Staying True To Yourself While Studying Abroad

So many of us look forward to studying abroad to experience a level of independence that may seem nearly impossible back home. A life outside of our bubble, away from our usual family, friends, school, and work.

My perspective going into it was no different. I have always been a people-pleaser and a bit of a follower but longed to feel more independent. This is not to say that I wanted to do everything on my own, isolated from others. More so I wanted to know what I was capable outside of that bubble. Sure, I could head to the library or the park on my own, and actually enjoy that time alone. But could I find the right bus stop? (Disclaimer: coming from a small town in Wisconsin I have no prior experiences with public transportation.) Could I plan, book, and execute a weekend trip on my own? I was prepared for this time abroad to complete my journey toward independence.

Anxious to start this growth process, I was disappointed when I didn’t feel an immediate change when I stepped off the plane. Independence, like anything, comes with time. Undoubtedly, I had already learned so much about myself and the new environment I’m in, yet it seemed there was still a long way to go before I felt that this goal of mine had been reached. I’d mastered the walk to school and the town center and developed the ability to find everything I may need except for reasonably priced peanut butter. But there was still a long way to go.

So, I started doing my best to venture out and try new things. Now, to a certain extent, this is definitely healthy, but I found myself taking part in activities that didn’t really suit me. I found that the typical adrenaline-filled Costa Rican adventures weren’t what I needed to reach this goal of mine. I didn’t crave white-water rafting or bungee jumping and felt that meant I wasn’t taking full advantage of being in this incredible country. I am learning, however, that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is only helpful if it gives value to your life. I recognized this feeling of not being true to myself and feared that if I let it go too far, I would end up looking back at my study abroad experience and realize that it wasn’t really mine at all.

Having recognized this battle about two weeks into my time in Costa Rica, in the weeks that followed I was sure to be mindful of this and pay attention to choices I could make and actions I could take in order to keep the balance between working toward my own goals and saying yes to new experiences with new people under control. Here’s what I found helped most:

1. Get to know yourself and your goals. Make a list of them.

First, it is important to get to know you and the goals you have for yourself while abroad. If you already do, congratulations! If not, welcome to the club! Do some research about your host country and the area around it to envision yourself there, and the aspects of the culture that you wish to adopt into your life. Next, try to make a shortlist of places you want to visit, foods you want to try, or activities you want to partake in. Be sure to make time to do these things. I found this helpful prepping for my trip because it helped me envision the person I would be, setting a positive image in my mind to manifest both before and after my arrival.

I love my Lonely Planet Guide! There is one for basically every country and has everything you need to know including places to stay, where to eat, and how to get to any destination.

2. Be open and clear about what you want and need with others.

It’s not a crime to sit some things out! While abroad, it can feel as though you aren’t taking full advantage of the opportunity if you aren’t constantly traveling or exploring. Sitting in the town center with a good book is just as culturally immersive as taking a weekend trip somewhere. I’ve found I prefer more laid-back adventures; passing by and listening to locals’ conversations on my way to school, chatting with my host mom about her life and her views on the world, and even the quest for the cheapest peanut butter. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy a country!

Something simple that has defined my trip so far has been my quest to find this candy bar, the best I have ever had. I had one in a small town called Cóbano and have not been able to find one since!

3. Follow your gut.

In the end, it is just important to follow your instincts. In situations where you are still lost after thinking everything through, whether or not it is a situation in which it would be better to take a risk and venture out or to stick to your guns and make the decision that is right for you.

Don’t feel ashamed to spend the afternoon reading in a hammock rather than out on the town. Especially if you underestimated the power of the sun and are severely sunburnt

Madison Olson a student at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied with ISA in Heredia, Costa Rica. 

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