Before studying abroad, I had only camped once in my life, when I was ten. We slept directly underneath the star-laden Arizona sky and watched a rare meteor shower until the summer breeze lulled us to sleep. It was truly terrible. I had no tent—no protection—from the endless unknowns of the wilderness. It seemed as though every insect from the Sonoran Desert was out to get me. And where was the bathroom? Was I expected to simply relieve myself behind some cacti? How does a girl even do such a thing without being exposed or peeing on her own clothes? The evening ended with me encasing myself in my hot pink sleeping bag and vowing that if I ever made it out of here alive I would never go camping or do any extreme outdoorsy activities again.
Eleven years have passed since that scarring moment of my childhood and, prior to 2014, I can safely say that I largely abided by that promise to myself. Aside from the occasional hike and labs for class, I strictly appreciated nature from afar, preferably behind some barrier blocking me from the plethora of bugs and animals that called the landscape home. Some would call it sad and sheltered; I called it safe and clean. Thus when it was time to look for an appropriate study abroad program, anything remotely close to the wilderness was out of the question. I was initially set on a finance program in the heart of London; I couldn’t get more urban. Yet as time progressed, I realized that finance and England were not areas I wanted to indulge in for a semester. That, in conjunction with my recent and increasing interest in environmental policy, ultimately led me to an environmental policy and sustainability program in Australia. Yes, Australia AKA the land of snakes, exotic animals, and insects. Spiders are so common that they’re often embraced in the Australian household. Aspects of the program itself focused on the very things I could never see myself doing: having an intimate relationship with nature, being spontaneous, partaking in various types of outdoor physical activities, packing so lightly that it impeded my ability to primp and prime, and so forth. The experience would be the antithesis of the persona I embodied for years; it was completely out of my comfort zone.
Yet if experimentation and the pushing of one’s boundaries are seen as underlying themes of the college experience, then there is no better time to accomplish this than Junior Year Abroad. Thus I left behind my favorite glitter sweater, took one last longing look at my bookcase full of hair products and left for a country, environment, and experience entirely foreign to the life I lived so safely. Though the first week was filled with many firsts—first time sleeping in a tent, first time 9000 miles away from home, first time in a hostel—and it was all rather overwhelming, I can say with certainty that stepping out of my comfort zone was one of my best life decisions thus far.
Firstly, my entire learning experience was not bound by the confines of a traditional classroom. Until this year, ‘education’ meant well-structured lectures in a cramped room with tables or desks and students furiously taking notes. Yet this program has expanded my view of different styles of learning. Here, the focus is on experiential learning. We are able to see, hear, touch, feel, experience the topics we learn about in class. We are living in our subject matter, which provides for a more intimate connection to what is being taught. It’s less about getting an ‘A’ and more about becoming enthralled in the material. The detachment many feel between class material and real-world applications is lessened with hands-on learning, making for a more rewarding educational experience.
Though I have learned much about sustainability and environmental policy, I have become educated in much more than the topic at hand. Not only have I gained greater comfort and appreciation for the natural world, but the extent of my personal growth during this trip has far exceeded anything else. Throughout my adventures here, my principles and abilities have been questioned and tested, and my future aspirations were put in the forefront of my mind. You end up pondering your place in the world and questioning the values you once took for granted. Studying abroad and living more simply and independently have opened my eyes to how insidious many aspects of mainstream society—consumer culture, neoliberal thinking and capitalism, corporate takeover, etc.—really are for the environment and humankind. Only by being encompassed in the natural landscape have I realized how mentally and emotionally detached we are from our surroundings and how vital it is to reconnect with our environment.
If these ideas were written out on a chalkboard in a well-lit, air-conditioned room with plastic chairs, and wooden tables that were likely not sustainably manufactured, I would jot down the main points, revisit them during study period, and never think about them again. There is something magical about the effectiveness of hands-on experience, as it fosters a long-term and often life-altering connection between your memory and your emotions.
If I hadn’t taken that initial step into the unknown I would still be taking 45 minute showers and obsessing over gold glitter and exfoliating my legs, which would be an absolute shame. Thus, if you’re not already a lover of the environment, take the chance and plan an excursion into nature, even if it is not far, long, or exotic. Surround yourself in a location where experiential learning is an imperative part of the experience. Any natural environment is worth delving into.