In October 2019, I strolled out of my school’s study abroad office daydreaming of tropical cloud forests and breezy walks to class surrounded by sloths. I had come looking for a study abroad program that would help me improve my Spanish and had found the perfect place: Costa Rica. There I could live with a host family and be immersed in the language and culture while taking tropical ecology classes to supplement my Environmental Studies major.
“A year from now,” I thought to myself, “I will be in Costa Rica.” I wished I could fast-forward. I could not think of a better time or place than San José, Costa Rica in the first semester of my junior year, Fall 2020. “What could possibly go wrong?”
It turns out, all of 2020.
After my Fall program was cancelled in May due to the pandemic, I told myself I would go in Spring of 2021. Surely this COVID drama would all be over by then. If not, I thought, I can go Fall 2021, and if that doesn’t work, then, worst-case, totally unlikely scenario, I go in the Spring of 2022, my very last semester.
That worst-case-totally-unlikely-scenario is where I am now.
There are a lot of reasons I wanted to avoid having my semester abroad be my last. It could conflict with graduation. I would be sad to miss my last months of school with friends from my home university. When I returned home, I would have to adjust not only to reverse culture shock but a new life as a graduate. It could be hard to enjoy the experience fully while having to worry about what career or academic step I would take next. And how could I even begin to decide what I would do after graduation before having what many have told me is a life-changing experience?
So far, I have dealt with nearly all these challenges in some way. It can be especially hard to live in the moment when an uncertain future seems so near. It still hasn’t sunk in that at the end of the semester I will have to say goodbye not only to this beautiful country but to my undergraduate years.
That said, there are perks to studying abroad as a senior.
Before coming here, I was able to complete all the required coursework for my major, so I have gotten to simply enjoy classes that I am interested in without having to worry about whether I’ll be set back for graduation.
Having taken more classes, I entered Costa Rica with far better Spanish abilities than I would have as a junior. Even though I struggle sometimes, I have felt comfortable interacting with locals from the beginning.
While I waited for the right time to study abroad, I took advantage of internships and research opportunities. These and other experiences helped me become more confident in my ability to adapt and learn new things, and made me better prepared for the challenges of living in another country.
Most importantly, I get to say, after an undergraduate career mostly overshadowed by a pandemic, that my last semester was my absolute best.
There are many reasons I might recommend studying abroad as a sophomore or junior rather than as a senior. However, doing so the last semester is immeasurably better than never going at all.