By Mollie Block
A semester abroad is kind of like one long improv class. No, I’ve never taken an improv class before (unless you count the exercises I did in my 3rd grade after school drama club) but granted I’ve never been on a semester abroad before either. A bit of a bold statement, I’m aware, but don’t discount it until you hear me out. If you have taken an improv class before, and even if you haven’t, you know the one main rule of improv. “Yes, and …” For those of you who don’t know, and those that need a refresher, allow me to try and explain (sorry real improv students for how I’m going to mess this up!) what this means: Whenever a person is improving a scene and is asked a question the appropriate response is always “Yes, and …”. This opens up multiple paths for a scene to take and ensures there is always more to be acted.
I’ve only been abroad for about three months and yet I can say with confidence that the number one rule for improv happens to be the same number one rule for being an exchange student. I’ve found that the only way I’m going to get the most out of this journey is by opening myself up to new experiences, even if I’m scared or hesitant.
Maybe you’re still not on board, my comparison doesn’t make a lot of sense in the abstract, so let me give an example. One of my first days here, my host dad asked me if I wanted to go on a bike ride after we dropped off my host sister at her practice. Now I know what you’re thinking; this is a pretty insignificant thing to mention, what’s the big deal about a bike ride? I never really liked biking that much, downhills are scary and uphills are taxing, but the summer before my 8th grade I got into a bike crash. It wasn’t terrible, nothing broken and no scars, but I did have to go to the ER and I haven’t been on a bike since. Until coming here. I felt bad turning down my host dads offer, I had only been here a few days and I wanted to show my host family how eager I was to become a part of their life, so I said sure. I expected to maybe walk my bike for a little and stop somewhere on the path. However, I ended up riding my bike for a couple hours.
Yes, it was flat and yes, we were going slow but if you had asked me to go on a bike ride any time before I left (which people did, often) I would’ve (and I did) said no. I ended up having a really fun time biking (I can almost hear my sister saying “I told you so”) and while I haven’t been on a ride since, I know I will again and I’m already excited.
“My point is, people don’t come into study abroad programs having everything figured out.”
The “Yes, and… ” rule isn’t the only way a study abroad and an improv class are alike. The whole point of improv is that the actors have no idea what they’re doing until they do it. A bit like the whole “fake it till you make it” mindset. In my experience, this is the same when you’re an exchange student. I came to Vienna with basically no German, not a whole lot of knowledge about the city and a ton of excitement. I had no idea what to expect. I’ve been here three months and I’m still getting surprised by this place everyday. My point is, people don’t come into study abroad programs having everything figured out. Most of us aren’t fluent in the language, I could barely introduce myself in German!, and we’re equal parts scared out of our minds and unbelievably excited for the amazing journey ahead of us (at least in my experience, I can’t talk for all exchange students). Just like in an improv scene, you learn as you go.
There is no way to make a plan for or accurately anticipate your time abroad. Of course, I know my semester abroad looks even more different from other years because of the Coronavirus and everything it entails (online school, lockdown, restaurants and cafes are closed, etc.), but even without a worldwide pandemic, everybody’s experiences look different.
“…Even without a worldwide pandemic, everybody’s experiences look different”
If this analogy, of an exchange program being like an improv class, made sense to you, I’m glad. And if it didn’t, whether you’re a fellow exchange student, an interested parent, a prospective traveler or anything in between, that’s also ok. For me, thinking about my experience in this way has been interesting. It helps me to remember everything is part of the experience. Just like improv, there’s no right or wrong way to do an exchange program.
Mollie Block is a high school student from Maryland currently studying abroad in Vienna, Austria with Greenheart Travel.