During my junior year, I made the best decision of my life: studying abroad for a semester in the most beautiful city in Europe. I went on a whim looking for adventure, but I found much more than that. Prague’s cobblestone streets quickly wiggled their way into my heart and became my second home. Buildings rose tall all around me, with swirly metal trimmings and detailed carvings of majestic animals decorating doors and windows. The aroma of hot mulled wine and cinnamon covered trdelniks that filled the streets was comforting and delicious. Horse-drawn carriages in the Old Town Square made it feel as though I was walking in a beautiful Christmas card instead of reality. Prague was perfection, but Prague ruined the rest of college.
The classroom in the school building was not the real classroom in Prague— on the streets was where the real learning occurred. For the first time in my life, I was living in a city instead of a quiet suburb neighborhood. First lesson: public transportation. I was terrified of getting on public transport by myself (due to an irrational fear of not being able to open the door when at my stop and ending up in some tiny town in Slovakia). Despite my worries, I learned how to navigate across a city by bus, tram, and subway by being aware of my surroundings.
It’s shocking, but studying abroad actually teaches you how to pay attention. When in America, I didn’t pay attention to a lot of things when traveling because I didn’t feel like I had to. But in Prague, my eyes were constantly flicking around, noticing little things like the fact that the tram I rode to school every day was so old that it had tiny stickers on each window saying “Czechoslovakia” rather than “Czech Republic.” It was these little details that made me appreciate so much of the Czech culture. By the end of my first month, I could get anywhere in the city by myself and comfortably know how to get home. The most important thing I learned from the public transportation system was that I don’t have to be afraid of the unknown. If you can handle public transportation in a country that speaks a Slavic language, you can handle anything!
I also learned how to deal with language barriers. Wandering a city that spoke a foreign language made me feel lonely and isolated at times. I couldn’t understand public announcements, advertisements, or television shows. Ordering food was a nightmare! However, I learned how to feel as though I was a part of the city despite being a foreigner. I learned how to fit in by finding places and people that I liked and understood despite knowing only basic words in Czech (“pivo,” meaning “beer,” being the most important Czech word in my short vocabulary). I ended up finding amazing friends and two internships that have led to great job opportunities. Sometimes, when we’re too comfortable in the place we live, we don’t seek out new things because we don’t have to. Studying abroad in Prague forced me into new situations, making me work on my communication skills for daily needs and for fun.
While abroad, I took weekend trips to nearby countries. I missed my train back to Prague while in Salzburg, Austria. Panic quickly ensued. How was I going to get home? Would I have to find a hotel in Salzburg? What if I ended up bumming frantically around the streets all night? Traveling taught me how to stay calm and think quickly. Although I was terrified about being stranded in Austria, I managed to navigate across Salzburg to the train station and figure out a route to get home by (a very expensive) train. I learned that sometimes all you need to do to fix a bad situation is to take a deep breath. And it doesn’t hurt to have a mug of mulled wine from an Austrian street vendor as well.
Prague instilled a new sense of self-confidence into me. If I can adapt to living in a Slavic-speaking country in Central Europe by myself, what can’t I do? After Prague, I was ready for the real world. I was itching to go out and find where I belonged and what I could do with my interests and desires. Maybe I could be a journalist in Germany? After all, it probably wouldn’t take more than six months to learn German if I really worked at it. Maybe I could teach English in South Korea? I’ve always loved Tae Kwon Do, a South Korean martial that I’ve been learning since I was five. I could teach English while learning Tae Kwon Do from excellent instructors. Getting a job sounded appealing, so I ended up checking out what sort of careers I could pursue with my degree. The options were endless. I wanted to continue to learn what I was capable of, even if it meant getting a job here in America. If only I could close my eyes, point to something on the list of options, and instantly be handing out my résumé to dozens of potential employers in an instant!
Instead, after four glorious months abroad, I found myself back at my regular college in New York. I went right back to taking 15 credits worth of classes, going to the gym (once in a while), and going out to the bars (maybe a little too much). I didn’t have to try to fit in, I didn’t have to navigate anywhere, and I felt as though I had nothing new to explore. Even the material I was studying did not seem as interesting as it did before I went to Prague. When abroad, I was exposed to Romani literature, satirical Czech journalists from the 1940s, Polish authors from the late 1900s, and many more diverse writers. In the classroom, we approached literature from European, British, and American viewpoints, making me rethink many of the angles from which I had learned in America. Going back to college seemed as though I was taking a step backwards instead of forwards. I wanted to be done with school so that I could take the next step in my life and apply all of the new things that I had learned about myself to my life. Studying abroad, after all, had prepared me so well.
Studying abroad was the best decision I have ever made, but it made me feel as though I was done with college. Prague gave me freedom and choices I couldn’t acquire here in New York. I feel trapped in college now, as I’m mentally prepared to move on and explore the world. I’ve been counting down the days until I have my degree and I can set myself upon the world. Only 102 days left!
If you’re thinking about studying abroad, there are two ways that you can combat this “problem.” First, study abroad in your senior year. That way, when you come back to America you won’t feel as though you have to wait forever to graduate. Even if you study abroad your first semester of senior year, you’ll most likely adjust better to college life in America if you know that you only have one semester left to do before you can explore the world. Another option is to prepare for coming back to college while you’re abroad. Apply to internships, new jobs to gain experience, and non-profit organizations for volunteer work. If you can come home to something new and exciting, you may be able to feel like you are continuing to grow rather than being shoved back into the typical college world.