What I’ve Learned in My First Three Months of Studying Abroad

What I’ve Learned in My First Three Months of Studying Abroad

We seek complicated methods of learning simple things. Insightful quotes about intricate life lessons can serve as inspiration, but they are not nearly as impactful unless those lessons are learned firsthand. I consider experience to be the ultimate teacher. This drive for discovering something else, whether far beyond us or deep within, can initiate journeys that never lead us where we expect. And along these journeys, however small or big, we learn.

Every moment during the first three months of my 10-month study abroad adventure in a small Costa Rican town has been a learning experience, and this education is one that I could not have gained any other way.

Language fluency is completely contextual.

One thing that I have come to realize during my first three months learning Spanish, is that there seems to be no way to measure language fluency, as it is contextual. I am still figuring out how to strip myself of the instinct to measure my progress, especially in comparison to my fellow exchange students. We all have a variety of backgrounds regarding language learning, and all take in information differently. Therefore, all comparison does is hinder your ability to freely, and at your own pace, digest the mountains of information you absorb each day.

In my opinion, fluency is an undefinable concept altogether. One’s experiences and influences while learning a language have a large impact on their vocabulary, and use of certain expressions.

For example, one person may be able to sit down and have an in-depth conversation about aliens in Spanish, but does not know the word for ‘birth.’ Meanwhile, another can confidently discuss the life cycle of kangaroos, but may not know the word for ‘outer space.’ This does not make one person more fluent than the other, but shows which words are contextually relevant in their lives.


It is ok to sit with your feelings.

Even if the sun is shining and you have every reason in the world to feel happy, you are not required to force sentiments that don’t match a sunny exterior. Permitting salty water-like feelings to evaporate allows your mind to restore itself at its own pace. When I begin to feel tinged by homesickness, thinking my way out of what I feel rarely helps. Comforting myself with logical reasons as to why I should not miss home may serve as a temporary remedy, but the only solution that cures is time. Waiting for emotions to pass may not be fun, but sometimes it is necessary.

Feeling everything does not consequently make you overly sensitive or weak; it makes you someone who is willing to risk judgement in order to experience every drop of life you can wring from what is given to you. I think that denying or shaming your emotions cheats yourself out of taking in all existence has to offer.

Acknowledge all the happiness, the pain, the curiosity, the confusion, the frustration, the excitement, and the distress, because each one of these experiences offers its own unique lessons and opportunities. Pushing yourself through feelings and moments that test your determination and capabilities can build self confidence, and witnessing the highs that life presents can expand your faith that everything is worth it in the end.


The only definitions that are relevant are the ones created by you.

Words only carry meaning when you let them. Success, knowledge, education; the array of ways to define these words are so bountiful that, in my opinion, the possibility of finding a correct one is not possible. Words and ideas hold different meanings to everyone, so trying to fit a mold of someone who appears to be ‘successful,’ ‘knowledgeable,’ and gifted with a well rounded ‘education’ is not a goal that may be realistic or result in satisfaction.

Like many human beings, I am a hodgepodge of polarities that tries desperately to define things. I search on my hands and knees for a box that I can fit into; a shortcut to reducing things down into a simple form that I can understand. Yet one thing that I have learned is that there is no need to understand, and there is no box.

There is no cutout ‘explorer,’ because the exchange student who dreads returning to their country is just as adventurous when all they want to do is go home. There is no ‘intellectual,’ because the one who skipped math class to write poetry is not less intelligent when they fail the following test on how to graph a parabola. Trying to simplify yourself into a single role is an injustice to the possibilities that every inconsistent part of you holds.


I believe that we are all little pieces of nature, and just like the wilderness, we are filled with peaceful oases that exist alongside bottomless pits where placing your foot will almost definitely result in death. Nothing in life is about eradicating either one of these places, but learning how to house them in harmony. The fact that we are human beings is enough to justify every emotion we encounter, and every breath we take entitles us to contradicting thoughts and expressions.

We seek complicated methods of learning simple things. Yet maybe this human characteristic is not a deeply embedded fault that evolution has failed to eliminate, but rather a basic necessity required to understand lessons we do not aim to grasp.

I never consciously made it my goal to learn what I have during my time studying abroad, but if I had not taken this opportunity (that I was lucky enough to be presented with) to leave home in the first place, I would have never discovered what resides outside of my comfort zone.

It has taken me three months of language and cultural immersion in Costa Rica to learn this basic concept of cause and effect: you must set out and seek in order to find.

About the Author:

My name is Rachael Maloney, and I am a curious venturer fueled by good books and foreign food. I am currently spending my junior year of high school in Costa Rica, doing my best to absorb everything my 10 months abroad have to teach. I look forward to carrying these lessons with me for many years to come, and, in the meantime, sharing them in online articles for those who are interested. Follow Rachael on her adventure and read her stories here.

What has traveling or studying abroad led you to learn about yourself?

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