Why studying abroad is the best thing I have ever done

Written by Olivia Penn, 22.

I can still remember that feeling in the airport. I was thinking, if someone gave me the opportunity to turn around and go home now, I would take it. It was 16th February 2019, I had signed up to study for a semester at the University of Wollongong in Australia and I was at Heathrow airport, alone. I was waiting for my first flight that would take me to Singapore, where I had planned to spend a day before heading over to Australia.

The decision had not come easily, my university offered a number of options. I could have skipped this year altogether and gone ahead and completed my final year, I could have spent the whole year on a work placement, or I could have spent the whole year abroad. In response to some pushback from my boyfriend at the time, I was initially leaning more towards spending the whole year on a work placement in the UK. It was the safe option. But after attending a lecture about studying abroad, I knew I had to take that opportunity.

Rather threatened by the idea of a year away from home and convinced by the benefits of completing a work placement, I went for the half work, half study abroad option. After completing my work placement, I had about 6 weeks to prepare before heading to Australia. As the time got closer, my emotions were a mixture of excitement, nerves, and just a general sense of - “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this”.

Once I got on the plane, the initial fear and sadness that the day had been so full of started to fade. My time in Singapore was fun, it was my first time in a foreign country alone and it bought a sense of freedom and excitement. I was looking forward to arriving in Australia.

I was completely terrified

I landed in Sydney. Wollongong, where I would be studying, was about an hour and a half drive south. A shuttle from the university came to pick up me and the other international students who had arrived and were heading to Wollongong. On the way there, our driver stopped and showed us the view of where we would be living for the next few months.

View of Wollongong from above

It was all exciting, but when I arrived in my new room, my new home, I didn’t feel good at all. I was completely terrified. I didn’t know anyone there, I was about as far from home as possible, and all my friends and family were in a completely different time zone.

I think this is a moment that a lot of students have when they decide to study abroad - that initial feeling of terror as you realise you’ve ripped yourself away from everything you know and everything that’s comfortable to you. But it is these experiences that make studying abroad so worth it.

The first few days were tough, but I made an effort to go to every event that my accommodation hosted. I talked to as many people as possible and made friends quickly. I got involved and went on some unforgettable hikes in the local area.

On only my fourth day there, I met an American and we decided to go to a karaoke club that can only be described as interesting. What I couldn’t have known that night was how big of a part of my life this guy would become. We became a couple not long after that night. He was my travel companion for our entire semester abroad, as we explored Wollongong, Sydney, The Blue Mountains, Melbourne and more. After the semester finished I went to New Zealand for a week before we linked back up and explored the Gold Coast together. I then headed to Japan and spent 2 weeks exploring with my family, before heading off to LA to meet up with my boyfriend in his hometown.

Noosa, Australia

But it wasn’t just these amazing travel experiences that made travelling abroad so worth it. It was the act of getting out of my comfort zone, doing something so challenging, so scary that made it worth it.

I have never been as scared in my life as I was that day when I left for Australia, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done

I remember reading a quote a while back that alluded to the idea that we grow most in uncomfortable and challenging situations. I believe that this is the reason why we should actively put ourselves into these situations. I feel this is especially important when you’re in your twenties. It’s the time in your life when you have some freedom to experiment, to take risks, and to venture into the unknown.

If you have the opportunity, studying abroad is a fantastic way of doing this. I can guarantee you that the experience will help you grow as a person. You’ll become more confident, a better communicator, and you’ll also have a lot of great stories to tell.

But I also know that studying abroad isn’t an option that’s available to everyone. And over the next year or so it may be especially challenging. My heart goes out to those whose study abroad plans have been cancelled. But you don’t have to study abroad to grow as a person, simply the act of engaging in activities that are outside of your comfort zone will help you grow. We all have these opportunities, big or small, and I just want to say even if it’s scary, you should do it. I have never been as scared in my life as I was that day when I left for Australia, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

This contribution was written by Olivia Penn, 22. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.