Pushing Your Limits: The Value of Study Abroad

Here’s a graph about culture shock, which should seem familiar since it pops up on this blog a lot.


I’d really like to start this post with: I hate this graph.

“Hate” is a strong word, I know.  If you’d like, I have other words I could use to describe my relationship with this graph: loathe, despise, abhor, detest.

Not any better?  Alright, we’ll stick to hate.

I’m a math major.  And I’ve tried really, really hard, y’all, to spare you from hearing about that.  For example, fun story I almost wrote about: I had the same taxi driver two days in a row, and we ended up becoming friends! The way I was going to tell it: I literally calculated the odds that I would have the same taxi two days in a row– a little under 4 ten thousandths out of 1, for the curious– and then nestled that into a story about Pi Day because it happened in March.  (You’re welcome for changing that up.)

But now I have to write about a line graph, which is so solidly in my Mathematics Zone that there is no way to go about this without a little bit of SCIENCE.

Ahem, sorry for the caps lock, I got excited.

This is a line graph.  While the axes are unlabeled, the x-axis (along the bottom) is pretty obviously time, and the correspondence of “high points” with emotionally positive things, and vice versa, can lead us to guess that the y-axis is “happiness.”


And now, my dear reader, let me add a straight line, marking “constant happiness” from where you began, pre-study abroad.


And now, my dear reader, what do you notice?

You finish below the line of constant happiness.  You end up less happy.  Study abroad is a net negative.


(Disclaimer, it’s not just me: I showed the original, unmarked graph to Juliana, my roommate, for whom– and I quote– even basic math is difficult, and she still immediately asked, “So life will never be as good as before?”)

I’ve studied abroad before, thanks to the US Dept. of State NSLI-Y scholarship, and I can assure you that my life improved significantly.  That summer in Morocco altered my goals in life, political views, interpersonal relationships, perception of myself, America, and Arabs… and all for the better.  Were there low points, both during my trip and during reverse culture shock after?  Of course.

But were my happiness and life, overall, improved?  Of course!

And now, with the amazing opportunity to study abroad a second time with the Gilman Scholarship, yeah, sure, I identify with this graph on some level.  I had a week there in month two where I just wanted to see my friends, the ones I’ve been friends with for years instead of all the ones I’d just met; I anticipate some absolutely terrible reverse culture shock next month, when I want to take a taxi to downtown and listen to live Arabic jazz, and realize I’m in Kentucky where nothing interesting happens ever; of course I’ve had some local minima– er, I mean, “downs.”

But I still hate this graph, and I want you to all know that it gets things so so so so so wrong with regard to the most important part: where you end should be way higher than where you began, because studying abroad is awesome and will make your life better.

Brought to you by your not-so-local math major.

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