A Personal Memoir & Life Advice by Skylar Killian
Ever find yourself sitting at your desk and wondering why you are here in this chair? “To learn!” you might respond, but that does not address the question proposed. So let us rephrase for a moment: Why are you here in this chair? Oftentimes, societal emphasis on completing a standard education, which typically includes four years of high school prior to college, blurs the line between passionate learning and learning spurred by pressure to participate academically until completion. Simply put, rigorous academic environments can stress learning in a way that makes it difficult for someone to have the space to recognize and pursue newfound passions. This space for exploration is necessary because it is key to the development of self identity. If you go through life like a robot, just making the grade, how are you ever supposed to really know who you are? The real point of education is not simply to become the perfect person with an ideal career–there is so much more to life. If you are constantly working for this big endgame, how much are you sacrificing along the way? How much time have you missed out on connecting with people and seeing the world from a different perspective? Don’t get me wrong. Performing well in school is important. I am only asking you to think about how you feel you are developing as a person outside of your academic pursuits. How are you finding meaning in your life?
Though I might not be found surrounded by math textbooks or wading in code, I can say with confidence that I love learning. In particular, applying newly retained knowledge is exciting and fulfilling. So, when I heard whispers about a Spanish immersion trip to Valencia, Spain, planned for the upcoming summer during my freshman year I was skeptical. Of course I love travel and the Spanish language and culture. However, I was hesitant. In fact, here are a few of the initial thoughts that came to mind: What if I end up with a strange host family? Will I be a part of a fun group? How will I order food in a restaurant? (I believe I envisioned how I would navigate this situation at least once every day after learning of my acceptance into the program.) Will conversation with my host family be interesting or awkward? Ultimately, I was accepted and committed to participating in the immersion program. Little did I know the great extent to which this experience would impact my life and both my global awareness and self-perspective.
Not only did I emerge with a clearer sense of identity, but I felt confident and open to healthy risk-taking. Throughout the immersion, I watched myself branch out and use my newfound independence to practice expressing myself articulately and employing effective communication skills. While the adventure went smoothly, that is not to say I did not embarrass myself on several occasions. Of the two most memorable awkward situations which come to mind, the first would be when I employed my best Spanish capabilities to inform my classmates of an embarrassing moment, only to learn I had mistakenly told them I was embarazada (pregnant), and proceeded to take a nap upon my arrival on the first night, only getting up and ready for school at one in the morning (the fact that the steak dinner served for “breakfast” did not phase me is still concerning). So there I was in Spain: dressed-up, backpack on, eating dinner for breakfast in the middle of the night, and supposedly pregnant! Yet, there is hope should one find themselves in a similar awkward situation: laughter. The second priceless moment took place when my host brother convinced me to get on an intense amusement park ride, throughout which we were dropped and spun in circles at intimidating heights. Your first thought might be, she must have screamed dramatically. And yes, that would be an accurate statement, but the true issue turned out to be my hair. Throughout the entire ride my hair was flipped over, completely covering my face, smothering me. Even though I faced cultural and linguistic challenges, and embarrassed myself in the process, I quickly understood that the more I engaged, the sharper my sense of personal happiness and excitement about life became. When I returned home, I felt refreshed, and a passion for cultural exploration sparked.
While I cannot speak for all those who have participated in an immersion program, one message remains clear: immersion provides the perfect platform for exploration and self-development. I am not here to advertise or glorify studying abroad; however, I am here to advocate for immersion as a part of the learning experience and understanding one’s identity. With reflection, I have distilled the benefits of immersion down to three unique aspects. The first being an opportunity to practice responsibility and embrace independence in an accountable manner. This means taking care of and advocating for oneself, in addition to communicating effectively with others to orchestrate support systems and establish reliable social connections. Secondly, immersion challenges participants to experience cultural discomfort and determine appropriate responses to specific obstacles they may face while being mindful of the community in which they are engaged. Feelings of discomfort might seem intimidating and unwanted, yet global awareness benefit those with broader perspectives as they become more accepting and develop valuable listening and engagement skills. Still feeling hesitant? Well, another benefit of immersion experiences, of which one should be aware, is the incredible boost in self-confidence such experiences encourage and supports. Placing oneself in a new environment wherein they choose to what extent they glean meaning from their adventure challenges one to take risks and reach out. Although I love public speaking and presenting, I have always been quieter in social interactions when I feel as though I cannot be my giggly, spunky self. As a result, I often feel compelled to change personas depending on the social scene and to carefully maneuver the manner in which I present myself in different circumstances. However, when I traveled to Spain, the weight of these barriers lifted. I felt light and content, focused on the adventure at hand and passionate about the trip. Since an immersion trip feels so foreign, it is natural for someone to focus solely on learning and exploring, ultimately losing track of trying to maintain some ideal social identity. The result can be a more genuine presentation of self and ultimately a more positive and authentic approach to life.
What does this mean for you? Studying abroad may not be feasible for everyone, but there are options to step back from the traditional academic pressures and to study in new environments locally, as well as abroad. Ultimately, placing oneself in a new, unique environment spurs personal growth and can be a refreshing pause for exploration in an otherwise busy schedule.