On She Goes

The Benefits of Studying Abroad: Why It Was the Best Decision I Ever Made

I learned about the world outside my comfort zone.

Tojuana Riley
Tojuana Riley
June 12, 2017
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My love of traveling was instilled in me at a young age. I was born in Germany, due to my father’s military career, and lived there on two occasions, finally returning to the United States in the third grade when my father was stationed at a base in Arkansas. Exploring Europe every weekend was always an adventure. As a child, I didn’t know volksmarching through Germany’s Black Forest and camping trips in Italy were any different from the way many of my American friends grew up. It was a natural step to one day strike out on my own to experience the benefits of studying abroad.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took my first leap to live and study abroad in Cork, Ireland. I had never traveled internationally without my family and was both excited and anxious. What did it mean to travel abroad as a Black woman? How would I be treated? What if no one talked to me? Would men think I was cute? Thinking back to the amazing trips of my childhood, I put those questions aside and took a leap of faith. My decision to study abroad in a midsize city in southern Ireland was ultimately transformative and one of the best decisions of my life, because I learned so much about myself and experienced the world outside my comfort zone.

Dunguaire Castle in Galway, Ireland
photo by Tojuana Riley

Grew into my independence
For the first time, I wasn’t around an established group of friends. I met new people, but we didn’t share all of the same interests. This meant doing only activities we had in common or striking out on my own. So I did things I had never done before, such as dining out alone, eating burgers at Supermac’s or questionable Mexican food at Zanzibaar. It was uncomfortable at first and I felt like everyone was watching me, but I kept going out alone and learned to enjoy my own company.

While abroad I also backpacked through Europe for a month with a group of girls in my study abroad program, and this was the first time I felt like an adult, making my own decisions as I maneuvered through different countries and cultures. During the month, I returned to Germany, traversed the Scottish Highlands, lounged in the Provence countryside, and witnessed the election of a new Pope in Rome. That trip taught me one very important lesson about traveling. Pick your travel companions wisely. Don’t go on a trip with someone who you aren’t compatible with just to have a companion. It will backfire, and if it does, don’t be afraid to venture out on your own. While I enjoyed every leg of my trip, there were a number of heated disagreements over the smallest of things, such as where to eat. Because I was now more comfortable going out on my own, I did. If no one wanted to eat what I wanted or visit an area I was interested in, I went alone. My increased confidence allowed me to experience things I may have missed out on had I only stuck with the group.

Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
photo by Tojuana Riley

Put myself out there and attempted to date outside my type
Before living in Ireland I had only dated Black men. I wondered if the local guys would be interested in me with my wash-and-go Afro. At a pub I met an Englishman who was cute and made me laugh. We exchanged numbers and set up a date. He stood me up twice (first time for a bar fight; second time he was so drunk he forgot). At that point, I knew I should cut my losses. After collecting the remnants of my pride, I told him he was too busy (i.e., drinking) and we should stop trying. Thus began his daily routine of calling me at 2 a.m. He left several messages, sobbing loudly and begging me to give him another chance. “TJ, I love you, why won’t you let me love you?” “I want to make love to you, and I only ever wanted to be with you.” He finally stopped after a few weeks. For my trouble all I got was this story and exiled from my favorite pub. But I did try, so there’s that. Don’t worry, I did end up going on some great dates. Like when I went out with a local guy who picked me up at the library by joking about how much he loved my Irish accent. He wasn’t my type, especially because he was the outdoorsy type, but hanging out made me more open to dating other types of guys and less focused on putting them in predetermined categories and sticking to what I was used to.

Rediscovered the power of the written word
I shared my experience abroad through letter writing and snail mail. Taking to pen and paper was almost a foreign concept, having grown so accustomed to email. But with practice I began to enjoy organizing my thoughts on paper. Writing letters to friends and family helped me document and process my experiences. For example, when I was followed around the city for a couple of blocks by a large group of men, it helped to write to my friend who also was studying abroad and understood the fear, frustration, and anger of experiencing street harassment in a foreign country. Those letters also ensured that we didn’t lose touch, and it’s always nice to receive something in your mailbox other than bills. Anytime I was having a bad day or feeling especially homesick, I read those letters from my family and friends and felt closer to them.

Deepened my appreciation for a new (old) place
I attended University College Cork and took Irish language and history classes. While some exchange students focused primarily on the pub culture, I relished each class for the opportunity it provided. The Gaelic language course was my favorite. I learned the essentials, such as Irish pickup lines! My studies provided valuable context as I traveled to picturesque places like Torc Waterfall, Blarney Castle, Kinsale, Dingle Peninsula, Cliffs of Moher, Dunguaire Castle, and Northern Ireland. In class we learned about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and how some ethno-nationalist divisions still exist today, but visiting neighborhoods like Sandy Row and seeing the various loyalist-supporting murals on walls and houses there really brought the history to life. Studying abroad is a great opportunity to extend the learning outside the classroom and see history up close.

Studying abroad was more than just about learning curriculum in a new setting—it helped me to gain confidence that I may not have discovered in the security of a familiar place and familiar people. If you’re a student and you have the opportunity to study abroad, this is definitely something you should consider. I guarantee you’ll end up learning more than what’s between the covers of your textbooks and have some great memories and stories to share—and you may just surprise yourself.