Kate Kownacki, a junior majoring in peace, justice and conflict studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, recently studied abroad in Chile. In the essay below, she explains why keeping an open mind, being flexible and discarding preconceived notions are so important, especially when exploring a new place.
When you get on the plane that will fly you to your new home for the next six months, you think about all of the stories your peers told you about life abroad. You think about the amazing experiences in nature, the late nights, the new friends and the good times. The plane lands and you carry these expectations with you through the first few weeks, and slowly but surely begin to realize that life abroad is not the same as the stories you have been told. The expectations imposed on you affect the way you live, and the only way to live your life abroad to the fullest is to abandon those expectations and write your own story. With this in mind, I would like to share my perspective of life abroad in Chile.
If there is one thing people don’t tell you about living abroad, it is that the most unfortunate moments are also the most memorable ones. After missing the last bus and spending the night alone in a bus terminal, facing the wrath of immigration officers in Argentina and having to evacuate a Turbus after the cabin filled with smoke and boiling hot water, I can say I have had my fair share of misfortune during my short time abroad. While these moments were inconvenient and tested my patience, it is all a part of the experience. In fact, even while these seemingly horrible things were happening, I was able to laugh about them because I understood the significance of my misfortune. Making the best of less than perfect situations is a skill you need to develop quickly abroad. Understand that everything is a memory, and everything is a learning experience.
Before moving to Chile, I took one year of Spanish, which was easily equivalent to half of a year because I was unfortunately not the most diligent student. It was terrifying at first. I was afraid to go out with friends, go grocery shopping, take the bus, to do anything at all. Chilean Spanish was especially difficult for me because it was a completely unfamiliar dialect riddled with slang. It is two months into my life in Chile and I still have trouble understanding things I should be able to understand, like the time the bus is leaving or how much my groceries cost. It is a continuous challenge, but as time goes on, it becomes less challenging. The only thing you need to learn a new language is the desire to understand the people and the culture around you. As an introvert, I know how scary this sounds, but it is worth it. Language is the key to a whole new way of life, a whole new way of understanding the world around you. All you have to do is try.
Try everything. I have always had a strong personality and an even stronger sense of self. I knew what I wanted to experience in Chile, and I was not very willing to budge. I was set on spending most of my time alone, reading, travelling and truly experiencing the culture. I am not the type of person who enjoys nightlife or staying up until the break of dawn, and I am not the type of person who likes to travel with other people. I have always preferred solitude, but it turns out that I just needed the right experience with the right people to open my mind. You do not have to relinquish your identity to have an open mind, you just need to be willing to try new things. Sometimes you have to temporarily abandon your inhibitions and open yourself up to what is going on around you, no matter how uncomfortable or out of character it is. We do not travel to see the world through the same lens; we travel to see the world as someone else. We travel to be other. No matter what you do or where you go, experience everything with as much authenticity as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.
The takeaway here is simple. Write your own story and be open to the world around you. Experience everything fully, even the unfortunate mishaps that pop up along the way. There is an entire world out there waiting for you–you just have to be ready to take it all in.
This essay was originally published on The SoJournal, DePaul’s study abroad blog.