...My favorite experiences abroad were made so meaningful simply because I engaged with the people around me.
There are so many things to get out of an experience abroad. Put generally, we see new sites, learn new things, and have new experiences. As an Urban Studies major, I’ve always enjoyed witnessing different formations of the built environment, and understanding the historical processes that have led to the spaces of today.
And yet, it is frighteningly easy to go abroad, and never actually meet anyone outside of the program participants. Put differently, it can be profoundly difficult to have an “authentic” experience. By authentic, I’m not talking about having “real” Chinese food or visiting a “real” Turkish bath. By authentic, I mean having genuine experiences in unfamiliar spaces with new people - the kinds of experiences you can’t find in a tour book.
Believe it or not, physically exploring a new environment is the easy part. As a transportation nerd, I enjoy taking a day or two to sightsee on public transportation, be it a bus in Paris or the metro in New Delhi. Rather, the hard part is becoming mentally open to the inevitable awkward interactions that arise when you talk to strangers. Of course, it is important to consider cultural differences when looking to converse with others. But, wherever you may be, there are bound to be people who are happy to talk.
I cannot emphasize how important these interactions are. Although I consider myself a shy person, I make an active effort to step out of my comfort zone when I travel. I’ve been to Ramadan feasts in Amman, a wedding in New Delhi, and a picnic along the Seine. Meeting and engaging with the people from those cities were by far the most meaningful memories from those trips.
So, whether you’re going on a quick trip, or embarking on a whole semester or year abroad, make an effort to engage with the people inhabiting the spaces you’re visiting. The power of studying abroad lies in its power to inspire significant personal growth and global understanding. Engaging with local people will make for a genuine experience abroad.