Self-Identity and Studying Abroad

In Conversations
Students who go abroad usually come back and talk about how their experience was “life changing.” I wanted to explore further. Why do the students feel they’ve changed and how? I focused on how students think that the specific country where they studied may have changed and influenced them. I also explored how these students thought they may have adjusted as travelers. The students I interviewed had the general consensus that they learned to adapt to their living situations and through this gained confidence.  

Elena Soyer: Valparaíso, Chile

Elena in Chile

Elena is a sociology major and Spanish minor. Elena told me it was nice to finally use her Spanish speaking skills in a real life situation. By living with a family in Chile, she learned to adapt to different routines and live with a family that was not her own.  “Lunch was an eight-hour ordeal on Sundays,” she explained, and “I also learned to drink tea because tea-time was a thing.” Elena told me that she learned that she does not mind doing things on her own. Multiple times in Chile she was on her own and was surprised to discover how much she valued this alone time and gained confidence from this. For instance, she normally wouldn’t have been comfortable asking strangers questions in Spanish, but she said, “when you are on your own and need to ask for directions in Spanish, you will.”

Besides changing her daily routine, Elena also found herself changing her physical appearance. She told me how she felt like she was clearly a tourist with her Birkenstocks and shorts. Now, she told me, “I find myself wearing hiking boots more casually, since that was something the Chileans did. They also wore fanny packs regularly, but I have a hard time wearing fanny packs casually in America.” She also told me about the shift in social scenes from Wooster to Chile. In Chile they stayed out really late and slept in late, which was something she does not normally do.

Spending a semester in Chile has given her a desire to experience more places. She explained to me, “I traveled a little and got a taste for it and now want to travel a lot more.” She told me how she does not know what she wants to do more between traveling to other places around the world or going back to South America. She believes that a big part of the connection she gained with Chile had to do with staying with a family. Also she was there for Chile Independence day which is a very big celebration. They had a family barbecue that lasted from sun up to sun down for three straight days. At the barbecue they played games, such as throwing darts at Chilean political figures. She and her Chilean family went to a fair called “Las Ramadas” which consisted of carnival games and rides. She also learned the Chilean national dance, “Cueca.”  Elena experienced the Chilean festivities with her family and through these activities felt a stronger connection with Chile.

Grace Gamble: Cape Town, South Africa

-Grace in South Africa


Grace went abroad last semester and told me stories of how she gained confidence in her leadership skills. She was living completely alone, which meant doing things by herself that she had not done before, such as buying her own groceries and learning the public transportation system. She said that this was especially hard since she was not with any of her really good friends. Grace was also put into situations where she had to be more adaptable, which she believes she has now learned to be, such as eating food she would not normally eat and adapting to a new living situation. She told me that based on her living situation, she learned how to function independently.

Grace thinks that her personality has changed from her time abroad because she has become outgoing. She also said that she became independent and more comfortable articulating her opinion, which has improved her problem solving skills. The first week she was selected as the “chief . . .essentially the mediator between the students and the staff.” She now understands that people are all raised differently and based on that have different worldviews.

This was Grace’s second time in South Africa. The first time she went with her family and had more of a touristy experience. From this last time, she now feels a stronger connection because of the people she met. Grace also feels a connection because she now loves the history and culture of South Africa. She believes that her experience helped her become more of a traveler. Over winter break she went on a trip to Florida and a trip to Colorado. “I love traveling; I went on 21 planes last year, which is crazy!”

Peter Olson: Cork, Ireland


Peter studied abroad in what he called the perfect, quaint size city for him. Cork is the second largest city in Ireland after Dublin, with a population of only 119, 230 people. He gave me an American city to compare it to, “It puts it into perspective when you realize that Cork is about the same size as Akron, Ohio.”  However, by living in a city on his own, he also learned the struggles of independence. He told me that this was his first time being the “sole source” for all of his food, and first time he “had no parents or dining hall to feed me.” Peter’s independence forced him to become more organized and helped him gain confidence.

