Rachael Goldberg, Study Abroad ’19, Northwestern ’20
Leading up to my study abroad experience in Paris, I constantly daydreamed about what it would be like to live in this hub of arts and culture. I vowed to explore every museum, church, bridge, and famous café. I pledged to spend my weekends brunching on the veranda of a café, roaming the Louvre, window-shopping on the Champs-Élysées, and picnicking under the Eiffel Tower. The reality of my study abroad experience, however, differed from the glossy expectations I had formed in my mind. I realized that sitting on the veranda of a café is not without constant trails of cigarette smoke, that store windows on the Champs are often blocked by swarms of people, and that picnics under the Eiffel Tower often involve harassment by those selling I <3 Paris keychains. I also realized that study abroad is so much more than brunch, museums, and picnics. While I am certainly grateful to have had these classic experiences, they did not turn out to be my most distinctive memories from my abroad experience.
Instead, my most distinctive memories double as ordinary moments. Twelve months later, I still remember watching my Russian friend try a Thin Mint for the first time. I remember wandering the aisles of the pharmacy with my roommate and wondering if we needed anti-aging cream at the age of 21. I remember scarfing down a Nutella crêpe from my neighborhood crêpe stand after every exam. I remember taking the Metro four stops too far. I remember eating 20 Chicken McNuggets on the floor with my roommate at 1 AM. I remember taking Buzzfeed quizzes while in line for the Musée d’Orsay. I remember adding parmesan to my pasta and accidentally dumping the entire contents of the shaker onto my plate. While these moments are seemingly mundane, they evoke intense nostalgia for my abroad experience.
There is pressure to have a life-changing study abroad experience. Study abroad is often marketed as an “aha” moment that engenders clarity about the world and one’s self. Some become inspired to change their major or career path, while others discover a new interest or skill. Yet, study abroad did not change me in a significant or recognizable way. I am still studying Economics and French, still working in finance after graduation, and still possess more or less the same interests. Nonetheless, I believe that my study abroad experience is valuable and worth sharing. For example, I gained confidence with the French language. I learned how to understand French memes, use slang, and hold a conversation with Uber drivers and waiters. Moreover, I gained independence. I learned how to cook meals other than pasta, remove a splinter, and navigate the Metro system and international travel. So, while study abroad didn’t “change” me, it was certainly my most enriching experience at Northwestern.
Study abroad is a unique opportunity to live and breathe the culture of another country for a few short months. It is too often that this experience is summarized in tropes, such as “Study abroad changed me,” or in glamorous Instagram stories. While it is commendable if study abroad does change you, it is equally admirable if it is simply an enjoyable or enriching experience. I am thankful that my experience resulted in newfound language proficiency, confidence, independence, friendships, and love of Paris.