Cultural immersion is a powerful lesson


By Boswell Hutson

Two weeks ago, I returned to central Illinois from my nearly six month study abroad session at University College London. Towards the end of my tenure, I couldn’t wait to see my parents, reunite with my girlfriend and devour all of the delicious trans fats in the American snack foods I’ve come to adore. As the date of my departure from the United Kingdom loomed closer, however, I felt a sense of massive personal change. I suddenly realized how rare it was to get to study in a city like London and just as I was about to leave, I came to truly appreciate my time there.

I remember reading a column in this very newspaper last year, highlighting how students should cherish their time at the University and that study abroad was essentially a waste of time because it took away from the great work going on right here in Champaign-Urbana. With all due respect to the author of that column, and the risk of sounding like an advertisement for the Study Abroad Office, spending an entire semester at UCL was simultaneously the best, most frightening, most fun, and craziest experience of my life, and I would never trade it for anything — including one more semester in Champaign-Urbana.

Even though there was minor culture shock at the beginning (did you know that “are you alright?” translates to “hello” in British slang?), by the end, I was not only appreciative of my time there, but I also wished I could stay in London longer.

To give a little background, I grew up in Monticello, Illinois — a small town just between Champaign and Decatur. Moving across an ocean to Western Europe’s largest city, away from my parents whom I’d never lived more than 20 minutes from and away from my girlfriend, whom I’ve been with for over two years, was one of the most daunting feelings I’ve ever experienced.

Nothing can quite compare to the weight of the inevitable stop-watch that marked the time until my departure. It felt more like a permanent countdown which captivated every waking moment of the last days I spent surrounded by friends and family. The months before I left became markedly cherished, then slowly those months turned into days, hours, minutes and eventually seconds, until I was gone — thousands of miles away, all by myself.

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The independence of being thrust into a foreign country by myself is something like an amplified version of the freedom-induced adrenaline rush a freshman gets during their first week of college. London is perhaps the most international city in the world, and while the University of Illinois provides a cultural experience, in my case, it didn’t nearly prepare me for the plethora of cultures, customs and languages I would experience in a completely new place.

This immersion into something that is so far outside of the realm of comfort is what makes living, studying, or working abroad so important to understanding a higher sense of global consciousness. Not only do I now feel like I have a plethora of memories and experiences, but I also feel that those experiences are unique and international. Without a program like study abroad, a small town kid from central Illinois might never get to see the Eiffel Tower at night or study at one of the best universities in the world. Because of that experience, I feel not only enlightened, but also like one of the luckiest people on the planet.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things I missed while I was in London, for example: Mountain Dew, a full-sized bed, my girlfriend’s 21st birthday and our 2-year anniversary, my dad’s surgery and subsequent recovery, and the publishing of my mom’s book. Though many of these things will never happen again, what is more important than these creature comforts is the notion of how this new experience forced me to adapt, expand my own horizons, and put myself into situations I never thought I would be in (both good and bad).

I think I forgot to remind myself that everyone was still going to be there when I got back, and thus the fear of missing out on something was one of the largest hurdles of study abroad, but also one of the most empowering to overcome.

To those questioning whether to study abroad, I strongly urge you to seriously consider it.

Maybe you think it’s not for you, but if that’s the case, I was in your boat. I can assure you that it’s a life experience that will change you for the better, just as it did for me.

Who knows, maybe you’ll end up skiing in Norway, interviewing the band Haim in Nottingham, or perhaps dancing on a bar in the Czech Republic just like I did. Better yet, you’ll have an experience all your own, and that’s what studying abroad is really all about.

Boswell is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected].