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Opinion: Study abroad yields equally exciting, exhausting experiences

(Isabella Lee/Illustrations Director)

By Emily Samuels

Jan. 24, 2023 9:59 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 26 at 9:39 p.m.

Five months ago, I embarked on the most surreal journey of my life – a semester abroad in Madrid.

To preface, I had an amazing time. Living in a different country was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will forever be grateful for. More than that, it was truly mesmerizing to see a glimpse of what this world has to offer.

I already miss my favorite Spanish teacher, the local tapas spot and the balcony of my apartment overlooking the neighborhood of Sol.

In Madrid, a place once so foreign to me, I found a home and a community. The city had so many lessons and so much life to show me.

[Related: Opinion: Students should take advantage of meaningful travel opportunities]

To many people, studying abroad seems like a magical experience that can change your life in only a few months. Flying into Spain, I thought the same.

And in many ways, my experience was undeniably magical. But along with the charming cobblestone streets of European towns and delicious pastries at any cafe I stumbled upon – and most importantly, the freedom to pave my own path in a new country – came a plethora of really difficult adjustments and learning curves.

When I first arrived in Madrid, I met my roommates at a popular pizza spot right across the street from our new apartment. Thanks to jet lag, we stayed up all night unpacking – and talking about our dreams for the next four months. Before long, we quickly immersed ourselves in all that Madrid is: We got metro cards, explored the streets of Chueca and Malasaña, tried cafés con leche from various coffee shops and danced plenty of nights away.

However, it didn’t take long for reality to hit.

Beyond the little cultural differences I quickly encountered, such as the European preference for hot coffee over iced and having to bag my own groceries at the supermarkets, I was more than 5,000 miles away from my family, friends and everything else I had grown accustomed to in the United States.

There is so much to appreciate about new places, cultures and people. But that doesn’t mean these differences aren’t daunting to newly arrived students who have barely scratched the surface of their new home.

What nobody really tells you about studying abroad is that it’s not only a “life-changing” experience because of all the fascinating places you travel to and the monumental wonders you get to see – but also because of the numerous challenges you have to learn to work through on your own.

I traveled with groups of people I didn’t know very well at first, navigated public transportation in foreign languages and attended a Spanish literature class at the local university as the only English-speaking student – all of which pushed me out of my comfort zone.

Even as I felt gratified facing the learning opportunities that arose with these hurdles, I felt there was so much pressure for my study abroad experience to be a perfect mix of easy classes and seamless weekend trips, all in a relaxed and carefree atmosphere.

And because of it, when things inevitably didn’t always go as planned, I would get frustrated. Because of the language barrier, I would struggle to communicate with the locals to fix my phone at the cell phone store and join the nearby gym.

If I had embraced the growing pains that came with studying abroad instead of expecting them not to happen, I would have been more at peace amongst the chaos.

It didn’t help that UCLA didn’t exactly make studying abroad the most accessible experience either, adding to my already existing challenges. My roommates and I were left to fend for ourselves to find housing – a process that is already difficult enough in Westwood, let alone in another country – and I had trouble finding a single Spanish class that would transfer credits for my Spanish minor.

It’s now clear to me that so many more students would seize the opportunity to study abroad if the University of California Education Abroad Program would offer more guidance on how to navigate these foreign systems and ensure that classes overseas actually count at UCLA too.

Students should absolutely try to make the most of their semester abroad. But there should be less pressure on these months to be a cliche life-changing experience and more recognition that it can be exciting, inspiring, disappointing and frustrating all at once.

Planning trips with new people and navigating unfamiliar countries can quickly become exhausting.

In time, though, I realized that to study abroad is to forgo a consistent lifestyle and release your expectations for a few months. And while that can be hard, it is also just fine.

I eventually came to understand the ins and outs of the city and grew to really appreciate my time there. Madrid taught me that if you are patient with yourself and take the time to find your footing in new surroundings, home can be in more than just one place.

So, there it is, my farewell to my beautifully crazy semester abroad. To anyone thinking about or currently studying abroad, just remember that it takes time to adjust to a new country, and it’s normal if it’s not perfect.

Venturing into the unknown is a gift that will foster independence and maturity that you’ll keep forever.

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Emily Samuels
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