Two habits of his also changed: drinking and studying. He explained that in Wooster, he only drank on weekends. He also only drank in dorm rooms, but in Ireland he drank in quaint pubs almost every day. He told me “the pub culture was a different way of drinking that I wasn’t used to.” Casually drinking a pint during the evening hours was not something that he had ever done before, which  became a part of his everyday life in Ireland. As for his study habits, he explained to me how classes and studying are very different in Cork than in Wooster. “In Cork my classes were all lecture-based and had no discussion-based classes,” he explained. As an English and Philosophy double major at Wooster, Peter was used to class discussions in the Wooster classroom setting rather than lecture-based classes.  

He told me that traveling around Ireland and Europe during his study abroad experience has helped him to become less nervous about traveling and thus has made traveling more enjoyable. He told me how he “made some mistakes, but now has learned from them.” He shared a story with me about how he missed his bus once to go back home to Cork and ended up having to pay for another night in a hostel in Galway. “I now know to give myself a lot more time to get to bus stops.” Peter would love to go back to Ireland; he really misses the beautiful countryside and culture. He concluded the interview with, “I like the people that I met there and feel a connection with the music and pub culture. Beyond the culture, it’s such a beautiful country.”

Camille Christenson: Nepal, Jordan, and Chile
Camille in Jordan

Camille traveled with a group of American students to three different countries with a program focused on education and human rights.  Camille,a history major, had previously learned about human rights only in the context of United States and Europe; as a result of her experiences abroad, she now has a broader understanding of the ways people can generalize human rights laws. “Culture really shapes human rights,” she notes, adding that some countries tend to be ethnocentric, assuming that their own understanding of human rights is the only correct understanding.

When I asked Camille what she learned about herself from her time abroad, she told me that she now feels passionately that “everyone deserves the right to education.”  When we talked about her experience as a traveler, she said,  “I have a passion for actually traveling because I learn best from experience rather than an outside perspective.” She has also found that through her travels her personality has changed; “other people have seen it as well,” she adds; “I have more confidence and more ability to articulate my thoughts.” She also told me how she now realizes how stupid small school drama is, since she did not have to deal with it while she was abroad. She likes spending time learning about world news, rather than campus news.  Also, because of the events in the Middle East and the connection she feels, Camille told me that she finds herself checking CNN more often.

Camille never stayed in one country for more than a month, so she never found herself changing too much about herself. However, she did find herself changing the way she dressed in Jordan because she was afraid of getting cat called. In Nepal she learned to eat with her hands and in both Nepal and Jordan she changed her habits with water usage because both countries are short on water supply. She learned how to adapt to each country’s situation and from that gain respect for the people living in these countries.       

When I asked Camille if she felt like she had a connection with any of the countries she studied abroad, she told me, “Mostly Jordan because of the events happening in the Middle East.” While Camille was in Jordan, she met with Syrian refugees and promised them she would make the U.S more aware of the situation happening in Jordan with the Syrian Crisis. She concludes, “I’ve been trying to keep that promise.”

Grace Shannon: Freiburg, Germany
Grace in Germany

Grace is a German major and went to Freiburg for the language immersion program. Grace lived with German people and  from her living situation learned how to interact with people who grew up very differently than her. She told me that by living in a different country she learned to appreciate the more day to day things she had in America, such as, being able to talk to strangers in English and the comfort of close friends. However, from these changes, she learned to adapt and gained self-confidence. She realized that moving to a different country on her own was something she could do and enjoy. “Moving to a foreign country on my own didn’t seem plausible until I actual just did it and now I can see myself doing it again.” Since being back from abroad she has become more adventurous because of her positive experience.       

I asked Grace if she found herself changing her habits in order to fit into the German culture. She told me about how Germans seem to be consistently on time to everything, which she was not used to in America. “I was forced to become more prepared to be on time to things; Germans are very punctual people,” she noted.  Grace learned to embrace the German culture. She explained to me, “I had a good experience learning from German professors and enjoyed the academics. I would like to go back and learn more.”  

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