Published: Feb. 5, 2018 By

student studying abroad

What is study abroad? Six months ago, study abroad seemed to me like a huge commitment that I couldn’t afford and that would certainly delay my graduation.

Then I talked to the study abroad office on a whim, and found out that almost all of my financial aid went abroad with me, that there were places I could travel that were cheaper than going to CU Boulder for a semester, and that with planning I could still graduate in four years. When I was officially accepted into the exchange program to Madrid, it felt like a commitment to some vague daydream where I walked around ancient cities and posted beautiful photos on my non-existent Instagram. Three months ago, my classes were starting to wind down, and I headed to L.A. with my mom and picked up my student visa. Navigating the airport, I despaired of my chances of arranging a trip to Madrid alone. One week ago I arrived, here, in Spain. That single week has been one of the most chaotic, stressful, beautiful, sad, and life changing weeks I’ve ever experienced. I don’t pretend to be an expert on travel, or studying abroad (I’ve only been here a week, after all) but I’d like to share a story to help describe my study abroad experience so far.

Studying abroad is a bit like getting a haircut in a foreign country. I know, it’s a weird metaphor. Stay with me here. Getting a haircut in a foreign country can be intimidating. If you’re like me, you walk past the store knowing that you should probably go in, that it’s getting to the point where you have to deal with your hair. And just like when I put off getting a haircut until my hair was in my eyes, procrastination is your biggest enemy with study abroad - not looking into your options early can make it much harder to get the chance to travel. But then what? Well, going back to our extended metaphor, I went into the barbershop. I quickly realized that while my limited Spanish vocabulary included necessities like “How much does this cost?” and “I like that white cat,” it was woefully short on specific descriptors of my usual haircut. It was a new situation, in a new place, with a new language, and I had no idea of how to face it. So when this nice barber asked me how I wanted my hair cut, did I want him to use a razor, should he use the straight razor, etc, I calmly did not panic and said the only truly important thing I knew how to convey.

“¿Cómo quiere que se lo corte?” How would you like your hair cut?

“Más corto. Por favor.” Shorter, please. He laughed, and pointed to his own hair.

“¿Como aquel?” Like this?  He asked me, and I nodded.  So without asking me anything else, he began to trim my hair. And I didn’t know exactly how the haircut would turn out. Would I look close to my usual style? How would this change how the world saw me? Would this haircut, perhaps, even change how I saw the world? Was I going to regret my decisions for the next six months as my newly shaved head grew back hair? The haircut turned out excellent, by the way, perhaps my favorite yet. Which is maybe less about the actual haircut, and more about how I’m proud and amused every time I see it. It’s amazing how much confidence facing down uncertainty gives you. And my study abroad experience - everything from dropping my map onto the subway tracks as I left the airport, to meeting my eleven flatmates, to being perpetually lost, to getting a haircut - has certainly held its share of uncertainty. So to those of you considering studying abroad, all I can say is this: the adventures are worth the uncertainty. And if not, the stories are.