Tag Archives: lessons learned

It’s about culture

I’ve been sitting here for almost an hour writing, deleting, and rewriting just the first sentence of this post. It seems nearly impossible to put my experience into words, but I am going to do my best.

My time in Slovenia was life changing. I laughed. I cried. I learned to love. I tried new things. I accomplished goals. I made life-changing relationships. I would do it again in a heart beat, and since being home there have been several times where that is all I want to do.

I loved my time abroad, not because I wanted to be away from home, but because of who I have become from my experiences while I was gone. In the time I was gone I visited eight countries and lived in two, and the most important thing that I learned from all of it was that I have culture too.

I grew up in a small, conservative town. Everyone in my family going back for generations on both sides are Caucasian.  We enjoy family time, camping, card games, eating good food, and finding good deals while shopping. Since I was a little girl I have wanted to travel the world because quite frankly, I didn’t think that I had much of a culture and what little culture I did have was boring.

So, finally, 2018 was my year. At the age of 24, I was going to experience  r e a l culture. I left in February to study abroad in Slovenia, and in June went directly to India for an internship.

I forgot to pack a hat in Iceland.

I ate the best gelato imaginable in Italy.

I fell in love in Slovenia.

I sketched in Austria.

I ate delicious halusky in Slovakia.

I stood in awe of the Parliament building in Hungary.

I explored the catacombs in Serbia.

I rode a bike in Denmark.

I swam in the sea in Croatia.

I ate with my hands in India.

It is impossible to describe everything I experienced in these countries. It was incredible, but now I’m home. Back to a small, conservative town that I used to think had no culture. But guess what? I was completely wrong.

I have a culture that is completely different than every one I experienced, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a culture. Out of the 10 countries I have now been to, none of them were the same. Each one had something a bit different whether it was the food, the currency, the language there was always something unique.

So now I am learning to notice and appreciate my culture, and I think that by doing that I will be better equipped to appreciate other cultures. I think that traveling isn’t really about going and seeing other places, but it is a way to teach each of us to appreciate what we have. We are all unique and a bit odd, but that’s what makes us great.

Traveling taught me that our cultures are all very different, but most importantly, we’re all human. And it is that similarity that bonds us together.

Cultures will differ, but humans are humans. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how you eat your food, or what you wear. We all need companionship and acceptance. So where ever you may be reading this, take a look around and remember that we’re all trying our best in the way that we know how to. So let’s just smile and appreciate the differences, because they really don’t matter.





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Filed under Ashley in Slovenia

Don’t Stand Still: New Adventures in America Post-Abroad

My last week in Brazil was unbelievably draining. I felt a hollow in my chest which stayed all day, every day until I landed back in the US. I hate goodbyes and that week I said goodbye to many people: my professors, CET staff, my roommates, friends. Even saying goodbye to the staff at the local bakery we frequented daily felt hard. But to my surprise, my weeks in the United States feel normal – like nothing changed. It is because my abroad experience transformed how I think so much that it changed my approach to life’s transience. I said goodbye to physical people and places, but the experiences and lessons I learned will stay with me for when I need them.

I kind of skipped the period of reverse culture shock when you are supposed to feel frustrated, angry, or lonely, because I often felt that way before going and being abroad actually helped place my emotions into perspective. I realized how privileged I am – even as a queer, Latino, first-generation student. The fact that I could go to another country, learn from it, leave, and incorporate what I learned is a big privilege. So, more than angry or frustrated that the experience is over, I am just grateful that it happened in the first place, because not everyone, especially not most people like me get to have that. I am already at the stage where I am incorporating what I learned into my daily routine so that I can live as the best me possible and make the best out of every situation.

  • Being a career go-getter.

I encountered many professionals – in love with their careers – who positively impacted my career passions. Walking through the streets of downtown Sao Paulo, I noticed how differently Brazilians approach the balance of creative expression and professionalism. It was common to see professionals in more “traditional” fields sporting tattoos, piercings, hair dye, and fashion-forward clothing. All this fab was far from the drab gray suit life of the US. This was clear with the abroad program’s staff,  who not only had creative license with how they showed up to work but in what they did. They did not have your typical 9-5 desk job but were often about the city planning cultural activities for us. I always thought I would want a job that allows me to express myself more freely and which keeps me creative, but now I for sure know it.

