Why I’m (Still) So Obsessed With My Study Abroad Experience

On September 5, 2015, I got on a plane to study abroad for the semester in Shanghai, China. Prior to this, I had only traveled outside of the US once and that was to the Bahamas on a cruise (which, let’s be honest, to a Floridian that’s basically the equivalent of going to your next-door neighbor’s). So, needless to say, I had very limited worldview.

I knew Shanghai was one of the most populated cities in the world. However, I didn’t anticipate feeling too much culture shock, given Shanghai’s status as a huge international hub for finance and trade and its equally large international population. But, I quickly learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Longji Rice Terraces, Guilin

While Shanghai is full of wealthy citizens and expats, it is also ridden with extreme poverty: pollution floods the streets, and it’s especially hard to take a full breath of air without a mask during the fall/winter due to the intense levels of smog. People work at least 14-hour days (mostly labor intensive jobs) and still struggle to make ends meet.

Of course I’ve witnessed poverty and pollution in the US before, but nothing like this. And, of course, I did have an idea about the extreme poverty and pollution in China, but it never really seemed tangible. Studying abroad makes you see things in a new perspective. Being an outsider looking in was surreal; it really makes you think about how privileged you are to be living as a visitor in a country solely to study.

Essentially, my American privilege slapped me in the face—I was so appalled by my ignorance and it was a much needed reality check. It’s so easy to share a post on Facebook or Twitter to raise awareness or express your abhorrence for problems going on in the world; however, when do you actually do something about such problems?

The Great Wall of China, Beijing

At what point do you go beyond “Wow, that looks really shitty…I’d hate to live/be there” and actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or better yet, figure out ways you can make a difference? We make a mockery out of these problems by using hashtags like #firstworldproblems, but do we ever really stop to do anything about the very real #thirdworldproblems?! Poverty, access to education, human trafficking, pollution, as well as so many other issues are rampant in Chinese society (and many other developing countries). So ask yourself this: How do we live in a world that makes it so easy to distance ourselves from such real issues going on in developing countries?

I could say that studying abroad was thrilling: I got to live as an expat, traveled whenever and wherever I wanted, was treated like a VIP at clubs (thanks to promoters and my “foreign”/Western appearance), and never worried about spending too much money (I could live on $3USD/day). And while all of those things are most certainly true (and extremely shallow), I’ll say this: studying abroad made me come to terms with my severe ignorance of global issues and cultural differences. It made me realize that my dreams aren’t big enough, and that I need to think more globally, as opposed to stressing over the blatantly trivial matters that so often consume my thoughts.

And while many students think studying abroad is just going overseas to party and travel (which, to be fair, I definitely did my fair share of), it’s so much more than that. Although all study abroad experiences are different, no matter which country/countries you study abroad in, you’ll leave with a more global perspective and a real awareness about what the hell is actually going on in the world. I’m certainly still ignorant on a lot of issues, but my experience abroad has forced me to think outside of my protected, privileged, first-world bubble, and has made me more passionate about human rights issues than ever before. And this is exactly why over a year later I’m still so obsessed with it.

*My study abroad program was through International Studies Abroad (ISA)

*I received the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to apply toward my program costs. If you receive the Federal Pell Grant and want to study abroad definitely apply!

*I had the chance to visit the Shanghai Marriage Market for my Chinese Culture & Society class, and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences that I had while living in Shanghai. Watch this video to learn more about the “Leftover Women” and many of the other stigmas women face in contemporary China: SK-II: Marriage Market Takeover.

You’ll Regret Going to a Small College

During my last semester of high school nearly four years ago, I was dead set on attending Florida State. I had my roommate picked out, and paid my deposit for our summer dorm room. I was anxiously waiting for the time where I would be able to rush, go to all the football games/tailgates, and do the plethora of other exciting things that would be sure to happen in Tallahassee with all of my closest friends.

Then things changed.

I had an unforeseen opportunity to play lacrosse at a Division II school in a small town in South Carolina. I can still remember touring Coker College with my best friend (Hey, Dan!) and being in shock that we had driven nearly eight hours to what appeared to be a town located between two cotton fields. Nevertheless, we decided that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, that we would try it out, and if we hated it after two years, we’d transfer.

My parents weren’t thrilled with the idea, and I still think to this day my mom believes that it wasn’t the right choice for me. I heard multiple times that I would regret going to a college that was literally half of the size of my high school. That I wouldn’t get the same experience and networking opportunities that my friends who were going to FSU, UF, or UCF would. That a school in rural South Carolina wouldn’t offer nearly the amount of diversity that I was accustomed to while living in Central Florida.

They were wrong.

While I’m no mathematician, I think being 1 out of 1,200 students is a lot better than 1 out of, say, 40,000? I was somebody at Coker. I felt like I could make a difference, and the faculty, staff, and my peers made sure that everyone felt that way. Along with being a student-athlete, I was involved with multiple organizations and often held leadership positions within them. The President of our college actually knew my name, and even gave me a shout out during our commencement ceremony (which is something I will never forget, so thanks, Dr. Wyatt!).

Diversity in rural South Carolina wasn’t an issue either. Albeit Coker College is not the most diverse higher education institution, students are required to study abroad. And even better, students are often given scholarships and funding opportunities in order to do so. So, while I was not immersed in the amount of diversity one would typically find in Orlando, I was exposed to not only a rural (read: complete opposite of what I was used to) area and a variety of international students from all over the world, but I actually had the opportunity to live in a foreign country (!!!) thanks to my small, private college.

If that isn’t enough, the small (read: roughly 5 students per class) English classes I was able to take at Coker influenced a new-found interest in writing. Such small classes led to personal relationships with professors, which in turn led to my decision to pursue a graduate degree in English. Because these close-knit relationships existed throughout my duration at Coker, I am a more confident individual, have a better grasp on both my strengths and weaknesses as a student, and know that I will always have mentors to rely on should I need it.

Like most students, I still often question whether the college I chose was the “right decision” for me; however, I am confident in the woman who graduated just a few short months ago with a fresh outlook on the world and a thirst for knowledge—all of which would not have been possible if it weren’t for Coker. So no, you won’t regret going to a small college. If anything, it will be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have because you’ll get the opportunity to be somebody.