Pretty much anyone I talked to before I left to study in London this semester told me that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that being truly immersed in another culture cannot happen after “real life” sets in. More importantly, they offered the insight that it would be an invaluable asset to set myself apart from others in post-graduate endeavors. Now, halfway through and reflecting upon it, I have concluded that time spent abroad is more valuable for personal growth and reflection than any other aspect of life.
Perhaps the clearest example I can offer as to how this experience has changed me comes in the smallest form of my weekly trips to the grocery store. While “back home” it takes no thought at all to hop in my car and head to the nearest store; in the worst case, should I forget something, it will take no time to go back. Now, making about a mile walk to and from the store, the importance of planning ahead and purchasing necessities only has given quite the impression of the ease and excess we enjoy. Efficiency was always a goal but not a necessity that I ever took into account; however, it has since become a requirement to keeping life as easy as possible. In line with that new outlook, too, is the space we take up in our lives. When I first entered my room here, roughly one-third the size of a regular hotel room, I thought it would be impossible for me to comfortably live in it for over a week, let alone three months. However, now that I have settled in and made use of the space, I realize how very little we really need and how comparably luxuriously most of us truly live.
While much of what I have learned has come from positive changes, there have been those that have come with quite a sting, as well. Perhaps the clearest of these has been the value of true friends and sharing life’s moments with them. When we are constantly surrounded by our loved ones, we take for granted how much their lives impact our own. Since I left, I have missed everything from homecoming events with my fraternity brothers to my brother-in-law learning that he passed the bar exam to my fianceé’s acceptance to pharmacy school. All of these, without the renewed perception of their value may have passed by as a mere blip on the course of life, but from the outside, without the chance to share in the excitement, their value has been magnified to an exponential degree. I have compared it to being in a type of stasis, seeing the lives of others, whom you interacted with daily, moving on without you is one of the most surreal experiences I could ever imagine.
Stretching this further to just our daily social interactions with our fellow man, it dawned on me how little we take advantage of all our opportunities. My first day riding the tube, it baffled me how so many people could be so close to one another yet not share even a word. When I got to my flat and reflected upon it, I came to the conclusion that it must be a European thing; surely in a similar situation our American hospitality would take over. The more I thought, though, the less sure I became. After all, even when we share common ground such as being in the same class, how frequently do we take the initiative to reach out to those we do not know? It has grown to be a challenge that I have given myself that I hope some readers will take up as well — grow comfortable in your ability to start conversations with complete strangers.
Lastly, but most importantly, I have learned the value of experiencing other cultures. While we in America have the fortune of sharing a “melting pot” of cultures, we are so massively spread out that we have the option to ignore all but our own. As condensed as the multitude of lifestyles prove to be in the United Kingdom, due largely to the inopportunity of space, this is shown to be an impossibility. In two of the three classes I am taking that are not reserved solely for Americans, we have students from six continents, with only Antarctica lacking representation. The shift from a national to global perspective is what has given me this opportunity to reflect on the lives that we all take for granted.
One difference that has made the largest impression on me is the importance of education. Seeing the sacrifices that those of other cultures are willing to take, in addition to the effort they put forth, for their education is absolutely marvelous. Following the discussion period of my very first class, I was held up for forty-five minutes to explain to a group of five or six students how the American government worked. It had nothing to do with any upcoming assignment or course discussion; they were merely curious and willing to take the time to talk and learn from each other to better understand the world in which we live. By comparison, the manner with which Americans typically take our education for granted, seeing it more as a chore than a means of fulfillment, left me with a feeling of guilt that I could never fully explain to those who have yet to experience it.
None of this is to say that I do not miss being home, quite the opposite actually. I cannot wait to bring this renewed outlook back with me. More importantly, I hope that this serves as an opportunity for you, the reader, to do some reflection as well. Experiencing another part of the world has been a gift that I hope to share with as many people as possible. The best way I know to do this is to say that anyone with the opportunity should take it up. Even if you have to wait until that dreaded “real life” milestone, do not pass up the chances to experience the world of which you are a part. Even if these opportunities take some time to appear, take my lessons and realize how very much we often take for granted.