Abroad Blog of the Week: Suitcase on the Sidewalk

As someone who went on the same study abroad program three times, I always love to see students who just can’t study abroad enough. Haley from Suitcase on the Sidewalk fits that description perfectly. Now on her third of four overseas programs, I think Haley is the most “studied abroad” student I’ve come across. With a year in India, a semester in Ghana, currently in Buenos Aires, and now planning her semester in Prague, Haley is definitely experienced and adventurous in her travels. She has now been blogging for over a year and her posts cover everything from Argentine graffiti, to homesickness, to her series, Wanderlust Wednesdays. I was fortunate to catch up with Haley and ask her all about her study abroad adventures. Here’s what she had to say:

How did you choose your study abroad locations?

I can’t really take credit for choosing India; the Rotary program that I was selected for reserves the right to send you whenever they want or need to. They asked me where I wanted to go and I said, “Anywhere, as long as you send me!” My flexibility landed me a spot in the program, and was I eventually given a few choices off the beaten path. I picked India for the culture, for a taste of the exotic, but where I could still speak English.  (That part wasn’t so adventurous.)

As for my college study abroad locations, I still wanted to pick places that were less common, that I knew less about.  All the places I am studying have a campus for my college, so it feels a little like cheating. Language and classes have played a huge part in where I chose to go.  For Ghana, it had a lot of classes I wanted- a fine arts minor, some post-colonial studies classes, and it was a chance to see some of Africa. Argentina was a chance to explore South America, and to work on my Spanish.  I’ll be heading to Prague next semester, and I am actually following a specific teacher there, but there is some language flexibility and the chance of exploring Europe.  I have friends in Germany and Hungary I am hoping to visit!

Now that you’re in your third country, has the adjustment process gotten easier for you?

The adjustment is definitely less stressful, though it’s exhausting and scary every time I get on a place.  I’m luck that my friends and family are used to me traveling, and so I don’t need to email or skype all the time.

The best part of having some experience is knowing how to manage my time and my resources, so I don’t feel as overwhelmed my first few weeks. I have a more clear sense of my priorities- for me, going out to party is less important than traveling and exploring my new home.  I do some research and pre-plan some things I want to do, which I think isn’t as common but helps me feel grounded.

I’ve also seen my fair share of travel disasters- pick-pocketing and getting lost and being lost in translation- and I am still here to tell the tale.  That gives me a lot of confidence, even though sometimes I have no idea what I am doing!

From your post on 5 things to remember when studying abroad, what is the most difficult for you?

Never say no!  A dear friend from Rotary gave me that mantra and it has always served me well.  But I still sometimes find myself not buying a sandwich because I’m nervous to order in Spanish, or something equally squeamish.  The golden rule of study abroad is really “what you give is what you get,” and if all you give is “no,” you’ll find yourself only receiving “no” in return.  Saying ‘yes!” can be scary but I very rarely regret it- instead I end up with better experiences, better memories, and a better education in the cultural exchange.

How do you maintain relationships from home, India, and Ghana?

It’s not easy.  I had to make a resolution that I wouldn’t let the distance ruin my relationships with the people I care about.  My family is great, and at this point they treat my going away to study in another country the way other parents treat going to school a few hours away. I still miss them but the Internet is a life-saver, and now I can text my mom from Argentina with a smart phone.  How lucky am I? I also email my host families in India every few months.   It takes a long time for us to go back and forth, but we manage.

Friendships are harder, and take more work for me.  I have friends not just from my hometown, but from New York City (where I go to school), and also all the places I’ve lived.  Facebook is invaluable, as is email and skype, but what it really comes down to is putting in the work to maintain those relationships. I’ve learned I can’t expect people to chase me. I have to be the one to say, “I’m really interested in what you’ve been up to, can we catch up?”  I spend at a couple hours a week skyping and facebook-ing friends; for me it’s time well spent.

Looking back, what advice would you give yourself before all your adventures started?

Don’t be scared!  So many people allow fear to dictate their travel experiences- fear of being embarrassed, fear of failing, fear of the unknown.  I travel specifically because it scares me, and I think its important to face those fears and explore what the world has to offer.  My biggest fear when traveling is always looking stupid, which is the worse reason to not do something that I can think of- I’m still trying to outgrow it.  It would be much more reasonable to fear bodily harm or strangers, but India got rid of both of those fears.  I am constantly grateful that I took a gap year alone somewhere far away- I had so much time to mess up and recover and learn, and it was so different from everything I ever knew, that I can brush off a lot the fears that come with study abroad for the first time in college.   Aside from looking stupid, my greatest fear is not using my time abroad to my best advantage, and the two usually balance out well.

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