I Know I’m Out There Somewhere: How to Decide Where to Study Abroad

I finally graduated from America. You see, for as long as I can remember, I had always admired people who had the courage to do the things I never thought I could: those who transcended the commonplace in the hopes of embracing a flowered awareness, a fresh perspective, and a wide-eyed release from the blindness of a simple kind of life. However, after high school, I realized that my dreams were simply that-dreams materialized in the essence of other people. For some reason, I decided that I, myself, needed to dismiss the notion that life is not extraordinary.

Instead of finding a fabulous life, however, I found something much more interesting. I found strength and understanding in someone who had once felt weak and confused. It is the attraction of compelling unfamiliarity that is the real sense of belonging to those who find inspiration outside themselves.

We may ask ourselves: Why travel?
The answer lies in the exotic truth of the question itself: the ancient, crystallized myth with modern eyes, the world on higher stilts in a better circus, the knowledge and commemoration of learning the sounds of a new language�. When searching for inspiration, for direction in life, for purpose in this purposeless existence, there is only one truth, and it is that we will all grow up. Yet what we will grow into is the passion that we have the power to alter.

My words do not stem from expertise. They do not stem from the gifts of wealth and privileged childhood, or the pleasure of a mind lacking worries and a spirit free from constraint. Instead, they blossom from an inexperienced college graduate who is struggling to find her place in the world. If it had not been for studies abroad, I would never have known that I could express my life in Spanish, that I could say I love you in at least five languages, that I could navigate an international European city solely with my own two feet and a crumpled map, that I could live in countries I had never heard of, that I could climb a Sicilian volcano in sandals, or that I could fall in love with a war-torn yet optimistic South American country. If it were not for these things, I would not have gained the confidence to travel outside myself and understand why I had felt unfulfilled all those years. I would never have seen myself for who I truly am.

Feeling unfulfilled is certainly youth in essence; we are that over which we obsess. Do we conform to what we already know or do we persevere who we once were? Do we test the limits of our natural boundaries, or do we leave ourselves bait to the influence of outside pressure? We continually find ourselves confronted with an immediate urgency for meaning and a crystallized self-image through these themes and human universals, wherever our feet journey. This is just part of the journey. Whether you search for understanding, awareness, or direction, Europe can tell you. South America might surprise you with its timeless wisdom; Africa might entice you with its animal soul and graceful spirit. Asia might guide you to the answers, or Australia might flip your world upside-down with new meaning. The West Coast might provide what the East Coast never could, and the East Coast might clarify what the West Coast never did. You will never know until you try.

Choosing a place to commit yourself is a beautiful and exhilarating process-it should be something you carefully consider as you wander through the thousands of books, photos, websites, travelogues, and the wise advice of strangers and friends. Think about what truly and uniquely fascinates you. Don’t simply limit yourself to the tourist traps and Western Europe; more often than not, the most intriguing and life-changing experiences happen off the beaten path. Make your own pilgrimage and refrain at all costs from following in the footsteps of those before you. Choose your own destiny by creating your own destination. Places will surprise you, enlighten you, disgust you, and thrill you. Take each memory as experience, mark it in a journal and freeze it in photographs.

Exploring the possibilities is often as rewarding as exploring the unfamiliar culture of distant lands, the choral words of a new tongue, the breathless moments atop mountains and the soft peace in the wind on beaches, the meaning of being an American outside America, and the realization that you’ve become just a little more versed in the epic novel of history. The resources are there, the experts are available, and the money can be earned. Whether your choice is a study abroad for your intended major, courses in a language, art, foreign policy, international relations, or history, an internship or work-study abroad, an around-the-world marathon for a summer, or an extended vacation during your gap year, it is not a question of dreams, but merely an expression of willpower.

As life changes and memory evolves, you will continue towards the idealized well-balanced person we were all programmed to be. Desires do not change-they do not fail and they do not disappoint. We have an obligation to work through our own personal philosophies and discover who we really are, despite our cultures, our pasts, or our friends. If my ultimate goal upon undertaking my first international adventure had been to find comfort, belongingness, or stealthy treks into the familiar, I would not have graced foreign soil at all. In the end, it hardly matters who we were in high school, as youths, as awkward teenagers coping with our American demands and lifestyles: it only matters who we will be once we separate ourselves with age and responsibility.

We aren’t who we are because of where we are born, where we learn to speak, where we become educated, and where we go to find ourselves. We are who we are because of something stronger, something more private and less influenced by our expectations. We have a mission of self-discovery, and that is the same in all countries, in all people, because it is human nature.

It is not only important to be cultured in our modern society; it is imperative to our survival. In a world that is becoming increasingly global and decreasingly stable, we must learn to look outside our protective high school walls and into something more dramatic and meaningful. The time will come when we are no longer free, and the realization will come that we are simply unable to do the millions of things we once hoped to do.

I know the boundaries are quite real. But isn’t that the same with all dreams? I have heard them, I have said them, I have repeated them, and I have hindered myself because of them. There are just too many programs. There are just too many costs. There are just too many other things I have to do. There are just too many people I cannot leave behind. There is just not enough time, not enough money, not enough direction. The excuses are endless, and yet, the rebuttals are enough to make it happen.

People will often tell you at high school and college graduation that the world is yours for the taking. That the future is up to you. That the world is at your fingertips! Could it be that the timeless words are actually true? And so, now I ask you:
When you graduate, where will you go?

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