COLUMN: Study abroad: Leave your baggage at home


TAKORADI, Ghana – It was the first day on the Semester at Sea voyage of the spring 2011 semester, and it was obvious most of its 700 student voyagers were terrified.

We had just boarded a ship full of complete strangers and were to spend the next 3 1/2 months traveling to countries most of us had never been to.

One of the orientation speakers helped me put the cause of this anxiety into words: we were afraid because we were in a foreign environment with no familiar faces for comfort, and we had little control over what would happen to us.

This confrontation of our own shortcomings helped us adjust to our new surroundings. The uncertainty the other students and I shared would make us fast friends, but we weren’t aware of that yet.

The last three weeks have taught me that the best way to immerse yourself into an unfamiliar culture is to just let go of your expectations, the desire to have absolute control over your life and all the baggage you should have left at home.

When you study abroad, your time is fleeting, and all the energy spent thinking of home or wishing you could be somewhere else is wasted.

At first the MV Explorer was as foreign an environment to me as the three continents on our itinerary. But after less than a month here, the ship has become a second home, and these 700 people have become my family.

Brochures for study abroad have made the phrase “enriching your education” a meaningless cliché. But these words actually ring true for me while I am here on this ship. I have never experienced education more viscerally than while I am trekking in Dominica to study natural hot springs or using my Spanish (and the very little Portuguese I know) to haggle with a street vendor in Brazil.

Studying abroad, anywhere, is truly enriching in that it puts you outside your comfort zone. And as each port brings me farther away from home to places progressively more alien to me, I become more intent on immersing myself in these new sensations: the conflicting smells of fresh basil and rancid meat of a Brazilian fish market; the opaque, mirror-like surface of the Amazon River at night, hiding a diverse kingdom of a thousand different organisms; the way the rough stones of Dominica’s beaches chafe my feet as I wade into the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Photographs aren’t enough. You must be there in the moment, with every one of your senses open and receptive.

I might typically advise you to forget your fear of the unknown if you study abroad, but I know I will have to eat my words eventually. But that’s part of the voyage. What I learn about the world, and myself, in Ghana (where I am currently) I will carry with me to the next ports.

I hope my experiences will be worth more than all the photos I take or the trinkets I buy. I hope they will enable me to see the United States and my own home in a new light when I return in April.

But for now, it’s time to explore Africa.