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Take a 20-year-old man from middle class suburbia and throw him in the middle of a new city, in a new country, where people speak a language he has never heard before. Challenge him to make new friends and to learn an entirely new culture. At times make him feel small and at times make him feel like he’s on top of the world. Take him to the edge of his comfort zone and toss him into the void.
This was me six months ago when I embarked on the journey of a lifetime, an experience that I will never forget. A trip that would impact my life like nothing before. I left my home in Chicago, IL in September, and headed for a city that I knew practically nothing about, in a country I couldn’t even point out on a map. Prague, Czech Republic would be my final destination and a city I would call home for the next four months. I would learn the language, experience the culture, meet new people, travel throughout Europe, and push myself into the unknown.
I started preparing for my adventure abroad one year ago. That is when I was faced with the difficult task of choosing where I wanted to go. I was pretty set on studying in England from the beginning. I had been accepted into one of the top business schools in Europe, the country spoke English, and it felt closer to home than anywhere else. I had spent a month setting everything up for a fall semester in England when one day I got a devastating phone call. I was told the program had been canceled and I would have one week to find a new school if I still wanted to study abroad in the fall. Commence my freak out, the-world-is-ending-panic attack. After numerous emails and hours spent in meetings, my choice was narrowed down to Prague, Czech Republic where I would study at Vysoká škola ekonomická (University of Economics). That was the first time, of many, that I would step out of my comfort zone and begin a life changing experience.
As my plane descended from the clouds, I began to see what my temporary home looked like. I had never seen a city like Prague in my entire life. It had old world charm in a modern era. I felt as if I had just stepped back in time the closer I got to the city.
Prague was virtually untouched by any of the World Wars and full of rich history. I could see the classic brown tiled roofs lining every building throughout the city with a majestic river winding it’s way through the heart of Prague and past the castle. Yes, the castle. In all of its glory with huge spires and great walls surrounding it, I had never seen such a beautiful site. I had yet to step off the plane and knew this city was going to be the setting of the adventure of a lifetime. It was at that moment that my concerns about the experience disappeared.
Imagine those old movies that are set in European towns with winding cobblestone roads and old buildings lining the streets. There are hundreds of old pubs where I ordered typical Czech food (dumplings and beer) and felt like a local. People were surprised when they found out I was American after I asked if they spoke English. After a while it actually felt like I was a true local. I knew the city like the back of my hand; I even was able to give tourists directions. I spent day after day going to the Old Town Square eating street food, grocery shopping, and witnessing some of the great monuments that Prague has to offer.
Studying abroad is all about experiencing the culture and truly immersing yourself in something new. Spending those nights in pubs and exploring the streets taught me more than any book ever could. In order to get the most out of your experience abroad, go somewhere you never would have thought of. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and be spontaneous. Some of my greatest adventures happened because I decided to go out on a Tuesday night instead of sitting in my apartment. Of course class is important, but especially since all of my classes were pass/fail, the professors were more concerned with how I was experiencing their city and where I was traveling. There was more of a focus on traveling and experiencing Europe than being worried about grades. I made sure to take full advantage of that.
Traveling was by far the highlight of my semester spent abroad. This is when a majority of my experiences and memories took place. I tried to do all I could and spent almost every weekend in a new country or different region of the Czech Republic. This could be a once in a lifetime experience so don’t just stay in one spot. Get out there and see as much as you can.
I started strong by spending one of my craziest weekends at Oktoberfest in Munich. I saw what a war could do to a city while in Berlin and went to one of the largest zoos in the world. I ate fish and chips in London while looking at the Buckingham Palace. I took a night train through the forests of Poland to eat pierogies (a Polish dumpling) in Krakow and spent the most emotional day of my life at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Finally, I had schnitzel in Vienna and went to the original Kris Kringle Market. These are the experiences that I will have for the rest of my life. All of these are a result of stepping out of my comfort zone.
A vast majority of my trips happened because I bought a plane or train ticket the night before leaving. I was living by the motto “when is the next time I will have this opportunity?” My father gave me great insight and momentum to go on these trips encouraging me to, “travel while you are young and have the money for it because this is the time for you to experience the world.” I have never lived by truer words than when I was traveling Europe with just a backpack, my passport, and whatever money I had in my wallet.
I still, to this day, have flash backs of being in Prague. Sort of like a déjà vu
scenario. There are times when I sit in class and expect to walk out of the building and be in the center of Prague. I find it confusing that people around me understand what I’m saying and respond in clear English. That is the hardest thing to get over. I was so used to hearing Czech spoken around me at all times that when anything was said in English, it made my ears perk up. At times I just sit and daydream of being back in that beautiful city immersed in the Czech culture. Walking through the cobblestone streets taking in the old world buildings, the smell of sausage and beer in the air, and the sounds of the Czech language from all directions. I never realized I would miss Prague as much as I do now. Studying abroad opened my mind to new cultures and ways of life that I never would have experienced. It is something I am grateful for every day and can’t wait to travel back one day.
After all of the adventures and amazing experiences from studying abroad, what do you have? You have a 20 year old who is not afraid to be alone. He’s not worried about getting lost and knows how to direct himself. He has a new perspective on life and a new appreciation for home.
Most importantly, studying abroad reminds us of something we all too often forget: the fact that you, and you alone, are the ruler of your fate. You decide every decision and make every new connection. It is never too late to live the life you want. Choosing Prague over England was one of the best decisions of my life. Studying abroad taught me that anything can be possible. No barrier can hold me back and prevent me from being who I want to be.