My high school overprepared me for college, and I placed out of most of the required courses my freshman fall. It was the first time in my life that I had the freedom to study whatever I wanted, and I dove right in. On a whim, I signed up for introductory German language classes.
My professor was a quirky Austrian woman in her fifties, enthusiastic beyond all reason and possibly the goofiest person I had ever met. I liked her instantly. She approached me one day after class and suggested that I consider participating in the study abroad program the following fall.
Some of the rich girls in my high school class had taken a semester in France during junior year. They came back fluent and fashionable, with Hermes scarves and a good command of French teenage slang, both of which they tossed around liberally. I had seethed with jealousy, but I knew that, for economic reasons, I was not the study-abroad type. I told my professor so.
"I'm a work-study student. I can't afford to go abroad. I'm sure it's expensive, and I wouldn't be able to work while I'm there."
"I can talk to the financial aid people about adjusting your award package for the trimester," she told me in her thick accent. "They do it all the time. All you'd have to pay for is the transportation. You have a good ear, and I really, really think you should go. You would get a lot out of it."
"My parents will never agree to it." Meaning: there is no way I am going to ask them for a plane ticket to Germany on top of everything else I am already making them pay for.
As it turns out, I had once again spectacularly underestimated my parents, and the very next September, I found myself alone on a plane bound for Frankfurt am Main. I befriended a nice young German mother who sat next to me, and I held her baby for her so she could walk around and use the bathroom from time to time. In return, on our arrival, she helped me exchange some money and buy a train ticket to Mainz, where I was to meet my fellow program participants. She waved me off from the train platform and continued her journey to introduce her son to her parents. I watched her fade away in the distance. I was terrified.
In the end, I took two trimesters abroad: that fall of my sophomore year in Mainz, and again in the winter of my junior year, in Berlin. I cemented one of my best college friendships in Mainz, and my friend also went to Berlin for the second program. She is still a good friend, and we've held hands, figuratively, through some of the bumpier parts of our lives since then. I have stayed in touch with my family from Berlin, and I e-mail with them all the time. I am currently trying to figure out how to get over there for a visit; my Berlin "parents" are aging, and I want to see them again, sooner rather than later. I also want to spend an afternoon sipping coffee and knitting with my Berlin "sister," who could possibly be one of the kindest people alive on the planet today. I want to hear about her husband's death and how she has coped. I want to meet her children.
My son is eleven. He has two close friends in the immediate neighborhood, with whom he spends almost all of his free time. One of them is a Japanese immigrant, and the other is from Colombia. My son is the only one of the three who speaks only one language. My oldest daughter spends many a late night Skypeing with friends in Germany, Hong Kong, and Israel. (By the way, I'd like to win a free trip to Hong Kong or Israel one of these days, too.) It seems like everyone in my neighborhood is originally from somewhere else: Japan, Israel, Brazil, Korea, China, Russia, India, Beirut. There's a French-speaking guy who was a stay-at-home dad to some of the kids in our local elementary school. The other mothers and I did not know his name, so we simply referred to him as "France" (the sign over his head at the kids' International Day banquet).
I try to imagine sometimes what it would be like to move someplace very foreign to me - Korea, for example - and to stand alone outside the elementary school waiting to pick up my children. I would not speak the language that the other parents spoke, and I would not be familiar with their customs. I have a sense of what that would be like from my experience in Germany as a student: the helpless feeling of having gotten on the wrong bus because I did not understand the route map, the horror of having missed the last train home in the middle of the night and having to accept a ride from a total stranger whose accent I did not understand, and the profoundly difficult feeling for me of having limited communication skills, and being unable to ask or answer the simplest questions.
The experience of studying abroad made me fluent in German, but that is the smallest benefit I gained from it. It also made me patient with people who do not speak English, or who do not speak it well. It made me unafraid to ask for help from strangers and challenged my baseline assumption that anyone I don't know is probably a serial killer or out to take advantage of me in some way. It has made me empathetic and thoughtful about immigration issues and about other people's religious beliefs and cultural practices. It has made me realize, in a larger sense, that things that seem impossible (like a plane ticket to Germany for a work-study student) really are not. They just appear that way from the current viewing angle.
Young people, if you are reading this, please make every effort to do what you want to do, no matter how hard it looks at the moment. Enlist the help of family, friends, and strangers. Do not be afraid to ask. The simple process of asking can change your life in uncountable and unquantifiable ways.
Have a great day. If you are in the Northeastern United States, where the temperatures reflect a record-breaking cold snap, please stay warm. If you are already somewhere warm - well, good for you.