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How to Talk About Your Study Abroad Experience

Studying abroad. It's intense, life-changing, mind-blowing, and unforgettable. It can also be frustrating, disappointing, and intimidating. My semester in Alicante has been all of these things, and now that it's over, I find myself wondering how I can share my experiences, in all their variety, with my family and friends at home. How can I possibly answer that well-meaning relative who asks, "So, how was it?" What can I say that will somehow tie in the highs and the lows, the moments of joy and of anxiety, the adventures and the friendships that have impacted me so much? I'm still trying to figure out the answers to those questions, but here are a few tips that have come to my mind as I've been processing my experience. Hopefully these will come in handy both for study-abroad alums like me, and for family and friends eager to welcome home their world traveler.

1. Be specific.
When talking about your study abroad experience, it can be easy to simply say, "It was great! I learned a lot! I had fun!" While this may be true, oftentimes what your friends and family want to hear are stories with a little more substance, that bring your experience to life for them since they didn't get to be there with you. The most rewarding conversations I've had about my semester in Alicante have been the ones where I can share details. For instance, a friend asked me about the strangest thing I ate while in Alicante, and that question sparked a conversation full of laughter and memories. Of course, you can't (and probably don't want to) share specific stories with every person who asks. Sometimes, overarching statements are best. But keep in mind that people who ask the most interested questions will probably enjoy the most interesting answers.
 I enjoyed telling my friend about the time I tried fried calamari
in a pinchos bar in Northern Spain

2. Be honest.
Living and studying in another country is more than just a vacation. That became more and more clear to me as time went by, although when I first arrived in Alicante, I did feel like I was living a charmed life in paradise. For me, though, the moments that touched me most deeply were times in which I caught glimpses of the truth of the place and the people, the way things really are, how people really live. These were times like sitting in a cafe listening to my Spaniard friends talk about politics, education, and their somewhat uncertain future. Like watching garbage pile up on the city streets because city employees were on strike for higher wages. Like reflecting in class not only on Spanish culture, but also on my own culture and how it's only one in a vast, beautifully diverse world. The nitty-gritty reality of the country in which you study abroad is a vitally important study-abroad experience. For me, telling people about my time in Alicante has had so much more integrity when I've been able to talk honestly about it, and not merely recount my trip as though I'd spent three months at a resort.
 Me with my Spanish friends, Tomas and Maria, from whom
I learned a lot about life in Spain

3. Be humble.
More and more, and especially since I've returned, I've realized that studying abroad is a privilege. The chance to see the world doesn't come along every day, nor does everyone get that chance. For me, when I tell others about the trips I took, the beauty I saw, and the place I lived, I try to express how thankful I am. It's my goal not to take any of these experiences for granted, and to thank the people who have helped me achieve this dream!

4. Be you.
I'm not the first or the last to say it, but I believe that traveling changes you. I'm not saying I'm a different person after these three months, but I know that my experience in Alicante has shaped me and molded me in ways that I never could have imagined, and that I may not even be fully aware of. For this reason, I'm going to keep talking about it, keep telling stories, keep living with the sense of adventure and value of each day that I gained abroad. These are all parts of me now, and I want to show the world!
 My time in Alicante has forever broadened my world!

Hillary Harder is the Spring 2014 CEA MOJO in Alicante, Spain. She is a junior at Goshen College.

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