When Traveling Abroad Isn't Picture Perfect

Growing up I was mesmerized by the abundant stories my mom told me from her times abroad in Costa Rica and Spain. She always talked so fondly of all her memories, from walking on the white sand beaches of the Pacific with her friend Victor to using Xerox copies for assignments instead of textbooks in her open-air classrooms. From meeting members of royal families to being exposed to extreme poverty, with children recycling cans for a few cents apiece. While not every memory is beautiful and perfect, she cherishes those times because of the independence, linguistic abilities, and cultural understanding the opportunity gave to her. 

Whenever I hear her speak Spanish, I am always reminded of the impact that experience had on her life. She is so immediately connected to the people she meets from Hispanic countries because she can relate to their lives and experiences. It had been ingrained in me from a young age to learn and appreciate other cultures. I remember making homemade tortillas with my nannies and singing along to Latin pop stars on the radio. Small things like this shaped my childhood, but as I grew up and learned more about different countries, I knew I wanted an experience different from my mother’s. I wanted to widen my world view. I wanted to learn about the differences and similarities of my home and the rest of the world—or at least Europe. And it did, but not in the way I thought it would.

The fourth weekend of March, my friend Pamela wanted to spend her birthday in Disneyland Paris, so that Saturday we got up at 4 AM, flew into Charles De Gaulle, and arrived in Disney at 1 PM. I felt this wondrous joy, this nostalgic creativity, almost all day. And Sunday was beautiful. But that night in Disney Village held the most terrifying hours of my life. I found myself at the center of mass panic and hysteria incited by sounds similar to machine guns or explosions. While it was a false alarm, to the thousands that were there, it felt like a terrorist attack. 

I was separated from my friend twice, my phone was at 2%, and I didn't speak the language. I had massive bruises on my legs from where I was pushed to the ground and I will never forget lying face down on the ground in complete terror and silence for 15 minutes, not knowing if I was going to be killed. People were screaming, breaking glasses, abandoning their things, and running for their lives. When the second wave of panic happened, I was moved into a building that was put under lock down for over two hours, and before I was allowed to leave, I was frisked by RAID. That level of fear is intangible, and those memories will stay with me forever. Even now, any loud noise spreads a sharp tension through my spine and branches into my ribs and shoulders. I was at a haunted house the other night and it was the screams from others that scared me, not the actors in make-up.

However, I will never let that fear overrule my sense of adventure and desire to see and understand the world. I was very tempted to stay in my hotel room the next day, but I think being from the U.S., where “safe” places like schools and churches almost never are, helped me realize that even Disneyland isn’t an exception. I couldn’t allow myself to be afraid of any specific place or I would be afraid everywhere I went. I knew the only way to start healing was to go back outside the next day, and I am glad I did. I had an incredible day seeing beautiful sights and priceless art and eating delicious food. The longer I was out, the more the immediate fear dissipated from my mind and the tension left my body. Very few days go by when I’m not reminded of this experience, but I will never use it as a crutch to stop exploring and traveling. I will use it as a motivating factor to face every situation with fearlessness and as an opportunity to grow.

When most people go abroad, they are prepared for a bit of world-rocking, but in an exploratory, easing-into-it kind of way. I had this perfect vision of what my study abroad experience would be—that I would be challenged just enough to have proof that I had grown through the entire experience. And I did have tangible moments of struggle—on Tuesdays I had classes from 10 AM to 9:30 PM, all back to back; my classes all had unbelievably high failure rates; I got bed-ridden sick three separate times in five months; Swiss German is an unreasonably hard language to understand; making lasting friendships was difficult; and navigating people’s schedules and difference in travel styles meant I explored a lot of cities on my own. But I expected this because these struggles are dependent on who I am as a person. I have always struggled with time management, I am introverted to the point that I completely forget I need socialization for days at a time, and my immune system could definitely be a little stronger. I never expected the most challenging part of my experience would be overcoming and dealing with an external trauma—something I couldn’t control.

 Studying abroad doesn’t automatically make you the most self-actualized version of yourself. People are human and change takes time. So, yes, being abroad does make you more independent and does make you more culturally aware, but it mostly teaches you how to deal with internal and external conflicts. You will have incredible moments, meet incredible people, eat incredible food, and see incredible sights, but you will learn—you will change with the challenges. And with any part of life, there will be bad days, and there will be even worse days. The world works to humble you—let it. Take hardships in stride and let them make you stronger. Find support in those around you. Focus on what you can control. Remember your reason why. I wanted to widen my world view, I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to grow. I wish my experience in Paris was different, I wish it had never happened at all, and maybe I would look at everything differently if my life was actually in danger, but I can change the past no more than I can tell the future. So I will use this moment as my new reason why—why I try to live deliberately in every moment and why I won’t live in fear. I loved my study abroad experience, and I won’t lie and say it was perfect—it wasn’t, but most things aren’t. It is in managing the imperfections where growth takes place. I will always advocate for the merits of studying and living abroad; it is a vehicle for personal development and cultural understanding like no other. It may not be perfect, and it may even be scary, but it will be worth it.


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