¡Hola amigos! With just a few more weeks left in this beautiful country, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on things I’ve learned, my growth, and how I’ve changed since arriving. While it’s difficult to name all of the ways I’ve changed (I’m sure to discover changes once I return to Holland), I’m going to try my best to generalize these changes so that all study-abroad students can relate.
First of all, there will be physical changes after studying abroad. I’m near the equator, but no matter how much sunscreen I wear, I inevitably became more tan. If you’re used to living in a sunny climate and study abroad in a cloudier, sun-less climate then you’re likely to return to your home country with a paler, lighter complexion.
Next, depending on how well (or not) you eat in your host country, you’ll most likely either gain or lose weight. At the beginning of our program, our directors told us that in most cases women tend to gain weight and men tend to lose weight. But all of that depends on how well you treat your body and your overall mental health. For example, if you’re having a hard time adapting to a new environment you might have a loss of appetite for new foods and lose weight. Or you might have sleepless nights adjusting to the jet-lag and new sleeping sounds (for me, it was all of the cars honking and gas trucks beeping at 6 A.M. every morning).
Lastly, you might gain a new scar or two depending on the different adventures you embarked on in your host country. I have a ton of scabs on my legs that will eventually scar over from scratching all of my bug bites. If you’ve witnessed something traumatic in your host country, then you’ll likely be left with an emotional scar as well (this should be dealt with by seeking counseling provided by your host school or home school upon return to the U.S.). This leads me to the next set of changes…
Studying abroad is one of the greatest ways to mature, grow in your knowledge of cultures beyond your own, and become open to new ways of thinking. Even if you travel to a country with a culture similar to your own (i.e. a mexicana studying abroad in América Latina… en Ecuador), you’ll still be able to learn more about your own culture and the new culture you’re immersed in.
In my own experience, I thought it would be easy studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country because of my Mexican background. What I learned is that although the two countries share many Latin American customs, they each have their own dialects and ways of thinking.
I’ve also found some similarities between United States culture and Ecuadorian culture, so I find that interesting as well. I think that because I come from a Latina background, I was able to adapt faster to the culture here than most of my other classmates who came from different backgrounds in the U.S.
Lastly, my classmates and I have changed mentally by learning about the history, environment, and language of this country, but we’ve learned most from the daily interactions we have with Ecuadorians. If it’s possible to stay at a homestay in your host country when studying abroad, I would highly encourage you to do so. You’ll be surprised how much you learn from your homestay family about the culture and from hearing about your classmates’ homestays. Plus, if your ideologies clash with theirs you’ll have a great opportunity to learn from a different perspective (but if you really can’t get along, you can always inform a program director and they can find a better homestay for you)!
One amazing thing about living in the U.S. (and especially in Holland, MI) is that you usually aren’t concerned about your safety. We have awesome security forces that work to maintain our safety at all times. Living in a country where security can be an issue will teach you (just as it has taught me) to be more aware of your surroundings and cautious.
It’s important to take care of oneself, so when you travel to a new country keep in mind that there will be different threats than ones that you are used to back at home. In Holland, I’m alert for the occasional tornado watch or winter storm alert. I practiced fire drills and safety drills in case of a school attack from an armed stranger. In Ecuador, I had to keep in mind that I was surrounded by a few active volcanoes that may or may not erupt while I was here. I also had to make sure that I looked out for my personal safety and belongings whenever I left the house because of the pick-pocketers in the big city. Besides that, we were warned about potential earthquakes although we did not imagine that a serious one would ever occur while we were studying abroad here.
What I want to say is that there are dangers everywhere, but depending where you are in the world the dangers might be different. Studying abroad has taught me that you should do everything in your control to stay safe, but there are just some circumstances that are out of your control that you may have to deal with. Try your best to stay positive and take everything as a learning experience; these are the things that will end up changing you.
The last type of change you will likely face is a change in spirituality. Think about how religions are different all over the world and how your religion may not be the dominant one in your host country. It’s okay not to actively practice your religion at a place of worship if there aren’t any places nearby where you can do that.
However, if you do find it easy to practice your religion in your host country, then do so… and learn more about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep learning about something you care so deeply about. If you feel like spreading the word, then do so, but keep in mind that others may have completely different ways of viewing the world, religion, and spirituality. Just be respectful.
Along with that, you can also learn about new religions from your host country. It’s always exciting to see how people think and view life and death in a different culture or religion. It’s even more exciting when you can find ties between two or more religions in one single religion. Connecting a new religion to your own can expand your way of thinking and can also help you see that we are all connected in one way or another. After all, todos somos humanos.
I hope that you can relate to some of the changes I’ve experienced. For those of you who haven’t studied abroad (yet), I hope this helps prepare you for the journey you have ahead. Para todos, ojalá que hayan aprendido sobre mis experiencias de intercambio.
Final note: I would like to dedicate this post to the people of Ecuador after living through one of the most destructive earthquakes to strike the country. The Ecuadorian northwest coast is mostly destroyed leaving many people in need of assistance, supplies, food, and shelter. Any donations are helpful while the country begins to rebuild itself and continue to search for people under the rubble. I’m asking for any kind of help for my host country. There are a few websites where donations can be received: My.Care.org, Generosity.com, WorldVision.org, and YouCaring.com (this site donates directly to the town of Canoa which faced a lot of destruction). Thank you ahead of time for your generosity and donations and for helping a country that has found a place forever in my heart! Muchas gracias por todo #UnidosConEcuador #PrayforEcuador