Below is a guest post by Ryan Kosyla LAS ’13, Philosophy Major, Business and Political Science Minor.
I didn’t plan on studying abroad. In fact, I thought it was something I had to give up since transferring to Villanova in the spring of 2011. The end of junior year was coming and I knew it would be next to impossible to fit into my schedule. But at the recommendation of Dr. Smith, head of Villanova’s Honors Program, I decided to look into it. When I did, I found something interesting: the excitement and adoration of those who had previously studied abroad and how they looked back on their experience. Most had a hard time finding the words to describe why, exactly, I should study in another country for a semester. “Just do it” was a phrase I heard on more than one occasion. After a semester in Greece, I can definitely say that this is the best advice I can give to students looking to study abroad.
There are many different aspects to studying abroad. It is not just a chance to try different food or go somewhere you haven’t been before. It is a very personal experience that forces you to reconsider the things you take for granted, things you have grown used to without even realizing it. I think two short stories will best illustrate my point
There was a small store next to my apartment in Greece where I used to get coffee. It was run by a woman and her husband, neither of whom spoke any amount of English. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know a word of Greek. And somehow, I still managed to get coffee the very first time I walked in the store – complete with the exact amount of sugar and cream I wanted. As my Greek improved, I began to have lengthier, more detailed conversations with this couple.
Communication is far more than words. When you have two people who are trying to talk to one another, but speak completely different languages, there is still some part of what you’re trying to say that gets across. Pointing, the inflexion of your voice and facial features all play a huge part, even more so than the actual words you’re trying to speak. I had known the importance of body language, but never thought seriously about it before; I guess I had grown used to talking to people without really thinking at all. Without being forced to think about how we talk, we sort of just… talk. Everything from how close we stand to someone, to body language and eye contact, are all influenced by our culture. It’s just the way we get used to things, the way we grow used to and connect with one another on a common level.
One of my best experiences while abroad was taking part in an internship at the Institute for International Economic Relations. I was able to conduct graduate-level research, write opinion papers on contentious economic issues, and listen to presentations from professors and other invited guests. But I learned the most from my fellow interns
I was one of many students there, but I was the only American. Everyone else was Greek. They all spoke English, which was great. But what was really great was some of the conversations we had. We discussed philosophy and politics, culture and society, relationships and family. Greek students – no matter their major – are much more politically aware, informed, and active than American students. Each has an opinion on pretty much anything you can think of and their opinions are interesting and well thought out.
Greek youths are also much more focused on interpersonal relationships and learning about one another than in doing activities when with friends. In the United States, we typically need an excuse to hang out with someone: going to see a movie, playing sports, and the like. Greeks are different; they simply want to spend time with one another. This usually takes the form of sitting down over coffee, long stretches of window shopping, or simply standing around and talking – even if it’s in the middle of the sidewalk (and no passerby’s seem to mind!).
During one of those times when we went out for coffee, we had a particularly memorable conversation about ideas of nationalism. “You’re not a country,” a girl told me. “I mean, you are… I don’t mean that in an offensive way. But we Greeks don’t really see you like that. You’re young. You’ve been around a little over 200 years. We have thousands of years of history.”
She’s right. The U.S. is young. And yet, in the international arena, many U.S. citizens get so used to the idea that the United States is supposedly #1 that we tend to forget that we haven’t even existed as a country for very long. It isn’t until we, as individuals, take a step back and are challenged by different ideas that we begin to get a fuller understanding of ourselves and the world. When we see how other people live, and begin to understand how other people think, we are forced to consider what it must be like to live that way. Without exploring different cultures, you take your own for granted, and believe that everyone, everywhere, must live that way. I was guilty of that to a large extent
But it is important to mention that there are more commonalities than differencesbetween different countries and different cultures. The importance of family and friends, stresses and worries of being young adults and a focus on your “significant other” are as paramount in Greece as they are in the United States. Being abroad reinforced my belief that there are some things that cross cultural, geographical, and communicative barriers and connect us as human beings.
These stories may not seem spectacular or ground-breaking, but the small, personal interactions I had with the people I met are what made my experience. They forced me to think differently, reconsider the things I had taken for granted, and imagine new possibilities.
Don’t get me wrong – the Greek islands are gorgeous, the other American students I met were awesome, and I loved learning about Greek culture. The food was fantastic, the city has some amazing historical monuments, and I learned a ton from my classes. But the most important part of my study abroad experience, and what I believe most people will find to be the most significant part of studying abroad, is the people. It is they who underlie all aspects of your experience; if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t even be possible to study abroad there in the first place. They challenge you, inspire you, and connect with you in a way that goes far beyond words.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how other people think, feel, or live. Our conceptions are distorted by our own beliefs, and everyone, no matter their experience, is always ignorant in some sense. But when we study abroad, we begin to recognize that which could not be known otherwise. It is not found in a textbook or taught in a classroom. It is given to you, each and every day, by the people you meet and the interactions you have.
You carry it with you, every day, for the rest of your life. And you will always be a better person because of it.