Students make the most of their college experiences when they step out of their comfort zones -- which can sometimes mean physically stepping out of the classroom, or even the country. During this past fall semester, I studied abroad in Galway, Ireland (cue Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl) where the entire continent of Europe served as my classroom at large.
That semester I sat through the fewest classes of my college career, yet I would argue that I learned the most during that time.
Galway, the future host of the European Capital of Culture for 2020, served as my home base for my travels, my host university, and my new developing friendships. Living with both native Irish and American students, we had plenty to learn about each other’s cultures despite the lack of a language barrier. From slang words to accents to cultural norms and even social media practices – for example, Facebook is still huge for millennials while Twitter has yet to really take off in Ireland – it was almost seamless to pick up on these differences and integrate them into daily life. I learned to love cheesy Irish reality TV, appreciate the bounty of Irish dairy products, and live like a native to the extent that tourists frequently asked me for directions. My Irish friends laughed at the fact that I describe myself as “Irish” (as in Irish-American) back home, and I astonished them with the fact that the state of New York is bigger than their entire country.
Although I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, the education system was drastically different at my Irish university than back in the States. Where American students are accustomed to continuous learning through daily classes with required attendance, discussion based seminars, homework assignments, essays, presentations, and group projects, European instructors commonly expect students to engage in the majority of their studies on their own time. Without the pressure and reinforcement of continuous learning, students must hold themselves responsible to complete readings and in depth studies outside of class time. As a result, I gained a new-found appreciation for the American education system that I once took for granted, as I learned that I’m personally better suited to a more rigorous class setting.
The availability of class notes and lecture slides online (thank you BlackBoard!) and the lack of attendance policies made for the ideal opportunity for international students to travel while still (more or less) keeping up with their courses. During my semester abroad, I was fortunate enough to travel to eight other countries. And, as cliché as it sounds, that was when I learned the most.
Living, traveling, and exploring independently is one of the best ways to gain self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment. After successfully driving a tiny rental car on frozen back roads through Iceland, I truly felt like I could do anything. As your confidence and comfort zone stretch, you learn more about yourself, as well as the other people and cultures you had set out to explore. A once reserved young girl returned a semester later as sociable as the friendly natives of the Emerald Isle, perhaps earned from the gift of the gab at the Blarney Stone. She acquired tastes for new foods, fashion trends, and a knack for looking like a local in a new city.
Kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle in Cork, Ireland is said to give the kisser "the gift of the gab" -- or the ability to speak with eloquence and fluency. The kisser must climb to the top of the castle where they will lean back over the edge, hold onto the rails, and kiss the Stone.
No matter how different the landscape, language, or culture, people are people and they can find a way around any barrier. Standing at the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, skiing in the shadow of the Matterhorn, marching through the peaceful demonstrations in Barcelona/Catalonia, and gaping in awe at the aurora borealis showed me how small the world can be, yet how small I am in this big beautiful world. These experiences help you to better know yourself and the world around you, allowing you to communicate more easily across cultures and in any new situations life has in store for you.
Despite longing for my bed, my dog, my family, and my friends back in New York, I knew that studying abroad was the best decision I had ever made for myself. Although I missed Galway as soon as I landed in JFK, I’m lucky that I have a home to return to across the Atlantic, and international friends that I could someday tour around my own country. I highly recommend that everyone given the opportunity to study abroad -- whether for a semester, a summer, a year, or just a few weeks -- live it to the absolute fullest.