Going abroad is such a unique experience as a college student. It's a chance to learn about yourself and explore a new environment. Whenever you read about going abroad as a young person it's a fantastical adventure full of unexpected discoveries. It's an other worldly experience that relies on its positive attributes. Now I am completely for going abroad because it furthers your knowledge and teaches some great lessons, but with all this upside there is a downside. I am currently abroad in Dakar, Senegal conducting a research project. Senegal is a mostly French speaking country with the additional language of Wolof which is spoken across West Africa. This isn't my first time abroad, but it's my first time going by myself which I would keep in mind. At minimal I could say that this trip has been a culture shock and it is for many reasons.
Culture shock isn't necessarily a bad part of going abroad but it can be quite scary sometimes. My dad is from a small country in West Africa called The Gambia. It is actually completely surrounded by Senegal so my family is what you call "Senegambian." Now even with this perceived advantage I actually don't know the language. My father never taught me or my brothers the language so I knowingly came in expecting some real language barriers. The problem is I underestimated it a little. Gambia speaks Wolof and English because of its former colonizers. Senegal was colonized by the French hence my entire Senegalese family speaking French and Wolof. Language is such an important aspect of going abroad. You really have to be patient with yourself because it can be very frustrating. It's okay to come in not completely fluent, but you have to give a try. I will be honest that I've given up half way through conversations because I just don't have the vocabulary. It is a real and honest struggle that I suggest you prepare for.
Being a foreigner is also a difficult identity to hold abroad especially when you are American. Americans have a arguably accurate reputation of being culturally in apt by not liking any of the food, insisting everyone speak English, and having cultural relativism. Those are all assumptions of how I would behave as the only American in the room. Again though I have another perceived advantage of being half Senegambian. Until I open my mouth I blend into the city of Dakar as a local, but that can feel worse than just being strictly American because there are different cultural expectations. Referring back to my first struggle, language it is surprising for people that I am not fluent considering my parentage. I also don't completely understand everything here culturally because I was raised in America. My mother is American and her culture mixed with my fathers is what I grew up on which is common for many people with immigrant parents. I try not to live up to the stereotypes of American travelers but it shouldn't be too difficult since all those assumptions are things I would never do.
As college students a majority of us are accustomed to living away from home. I've done it for two years now and it seems to get a little easier every year. However, it's another thing to go abroad and be an oceans away from your family. Homesickness is a real downside of going abroad. It shouldn't stop you from going but know it's okay to feel that way. As I mentioned before this is my first time going abroad by myself. My prior experiences have been with my family or classmates. If you are struggling you can at least struggle together. Now I am not saying you should not travel alone because it's a very unique experience. It's quite reflective and you learn an even newer sense of independence. I have personally learned more about myself whether positive or negative. Independence although comes with a little bit of missing your family. I am very close to my family and I don't see them that much during the year considering the distance so I've had a little bit of homesickness. When abroad though it can feel amplified because imagining that distance between yourself and loved ones is daunting.
Doubt is a major feeling we all have, especially as someone in their late teens heading towards twenty, I have a lot of doubt personally, socially and academically. That doubt goes hand in hand with the opportunities of independence we get. Going abroad in any circumstance can be a lot on a person. You are willingly putting yourself in a foreign environment with hopefully an open mind, but of course some doubts. On my flights to Dakar I completely had a "what did I get myself into" moment. I questioned my decision even though it was too late to change any minds and I doubted how well the trip would go. As soon as I got here I started counting down the days unitl I would get back on the plane to go home. I share these very real fears because people might not want to say them because of how it sounds. I love to travel, meet new people and learn about a different culture. I was raised to seek out those opportunities to do all of that, but it still doesn't completely erase the doubt or fear you have. None of those feelings mean you are xenophobic and can't in any capacity explore the world. Anyone who travels has a little anxiety about it and it's better to acknowledge it than to pretend you don't feel that way.
At the end of my trip, if anything else, I hope to return knowing more about myself than when I left. Because of my familial ties to this country I have a lot of discovery and reflecting to do. Part of this essay is what I have learned so far in observing myself adjacent to this space. I still have more time here so there is time for those upsides and downsides to balance out. Which is how it should be because nothing can always go completely right and I hope as future travelers you learn to accept the wonderful adventures you'll have and the struggles you'll learn from.
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