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Studying Abroad Changed My Life

Wanderlust: a strong desire to travel or a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering.

Am I a wanderer? Precisely. I have a desire to see the world from many points of view, and stepping into exploration excites me. I am the person that has been asked many times “Where do you want to live?” and it grinds my gears because I don’t give the answer they are looking for, a location. My answer to that question is “I haven’t been enough places to confidently answer that. There are places I like, but I haven’t found that place that I want long-term”. I picture my life in many places and I am okay with that. I have been many places, but not nearly enough. The world is massive and compared to it we are just specs wandering aimlessly. Traveling has taught me so much about myself and the world, it is easily one of my most valued privileges.

I have always loved traveling and vacations with my family, but studying abroad and being an exchange student (there is a subtle difference) opened my eyes to more and increased my craving to explore the world. My first study abroad program was in China and it hosted many firsts for me. It was my first time traveling alone, my first time in Asia, my first time in a place where I didn’t speak the language, my first time having authentic Chinese food (where I developed my love for dim sum), and my first flight that served multiple hot meals as it was a little over 13 hours. Unnecessary info: I was in China doing cross-cultural comparative education-based psychology research, a mouthful, I know. I was with a small cohort of UMich students, but I also did a lot of solo exploring. The majority of my time was spent in Beijing, with a few days being in Xian (by way of a train that took maybe 12 hours, but it had a restaurant and sleeper-beds so it was a nice experience). China is as over-populated as they show on TV and being Black in China was an experience in itself. You wouldn’t believe how many people asked for a picture with the Black girl, culture shock alert. I learned basic food hanzis (Chinese characters) so that I could order food on my own. I also learned greetings, and a couple of phrases for when I was exploring. Without realizing what I was asking, I asked my professor how to say “I don’t understand”, he taught me. The reason I asked was because I wanted to be able to tell people in markets that I didn’t understand what they were saying. I later realized that if someone says “I don’t understand” to me in English I would try to explain another way. Being in China taught me that the phrase “I don’t understand” means elaborate, not that you don’t speak the language.

My China expedition was my second year of undergrad. When I returned, I was determined to go abroad again before graduating. In September of my fourth year, I applied for an exchange program in the Netherlands, and I was surprisingly accepted (it was a surprise because it was a very competitive program and I honestly didn’t meet the qualifications, but my recommendations were top tier). I spent my second semester of my last year of undergrad in the Netherlands. To fulfill my language requirement for graduation I took three semesters of Dutch at UMich (I have a very logical reason for choosing Dutch to fulfill that requirement), so being able to take my fourth semester in the Netherlands was pretty cool. I had a little studio apartment near a train station and a grocery store in Den Haag (The Hague), and attended Universiteit Leiden (Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands and one of the leading research universities in Europe) located in the fairytale-picture book town, Leiden . I learned to navigate two cities, one of which I lived, and the other that I went to school in. I met some of the most amazing people, and had experiences that I will cherish forever. I knew that Europe had open boarders, but never fully comprehended it until I was traveling from the Netherlands to other European countries and realized that I didn’t need a passport. My experience in the Netherlands was much different than any other experience. The Netherlands showed me what it was to go with the flow, it showed me how to truly navigate and explore on my own, and it taught me how to better explain myself and concepts leading to deeper thinking. I was often asked where I was from and I would say the United States or Michigan, but that would only lead to people asking me “where are you really from?” or “where are your parents/grandparents from?” as if being Black from America wasn't possible. Without getting into who the true natives were, colonization and slavery it dawned on me that the term African American only exists in the Unites States, and that the teachings of slavery doesn’t always (rarely) mention how some people’s ancestry was stripped away from them hundreds of years ago. I stopped identifying as African American after being in the Netherlands, and became more well-spoken.

As I mentioned before, traveling is a privilege that I value wholeheartedly, and having the opportunity to travel abroad for school not once, but twice, is an even bigger privilege. I read that around 16% of baccalaureate students study abroad at some point during their program, and 6% are Black or African American students (compared to nearly 70% Caucasian). Those statistics don't sit well with me because the opportunities that I had have literally changed my perspective on the world and has given me cultural experiences that I would not have gotten elsewhere. My wish is for more people to have access to traveling and studying abroad, and to diversify the students that are studying abroad. I was able to see and experience multiple cities and countries during my travels because I was closer to certain places than I had ever been. It wasn’t easy to achieve or do, but I am so glad, grateful, and privileged to have done it. I may go into further detail about my experiences abroad in futures posts, but for now having gratitude towards being able to reminisce about amazing travel experiences near and far.

“Traveling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller” -Ibn Battuta (Berber-Moroccan scholar and explorer who widely travelled the Old World, traveling more than any other explorer in history)

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