It’s no exaggeration to say that you rule your campus. You know—to the second—what time you have to wake up so that you have just enough time to run to the cafeteria to grab a latte and banana before jetting off to your first class of the day and sliding into your seat just as Professor McChatterson launches into one of his epic speeches.
You’ve plotted out which parts of the library have your optimal studying conditions (not too loud and not too quiet, with snacking spots no further than a three-minute walk away in any direction).
And, of course, you know exactly who throws the best parties every Friday (and maybe the occasional Tuesday, too—just because).
You’ve worked hard to achieve this level of expertise, so why would you want to throw it all away? One big reason to leave the comfy confines of the campus bubble is to experience the big, wide world that’s out there, especially on a semester or year abroad.
Guest writer Chau Le shares how her time studying abroad in Taiwan helped her to become more independent, decide she hated her major, and start the process of finding her true calling.
Part 1: In which I took the plunge and moved to Taiwan
With my duffel bag stuffed to the point of popping, I breezed through the airport’s security, sad to be waving good-bye to my family, but excited to be living a lifelong dream in the next 24 hours. I was 19, and thought I knew exactly what I would get out of studying abroad in Taiwan for the year.
And I learned a lot—just nothing I expected.
Now at 22 and in the process of searching for a job, I’ll admit that I am behind some of my peers who moved from student to employee barely after removing their graduation cap and gown. Do I regret “wasting” some of my precious college years to spend time in another country when I could have been cramming in more classes, writing more papers, and doing more internships instead? I have very few regrets in my life, and studying abroad (twice) is not one of them. By living alone and away from family in Taiwan for nearly a year, I matured ten times faster than I would have back home; I was forced out of my comfort zone.
Whenever someone tells me that he or she plans on studying or living abroad, I say, “Go!” There is no substitute to living on your own, being forced to call a cab in a different language, haggle at the market, buy clothes in different sizing, or commit a cultural faux pas such as scrubbing your host mother’s tea cup clean (a big no-no in Taiwan: the older and darker the tea stains, the stronger the luck).
Part 2: In which I decided to change my major
When I left for Taiwan, I was a Chinese Language major—all my life, I’d been dreaming of learning how to read, write, and speak that exotic, beautiful language. I envisioned translating manuscripts and leaders’ speeches, writing poetry… But within three months of being abroad and studying Chinese six hours a day, five days a week, I logged onto my university homepage and frantically clicked “change major.”
Spending 30 hours a week doing what I thought I loved—translating, writing, and speaking Chinese day in and day out—made me realize that that was the last thing I wanted to do for a career, to be cooped up by myself. There was no reward or pleasure in the process. I didn’t want to stay in and study all day, and realized: I was always the one to walk steadfastly into a restaurant and order whatever I could pronounce. I was the one arguing at street markets for a lower price. I was the one coordinating and planning student gatherings on campus. Suddenly it was clear that my career, however then-undefined, was definitely not going to be in a field where I would be by myself with only a blank piece of paper to keep me company.
Why is this important? If I hadn’t been forced out of my comfort zone, learning 500 characters a week, hailing a cab at 2am, I would never have learned about these great distinctions in my personality and character.
When my mother flew several thousand miles to visit me, we climbed out of the cab and she turned to me and said with parental pride: “You’ve grown more independent since being here.”
The point is, you can learn new things anywhere you go, but when you’re forced into a zone with no signs or guides, you’re going to learn a lot faster—going abroad isn’t to get away from family or to party your life away, but for the opportunity to do something you’d never thought of before. Living abroad allows you to find out, whether you want to or not, who you are: it unearths a part of you that you probably never knew existed.
Part 3: In which I figured out how this applies to my career—and yours
The most common, and perhaps wisest advice that everyone will tell you is to “Try it out.” Whether this is to see if you’ll like the new job, (cough) new boyfriend, or simply to test out a new product’s capabilities, trying things out is the only way to really know if they’re a good fit. Maybe your doubts were just fears and you actually love Chinese food, or maybe that fantasy of living in Italy and eating pizza every day really isn’t all that great when you experience it in real life. No one can predict or dictate how you’ll like something. Just do it.
By living abroad, I found out that I was not cut out for the career I always envisioned, and moved closer to the industry that seems like a better fit now (Communications and PR). Living abroad also taught me independence and fast decision-making skills—with all the support I had while back home, I was never forced to make quick decisions. That all changed when I landed in a city where traffic laws didn’t exist and had to relearn how to cross the street.
Most importantly, in recent job interviews I realized that besides talking about skills, the interviewers always want to talk about my experiences abroad. Where and why did I learn Chinese? What was the scariest or most exhilarating experience I had there? The better insight you have into yourself, the easier it is to make connections and conversation (even in the terrifying format of a job interview), and the better a picture you’ll paint of who you are and what you can contribute to a company.
So whether you’re just considering the idea, or have already bought your ticket, leave all the doubts at home, because spending time abroad will not hinder your future career— it will only help you find another piece of you.
Homework time! If you’ve already spent time abroad, make sure that you find ways to reflect that in your cover letters and on your résumé. Think of a few anecdotes you can share in job interviews that help explain what you learned and how you grew during your time abroad.
If you’re thinking of going abroad, check in with your international center and your alumni relations team. They should be able to put you in touch with other students who’ve studied abroad in the past so you can get helpful hints and insight from them.