Studying abroad is no vacation

According to the Institute of International Education, just more than 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year.

Rita Yeung | Daily Trojan

That’s all of North America. We’re at USC, where the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences alone has 52 different study abroad programs in 28 different countries.

These places can range from somewhere as exotic as Costa Rica to a bustling city like Beijing. The Study Abroad office offers destinations in 48 different majors.

Chances are, almost everyone has thought of going overseas.

This consideration could range from reading up on actual programs to watching the movie Eurotrip‚ and thinking Eastern Europe wouldn’t be so bad for a semester.

Either way, it’s an easy notion to entertain.

What doesn’t cross most peoples’ minds is the preparation that studying abroad entails.

More specifically, I’m talking about that awkward window of time when everyone’s back on campus and you’re‚ well, probably at home, packing. Unless you’re one of the few people who plans to study abroad multiple times and has gone before, you’re gearing up for an experience you still don’t understand.

But your program should let you know what you’re getting into, right? To some extent.

Although the glossy brochures help you visualize the experience, you can’t expect the basic details of your trip to be set in stone.

For example, the two central components of my trip are still giant question marks.

My destination is Amsterdam. I know I’ll be taking classes, but I have no idea what they are. I know I’ll be living with a host family, but again, I have no idea who they are.

This is the first time my program has let students pick a non-dorm option, and so far, staffers haven’t seen it necessary to give me my new family’s contact information.

With no friendly e-mails for reassurance, I can only ask: What if they hate me? What should I bring them from the United States? What if I turn up at the airport and they ditch me? Yikes.

The lack of information has taught me the first lesson of studying abroad: No matter how excited you were when you applied, at some point, you’re going to end up terrified.

For many people, that point comes as soon as they land. For others, it’s a month or more into the  experience.

I’ve heard of a honeymoon period when everything about the host country seems sparkly and magical‚ until you get lost in 10-degree weather and can’t read the street signs. In my case, that point is now.

But fear of uncertainty should not stop any student from going abroad.

When you choose to spend a semester in another country, you essentially make yourself grow up a little. That fact might be more obvious for those studying in countries where running water isn’t a given, but even more urban destinations require a maturity boost.

We’re all going to grow one way or another. It’s a privilege to be able to make that growth a conscious choice, one pre-packaged with college credit and a résumé booster.

After all, most growing experiences involve no warning or organized selection. Life slaps you in the face and expects you to deal.

Maya Itah is a junior majoring in communication and international relations.

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