by Kelsey Briggs ‘18
Studying abroad, as you have heard or perhaps know from your own experience, provides a wealth of opportunities for growth on many different levels. You learn to embrace discomfort, accept differences, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and savor every minute of exploring all the newness of where you are. These are all great lessons that I, for the most part, expected to encounter as I entered a new culture. This may have been because I had seen countless pictures of my friend’s adventures abroad where they would eat cockroaches or ride elephants through the jungle or jump off cliffs into the Mediterranean. In seeing all of these photos, you can pretty much deduce that you too would learn some of the above lessons were you to study abroad. But I have also been faced with some lessons I did not expect to learn during my time abroad, perhaps because Instagram photos cannot capture the concept of being a cultural outsider.
During my time abroad, I have found that most things are new. The language, food, people, norms, and values, which are all facets of culture. Perhaps I expected that I would also be a new person, suddenly able to speak Italian well, dress nicer and sneak my way quietly into the culture without much problem, but that is not the case. I still don’t dress that nice (relative to Italians, that is), my Italian is horrible and I still prefer orderly lines over hordes of people.
However, this is not to say that your time abroad won’t or shouldn’t change you. It inevitably will and hopefully for the better. In encountering a new culture, I have had to face many challenges and each of these leaves me with a few choices. In light of cultural differences, I can either adapt to the differences, or accept that they are different but choose not to adapt to them (or perhaps find myself unable to do so).
Both of these can be a positive or negative approach to navigating a new culture, and sometimes you will inevitably use the wrong approach. However, the more time I have spent in a culture other than my own, the more I have begun to understand and learn from each approach. For example, I love running. However, something I have noticed is that here in Rome, you don’t see very many young women running on the sidewalks by themselves. This is a cultural difference. Perhaps not a major one, but still something I have encountered. So my first option is to adapt. I can run in the park instead, or grab a friend to run with. In doing this, I have adapted to the culture and perhaps found that I might even enjoy this aspect of Italian culture more. I may find I prefer to run with a friend, something I don’t normally do. However, I can also choose to observe the cultural difference and not adapt. I can continue to run on the sidewalk by myself, but then I must also choose to accept being stared at by almost everyone I pass. This presents an opportunity for growth as I must now balance my cultural values with theirs. In America, we consider staring rude, but a girl running alone on the sidewalk is something we consider common. If I am going to continue to run on the sidewalk here, I must sacrifice either my own value of not being stared at, or their value of not running alone.
This is just a minor example, but I have found that navigating these smaller dilemmas are a more complex aspect of acculturation than some of the more obvious dilemmas. They are what label you as an outsider or insider. Beginning to understand and navigate the more discrete aspects of a culture is perhaps one of the most important things I am learning during my study abroad experience.
Studying abroad is a wonderful opportunity to grow as a person. So, embrace discomfort, accept difference, push yourself out of your comfort zone, savor every minute of exploring all the newness of where you are, AND learn to embrace or at least observe cultural differences. In doing so, you will learn much about the culture you are in, about your own culture, and as a result, about yourself.