I put these feelings into action when I came back by packing my bags and spending my summer in my college town of DC, even though I had a secure and comfortable paid internship I had done for the past six years. I need growth and something that meets me where I am today. Currently, I am just working at a restaurant for the summer, but I have more of a go-getter mentality. I have been busy working on applicatoins for the fall, going to conferences, networking with people, and really trying to get everything right for when college ends. I often leave things for the last minute, but I am doing what I could do tomorrow today and I learned that in Brazil.

  • Finding ways to be more creative.

There were so many new stimuli I came across during my semester abroad. The list is truly expansive: new people, new food, new city, new rhythms, new sounds, etc. It was all challenging and rewarding at the same time. The previous semester I had taken a media entrepreneurship class and my main takeaway was to channel the ups and downs of life into something new and useful. That is what did in Brazil. I launched a blog where I kept track of my experiences and frustrations in a new country. I hope people can learn and grow from it the same way I have. While the blog was inspired by my abroad experience, I plan to keep it going and to use it as a vehicle for creativity long-term. I’ve learned there is so much to explore just in your own backyard or city and if you channel that stimuli in a productive way it can open many career and social doors.

  • Seeking out more culture.

I knew I had a short amount of time, only four months, in Sao Paulo and I sought to make the most of it. I traveled around the country with friends (and sometimes alone), so that I could really soak up as much as possible. I don’t do that enough back home, because it is very easy to get stuck in a bubble and routine. I always think I have a lifetime to explore a place. But, now that I am back, I want to really take on the city. That’s part of the reason I decided to stay in DC for the summer too. With all this free time since I’m not in class, I have no excuse to not go out to new bars and clubs, or to visit more museum, or to bike down to the monuments, or to go out in Maryland and Virginia. There is so much more to see out there than in the comfort of my home on Netflix and I am really going to take advantage of that now because a lifetime is short.

  • More emotional maturity and honesty.

I was hit hard by the realization that despite thinking I’ve lived it all I have not. As a queer, Latino, first-generation student I sometimes get so caught up in how much people like me struggle and how hard we must work to get to where we are that I assume there are no more challenges left for me. But Brazil was a challenge and I experienced quite a bit of culture shock. I did not know how to be comfortable with not being OK at first. When I was feeling homesick I kept it to myself until a friend said, “I feel sad” and then another and another. Soon, I realized culture shock is very normal and it is OK to not feel OK. The emotional honesty I was gifted by my other program friends really made me open myself up more to other people and my own self. I feel like I understand myself more now and I am constantly journaling to keep things that way (which is why this blog is kind of long). But I find it so necessary and healthy to just write and speak on what you feel. It is beautiful to understand and share that connection with others.

  • Financial responsibility.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but clothing definitely for me is an expressive outlet that makes me feel better but does not make my bank account feel all that great. During my semester abroad, I really hustled and got a Gilman scholarship along with some other grants. Because I was unable to work during the semester abroad, I started a budget. “Broke in Brazil” sounds like it would be a fantastic sitcom but I’m not trying to be in it. I kept to that budget all semester and realized, one, how easy it is to keep one, and two, how many stupid, unnecessary expenses I have. Now that I am back in DC, which is significantly more expensive – oh, how I miss Brazilian prices – I am implementing the budget into my day to day routine.

  • Physical flexibility.

Things like cooking and exercise have almost always felt like work to me. But in Brazil, I learned to approach them as parts of my daily routine that can be fun, social, and unwinding. One of my Brazilian roommates was very into cooking and he would always make us different desserts or shared his meals. I picked up quite a few tips from him and his love for cuisines really inspired me. I now cook more and take creative liberties. As for fitness, I started going to the gym in Brazil, which always felt overwhelming for me in the states and is why I normally work out alone in the comfort of my home. But the gym goers in Brazil were a lot less intimidating, many were actually quite helpful and I even made some friends, which made me appreciate it more. Now I finally understand why some people are “gym rats”. The gym can be quite the social space.

  • Social outgoingness.

While abroad, I had no international data plan. So, rather than just texting friends while I was out and about by myself, I talked to strangers. This opened my eyes to how many amazing conversations can be had with people you don’t know. Especially, when you come from different backgrounds. I am someone who is very open to learning about different cultures, but I often don’t make the effort into going into those spaces or approaching people myself. While abroad I was forced to because there was no alternative – I either got out of my comfort zone or I would have been lost and miserable the whole semester. I also realized how much I missed family and friends. So, I made a better effort with them. I picked out souvenirs for them and in the week I was back home in New York visited each person individually to share my experiences rather than just texting them. I noticed, too, how much more meaningful our conversation now and how our relationships have the potential to strengthen.

