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“So why did you decide to study abroad?”

This is actually a question I was never asked. In Claremont, we default on off-campus study. I’ve heard the question, “Why did you decide not to study abroad?” much more often. In many ways, this is something I love about our community – independence, adventurousness, and willingness to push oneself are qualities we expect to see in our peers. So much so, that when someone plans to leave campus for a semester, we never question why.

But there’s a certain danger in forgoing the “why study abroad” question. It allows us to embark on our abroad experiences without knowing what we want to take from the journey. It makes it too easy to fall into familiar patterns even when we leave our familiar place. It leaves us without objective.

By the time a friend finally asked me, “So why are you here?” I was already four weeks into my program and seven weeks into my time in South America. I realized I didn’t have a good response to this question. I had to figure out some answers on the spot. I knew what I had not left all of my friends and travelled 5,000 miles to do (drink with other Americans, visit and revisit Plaza Serrano, blow off my schoolwork for applications back home), and I knew what I had been doing so far (mostly the actions previously mentioned).

I also knew what had been missing from my education and life in Claremont: I wanted to learn from non-ethnocentric perspectives. I wanted to understand the experiences of people who had lived vastly different lives than my own. I wanted to find a stronger sense of direction and purpose.

More than anything, I wanted to change.

So as my habits abroad began resembling my habits from home, I found new habits. I spent more time getting to know Argentines. I started to engage with them in conversations about everything from cultural nuances to Western imperialism. I threw myself more deeply into my schoolwork, rehashing lectures with my friends from diverse academic backgrounds. I allowed myself to think more deeply about  my post-collegiate plans, and the consequences those plans might have for the world at large. For the first time, I really considered my role and duty as a person born into immense privilege, and began to make meaningful changes in the way I think and live. Some changes were small, like focusing on purchasing on purchasing on sustainable food and fair trade clothing. Others were larger, like a complete reimagining of my post-graduation plans.

But I was lucky. I was prodded by a well-designed program that pushed me academically, and even more so by one friend who asked hard questions and refused to take “I haven’t really thought about it” as an answer.

So now I call upon those of you preparing for abroad adventures to ask similar questions to yourselves: “Why am I going? What do I want to get out of this? How do I want this to change me?” You won’t be able to answer specifics, but you can at least get a general idea. The answers you draft will transform your experience from “that time I got a bunch of stamps on my passport” to “that time I learned and grew more in four months than I thought I could in four years.” The onus is on you to make your experience meaningful.