Studying Abroad

Imagine the worst possible thing that could happen to you in a foreign country on the day that you are set to fly back home. If your imagination went anywhere that involved the words “losing” and “passport,” that is exactly what happened to me a couple of weeks ago. 

I had just spent two months in Switzerland and one month in Rwanda throughout a frantic, action-packed study abroad semester. The three-month excursion consisted of weekly travel and a fully unplugged field study with nonprofits without a single day of rest. Despite the incredible and life-changing experience that it was, I can fully admit that, two weeks ago, I was just about ready to plop down on my couch at home and binge-watch some reality TV. So, when I reached in my bag for my passport upon arrival at the airport in Switzerland, my brain went into panic mode when I realized it was nowhere to be found. 

I spent the next 24 hours running around Switzerland, alone, trying to figure out how to get a new passport without any real support from my program (the program coordinators actually never checked to see if I got home). The day consisted of egregiously-priced train rides, listening to the lovely tune of United Airlines’ on-hold song over the phone, finding somewhere to get a COVID-19 test, and running to and from the U.S. Embassy in my pajamas during a blizzard. It was a miracle that I made it home on the next plane to Dulles Airport the following day. 

Recently, my mom said to me, “I’m actually glad that you lost your passport.” I really thought that was a sick and twisted thing to say after the devilish day I went through. But, as she explained it to me, she said that losing my passport made me abandon all my silly childhood fears like calling offices, figuring out the public transport system and doing real adult stuff. Besides, I did get a great view of the snow and the gingerbread-like houses on my train rides to the embassy. 

I like to think that this little story that ended my trip with a bang represents a culmination of my study abroad experience in general. I had some of the best experiences of my life: traveling to European cities on the weekend, watching the stunning view of the Alps on my walk to class every morning and getting to know some of the most incredible, genuine people I have ever met — whether it be the partners we worked with in Rwanda, the friends I made in Switzerland or the six girls who I shared a tiny bathroom with in Rwanda (that’s a story for another time). 

But, there always is a catch when you’re having the time of your life on a study abroad adventure. I was coming down with every kind of illness you could possibly imagine besides COVID-19, missed multiple train rides due to a major wave of transportation strikes in Europe and simply felt exhausted all the time. Not to mention, the pandemic added a level of stress and difficulty to the trip. The countless amount of paperwork and locator forms we had to fill out before traveling to a new country each weekend made us nervous that we might be denied entry or even struggle to get back into Switzerland. In Europe, vaccine documents and COVID-19 tests are administered through QR codes, so waving around a piece of construction paper with ballpoint ink on it didn’t exactly look like the most legitimate proof of vaccination for some countries. 

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t trade any of these minor grievances or setbacks for anything, even the part where I lost my passport. A large majority of this trip was about facing my fears, taking a lot of risks, and dealing with conflict and stress. The week before my group left for Rwanda, our teacher randomly disappeared. The program started giving us random assignments while I was freaking out about being in Rwanda for a month and knowing nothing about what I would be doing there. I was starting to doubt whether I had the right to go to work with partners in Rwanda given the lack of preparation we had. 

Despite that chaotic week and all the doubts and fears I had, the month I spent in Rwanda was probably the best time of my life. I had no service and spent every day getting to know the community, the culture, and some of the sweetest and smartest kids I’ve ever met. I learned how to speak up for myself in the most uncomfortable situations, and I got to know people I had just met in September on a deeper level than some people I’ve known for years. If you ever get a chance to drop everything and go to Rwanda, I highly suggest you do it. 

Back in August, if you told me that I would have to run around Switzerland by myself all day in order to get a passport and go home, I probably would have cried a little bit and accepted that I would be stuck in Switzerland for quite a while. Studying abroad not only gives you an opportunity to learn more about the world and make lifelong friends, but it also teaches you how to be an adult and grow into yourself a little bit more. If you ever have doubts about studying abroad, consider this message: “I could either be hanging out in Blacksburg right now, or I could be chilling by the Eiffel Tower with a croissant in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.” I’m not saying that will actually happen, but it’s still fun to think about. 

Recommended Stories