I plan on traveling more – both internationally and locally. Traveling opens up so many windows into the world, but also into the self and I can’t wait to keep this growth going.

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Filed under Jeffrey in Brazil, Uncategorized

The Various Stages of Culture Shock, Homesickness, and Reverse Culture Shock

When I first arrived in Spain, it took a few weeks before I fully adjusted to everything: the bizarre eating schedule, the food tastes, the money, the unknown streets, not to mention the language barrier. However, I knew that if I threw myself into it, I could overcome the challenges and learn to enjoy myself. Initially, that worked. It was a new country with new people and places to see; I loved trying everything new and soaking up as much of it as quickly as I could. Eventually though, I couldn’t take it; I became overwhelmed with the differences, and the having to think in a foreign language constantly became mentally exhausting. I really started to miss home, and I’d only been abroad for a few short weeks. I missed late night Steak n Shake runs with my friends, peanut butter, mac n cheese, and going to the movies.

Honestly, one of my biggest mistakes was going to my Facebook and talking to everyone back at home. Instead of making me feel better, I felt worse. However, my parents surprised me by sending me a package full of American junk food, so that made me feel a bit better. My host sister helped me out as well. After a few weeks of staying with her, she introduced me to her friends (who were also my age) and I was invited to one of their parties. It was fun, and they kept insisting that I spoke Spanish very well, which was certainly a major confidence booster. A few weeks after that, we all went to a movie together, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could understand almost all of the movie, despite it being completely in Spanish, without subtitles.

The homesickness came and went. I had days where I really missed home and others where I felt like I could stay in Spain forever. Eventually, I had to say goodbye to all the friends I had made while in Spain, including the host family that I had grown so close to over the past few months. Saying goodbye was hard, but I still e-mail them and let them know how I am doing when I have time. When I got home though, after the first few weeks of catching up with friends I hadn’t seen in months, I wanted nothing more than to go back to Spain. English just sounded ugly to me, and my stomach turned at the sight of certain foods here. But, I now love putting olive oil in most foods now, and even though I can’t help but slip into Spanish sometimes, it’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’ve been able to successfully communicate with a few Spanish-speaking customers at my summer job as a cashier, and I’ve chatted with a friend of mine who studied abroad in Peru. We’re constantly comparing cultural differences while also improving our language skills. Though I do still miss Spain, I know that my place is here for now, and that my experience and knowledge gained while there will be invaluable in the future.

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Filed under Tyler in Spain, Western Europe

Home Again

Our experience in Jordan flew by! At the beginning of my family’s time there we dove right into the culture. We tried to make our time there as authentic as possible. We ate their food, learned their customs, and relished in the odd feeling of being in a totally foreign place. With time, we started missing our food, our customs, and the comfortable feeling of being home. We started doing little things like eating at McDonald’s (which was conveniently located above our supermarket), and planning and looking forward to coming back home.

Fast forward a few weeks. We constantly talk about the things we used to do in Jordan. We miss the fresh fruit and vegetables from the corner market. We miss taking taxis all over the city and playing soccer with the building manager’s little kids. We even thought about starting a Middle Eastern restaurant for goodness sakes! Now we are just planning for a return trip which we hope to do soon. I think the best part about being back is sharing our experiences with those we meet. They are ALWAYS fascinated to discover more about Arab culture and eager to overcome stereotypes. It is such a pleasure to meet somebody from Iraq or Jordan or Palestine and be able to speak to them in their own language and share common experiences.

Having now gone and come back, it has given us more time to think about what changes we will make as a result of our time in Jordan. Thinking about the abundance of everything that we have here helps us to live in a more sustainable and simple way. We are definitely more conscious about our the way we use water. We are more careful to finish all of the leftovers in the fridge instead of throwing them out. We try to feel less possessive of things in general and be as generous here as Jordanians were to us. These are just a few ways in which the study abroad has impacted us and has given us a little reverse culture shock. Though we are happy to be home, we miss Jordan like our home and strive actively to turn our experience into action and changing the way we live. We are so grateful to the Gilman program for providing this opportunity to attend this study abroad. We encourage all who are on the fence or have never considered going on a study abroad to set it as a goal and plan for it; you won’t regret it!

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Filed under David in Jordan, middle east