Lessons Learned from a Study Abroad Like No Other

Note: The Spring 2020 semester was interrupted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Participants returned home in the middle of the semester and continued their studies remotely. Spring 2020 participants continued writing blog posts after returning home, both reflecting back on time in their host country and describing their experience with remote learning.

How many people can say they have been evacuated from a foreign country and forced to leave within 48 hours? Unfortunately, I can. Nearly two months earlier than intended, the COVID-19 pandemic brought me home from Baku, Azerbaijan, where I was studying Turkish on the Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERLP), to Fairfax, VA. While sitting on the plane, staring out the window, I thought about all the experiences that had been cut short. I hadn’t gotten the chance to say goodbye to my teachers, to celebrate Nowruz (the Persian New Year), to visit cities like Lankeran and Guba. There were things I might never get to experience, things that I had been so tantalizingly close to doing. Devastated, I took out my notebook and considered writing a list of every opportunity I had missed. However, I started to write something altogether different.

Things I Have Learned from a Year Abroad

1. How to lead a more empathetic life. Looking at the world through a global lens taught me how to be more empathetic and patient. Once I got past the initial culture shock stage, I felt myself identifying massive differences between the United States and my host country. Orientalism and essentialism became increasingly apparent to me, as well as the misinformation and stereotypes that we are fed in the West. It was a really eye-opening experience and I learned a great deal about tolerance.

2. How to take care of myself. In the United States I am a workaholic and I do not give myself nearly enough attention. In Azerbaijan I was able to slow down my pace of life and afford myself simple pleasures, like self-care.

3. How to invest in my own human capital. Again, I am generally not the best at spoiling myself. However, while in Baku I began to watch YouTube videos on topics like minimalism, wellness, organization, and finances (in Turkish!). Okay, so maybe this isn’t really spoiling myself, but I allowed myself to focus on myself, my newfound interests, and future goals that were more holistic than before.

4. How to save money. I was able to figure out how to live on a tight budget and get the best bang for my buck. I also learned self-control and what is or isn’t worth investing in. Most importantly, I learned that some of the best experiences in life are free.

5. How to be gentler with myself. Learning a language is hard, and I am a slow learner. I have always been very self-critical, but I had to be kind to myself to make progress. At first, I was not conscious of this and my self-criticism led to very slow improvement. With time and care, I began to nurture myself and understand what makes me succeed in and outside of the classroom.

6. How to push myself. Not only did I learn how to challenge myself academically, but outside of the classroom I faced some of my biggest challenges. On one hike, I spent six hours trekking up a snowy mountain, sure that every step might be my last (that sounds extremely dramatic, but it felt like the end of the world at the time). Some of my biggest challenges were not academic, but rather personal.

7. How to successfully navigate long distance relationships. Whether with family, friends, or my significant other, I had to work on time management and effective communication strategies. I also had to learn how to be independent and amuse myself when necessary.

8. How to travel independently. Speaking of independence, I learned how to travel by myself and utilize my language skills to get around. I managed to navigate public transportation, cars, trains, planes, and more.

9. How to do difficult work. Through my coursework and internship, I was challenged intellectually in a way I had never been before. It was difficult at times to go from three hours in the classroom to four hours working on a research project, but I learned how to dedicate myself to long workdays.

10. How to do anything for a year. Before, I had no concept of how long a year really was. I had never been able to envision doing anything for a year and was always nervous about getting a job and keeping it for an extended period. Now I have a stronger concept of time, and I know that I can do anything for a year.

Looking back over this list now, I realize that as horrible as cutting the year short felt, I had still walked away with an abundance of memories and the feeling of having been forever impacted. One day, I hope to go back to Baku – but for now, I will hold onto the memories and lessons learned.

By: Karenna Oner

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERLP), Baku, Azerbaijan

Term: Academic Year 2019-20

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