I’d sit around the table with my roommates, all of them speaking perfect English, and I’d honestly forget it wasn’t their first language at all. I mean, they even had all of the slang and internet references down to a tee. I’d try to put myself in their shoes – what if the roles were reversed and I couldn’t speak my first or even my second language at my own kitchen table? How exhausting must that be?

I’d find myself in restaurants and shops, watching a Sicilian shopkeeper and a German family communicate through hand signals and broken English, dumbfounded at how English is always the common language, even when neither party speaks it particularly well. I could walk into any establishment and know that someone around me spoke at least some level of my language, blissfully unaware of the privilege I inherently held.

And yes, while I knew it was likely that most of the places I traveled to would speak English and that I was very fortunate for that, I didn’t truly realize what that meant until I spent those four months in Italy. It was a privilege I generally knew I held, but only abroad did I come to realize how woefully unaware of its significance I was.

Because of this realization, I will never again take my language for granted. It’s opened up more doors in my life than I could possibly begin to look back and imagine. My time abroad gifted me a new perspective on language and culture, deepening my understanding of my own innate privilege. Speaking English was never a topic that crossed my mind regularly, but now I find myself feeling grateful for it every day. So yes, maybe I’ll have to break my own promise in the end and say it; study abroad changed my life.

Ciara is a third year UCLA student from Oakland, CA who is majoring in Public Health. She loves to travel and explore new places; especially when there's any kind of ocean involved. When she's not busy workshopping her next Her Campus article, you can find Ciara sipping her morning coffee somewhere sunny, relaxing in her hammock, or chasing a sunset.