This is a warning
Going abroad can have fundamental impacts on you as a person. It can change your perception of yourself and the world. Your personality and your opinions might never be the same as before. Keep this in mind when applying for a university exchange program or a job in another country. The outcome of your journey is unpredictable, so be aware of the risks. Also be aware that it could be the best choice of your life.
Sitting at Denver International Airport, I’m reflecting about what the US has done to me. We’ve just come back from the Northwestern Ski Trip – four days full of sun and snow that concluded my quarter of studies in the US. Only about 13 weeks have passed since my arrival on campus, but this short period of time has left its considerable impact on myself. Clearly, the period was too short for me to become a full American, so don’t worry European friends! Still, some of my thoughts and views have changed during the time here. Today, I want to share three changes that have taken place within my head while in the US.
English per default
From now on my level of English in these blog posts might slightly decline. I feel like I’m at a peak: During the last months I have acquired a fluency in this language I have never had before. Typing these sentences comes naturally, writing and speaking are almost automatized. A big challenge when arriving in a foreign country turns into a learning opportunity: The initial language barrier gradually becomes a routine, thoughts and dreams switch to English, the language brain adapts to the environment. It’s a wonderful learning experience full of challenges and successes.
Our brain, however, has limited capacity when it comes to languages. I learned this about two weeks ago when trying to reactivate my German. Writing an application for a scholarship program back home, I simply couldn’t enter the writing flow. As if I were writing an essay in a foreign language, I was using awkward sentence structures and was struggling to make my points. Apparently, switching your default language includes moving away from the old default. What I’ve also learned through this experience is the importance of constant practise. In Munich, I would never realize that I’m constantly practising German when writing or having conversations. Going abroad has made me appreciate what it means to master a language.
Improving language skills is clearly a bonus of going abroad. I’m less sure about the benefits of this next point though which I refer to as spending culture. To understand what I mean, one must first know that in Austria and Germany, saving money is highly encouraged. Just recently, I’ve discovered an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Germans keep on saving their money – even if it hurts”. The journalists described in disbelief to a US audience that this weird and big European country is full of people that simply keep their money instead of buying houses, taking Ubers and going on expensive ski trips.
Arriving in the US triggers a monetary culture shock for an Austrian brain that wants to save its Euros. Restaurants, supermarkets and outdoor clothing stores are just a few examples of places that are considerably more expensive than back home. As if this weren’t enough, students pay immense amounts of money for tuition, housing and dining on campus. At Northwestern University, one can almost feel the money flowing when fellow students buy their 5th Starbucks coffee per day or when on gets up in their 1300$-per-month-bed.
Our brains are experts at adapting to new situations and so my attitude slowly became more congruent with the spending culture. Spending 25$ on a meal doesn’t feel as bad anymore. Hearing people talk about the 6000$ they spend per university course doesn’t sound as ridiculous as at the beginning. Calling an Uber is almost a default action. Fortunately, I’m not yet wasting money, but I’ve lost some sensibility towards high prices. If everyone around you always buys and never questions the amount of money they spend, your brain will assimilate and become part of the spending culture.
Higher prices often have a reason. One of these reasons in the US is undoubtedly customer service. A company without 24/7 support and the most adorable voice at the other end of the hotline will soon go bankrupt in this country. Similarly, universities provide their students with all the staff and support they need, including specialized librarians and academic advisors. Resources are what you pay for and what you are supposed to use. Calling the library to ask when they are open even though Google would tell you within two seconds is not considered rude. Asking is encouraged and perceived positively.
Back home I would first try to figure everything out myself. At Northwestern, I’ve learned to use my resources instead. Quickly stopping by at the professor’s office, bombarding teaching assistants with emails and becoming friends with the online shop’s hotline lady – all of this was part of my routine in the States. Out of necessity, I’ve gotten used to asking and getting support faster instead of waiting until there’s no other way. It’s a new approach to solve problems in every day life that only works perfectly if there’s a certain level of customer service culture.
A new brain
We’re lucky that our brains can adapt so quickly to new cultures and environments. Subconsciously but surely, we pick up new ideas and thought patterns when we’re abroad. It’s unpredictable what will happen – we might resist some changes while embracing others. As mentioned in the warning message above: There is no way around some degree of adaptation. Wherever we go and whoever we interact with, there will always be an impact on us as a person. In my eyes, this is a unique chance to grow, to improve our understanding of the world and of ourselves.
Looking back at my time at Northwestern, I’m impressed how much it has broadened my horizon. Language, Money and Resources are just three examples among many new perspectives that I have acquired. In the end, I guess that learning is exactly that: Discovering new ways to look at the world. Going abroad is therefore a highly effective learning experience. Maybe it’s the best one existing.