Written by Louis, High School/Pre-College Student Correspondent for JSA Diplomat Program in Beijing, Summer 2018*
As CET’s China trip winds to a close, I have decided to spend less time on the specific events we attended and excursions we embarked on, and more on the overarching lessons found in my experience studying abroad for the first time.
When I first arrived, I was of course excited to do something I had never done before: study abroad and go to China. However, I also deliberated with regret. I would be gone for an entire month of my summer, during which I would not be able to see my friends, my family or my dogs. I would also miss nearly two weeks of time at my lake house. In other words, I exchanged my typical summer activities that I enjoy with residence in a college dorm while continuing to take intensive and challenging classes. I had this same reservation when I studied at Princeton University last summer, but at least that was just shy of three weeks, and I didn’t feel there was any significant distance between where I was and what I knew.
Suffice to say arriving here was uncomfortable, since I knew I had a month to go. Throughout the program, there were several uncomfortable days. I saw my family having their weekly reunions, my friends hanging out without me, and people sitting lakeside at my de facto summer home. The discomfort you experience in trying new things never dissipates: you are eating food you didn’t know existed, doing everything with people you may have never met, and are without the people you know.
As I depart back to the states in just three days, I have come to recognize the value in discomfort. Living life in a bubble, surrounded by routine and familiarity, is hardly a way to navigate life. When you are uncomfortable in situations, it means you are growing: it means you are doing something you are not used to doing. I have traveled abroad numerous times, but never so far, never for so long, and never without family.
My time in China has cultivated a self-reliance I never had to perform before. While I had long been responsible for my own meals, I rarely, if ever, had to truly speak up for what I wanted. If I felt uncomfortable asking for something, I would ask my parents for help. Here, I had a lot to ask for: a gym membership to maintain my fitness routine, leniency with some of my work due to (minor) health issues, and that I be able to get certain food for myself if I couldn’t eat what was being served due to my strict diet.
While all of these are minor, in the past I haven’t been tasked with asking for what I want of people I don’t know. Being without parents, or at least people to rely on, has forced me to take initiative and develop my assertiveness.
Additionally, this experience helped develop my independence. I never really had to do everything myself–not because I couldn’t, but because I never needed to. While in China, I got myself up, managed my meals, carved out time for the gym, managed my workload, and did my laundry. All of these I had done before, but if I didn’t have the time, or if I didn’t want to, I could delegate them to family for help. Living at Beijing Union University taught me what it was to live alone. This was a great preparatory experience for me as I approach college, and the sense of independence and self-reliance has prepared me for further trips abroad.