Moving abroad can be a life-changing decision that comes with many factors to consider. Yet, if done with an open mind it can enrich your life in many ways.
Before journeying abroad whether to study, volunteer, or work, one of the most important questions to ask yourself is what you want to get out of the experience. When I decided to take the leap and move to Colombia three years ago, I was intrigued at the opportunity to be immersed in a different culture, improve my Spanish, and discover more about the country’s black population. Even with all these exciting possibilities in mind, actually moving to the country was still a big adjustment.
I initially came to Colombia through a 10-month program to teach English at a public high school in Cartagena—a city known for constant summer weather, beaches, Afro/Indigenous influenced culture, and Spanish colonial architecture. Once I was accepted into the program I had three months to get ready. This meant packing, researching about life in Colombia, letting go of things I couldn’t take and saying goodbye to family and friends. At my going away party, I remember telling everyone “See you at the end of the year!”, but that plan soon changed.
After a few months living in Cartagena, I found that I loved my life here and wanted to look into staying longer. Many researchers say that the three-month mark can make or break an expat, and I found that to be true. The first few weeks I questioned my decision many times and experienced lots of homesickness. The realization of being completely outside of my comfort zone, adapting to a different way of life, while starting a new job was overwhelming at times. Yet after a couple of months, things became so much easier, and my life here felt like my new normal; I had made friends and grew to love many things about Colombia—the friendliest of the people, the great weather, access to delicious produce, and an array of activities, to name a few.
What started out as a plan to stay less than a year turned into a desire to live here much longer. However even though life abroad has many benefits such as building cultural awareness and connecting with diverse people while growing personally and professionally, it can still be difficult to be away from family and friends for an extended period of time. In addition, the lack of things you were accustomed to in your daily life back home can start to chip away at your zest to live away. For example, things in Colombia tend to move slower and people have a more laid-back approach to life in general versus in the U.S. where it’s encouraged to constantly be on the go and for things to happen quickly. This can cause a lot of frustration and misunderstanding, yet for me the pros have greatly outweighed the cons and that’s why I’ve chosen to stay as long as I have.
There are things you may never fully adjust to but just learn to accept or embrace being as though you’re in another country. Remembering your “why” for being abroad is a big help when things get tough. By reflecting on your intentions it can help you reframe challenges as opportunities to grow or see things from a different perspective.
As a black Muslim woman in a foreign country, it was also important for me to be aware that racism, colorism, sexism and misconceptions about my faith are worldwide realities; each culture may manifest this differently, but it’s important to be aware that you may experience ignorance.
While living abroad or travelling extensively may not necessarily be for everyone, if it interests you, even if it’s for a short period, I believe it can be very fulfilling. In all cases take into consideration what you wish to gain from life abroad and keep those goals in mind along the way. If you aren’t able to go abroad but have an interest in other cultures, you can look for resources where you are such as language groups, classes, and events that can connect you to international communities.