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Life lessons from studying abroad

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posted May 16, 2019

Flug vier und sechzig von Amsterdam ist gerade eben angekommen. Willkommen in Bremen.

The pilot’s welcome did little to ease my anxiety. And I didn’t speak a word of German anyway.

That day, five days before my 16th birthday, was my first day in Germany and my first as an Austauschschülerin—an exchange student. Exhausted and jetlagged from my cross-world travel, I recognized my host family from their photo and walked over to meet them.

They tested their English, and I smiled. We collected my luggage and piled into their Volvo. They joked quietly in a language that I couldn’t understand and I listened intently, in part to try to wrap the new foreign words around my brain, and in part to distract myself from my eyes that were quickly becoming watery with tears.

My host father, a stern-looking man, pointed out tourist attractions as we traveled home. I had no idea what he said to me; my four years of French proved no help. The signs at the airport were in German and English, but once we entered the town where I would be living, the English crutch faded along with my confidence. I had a moment of realization: This is going to be hard.

And it was hard. But in that moment of fear, uncertainty and gulped-back tears, there was so much that I didn’t realize.

I didn’t realize that my first day of school in Germany would be the one that I would call upon for the next 15 years whenever I felt uncomfortable or needed to summon courage, just to remind myself that I—an Alaskan girl dressed in yoga pants, wool socks and Tevas—became eventual friends, became family with those classmates who had on day one intimidated me with their made-up faces, Ralph Lauren outfits and pointy-toed high heels.

I didn’t realize that I would return home 11 months later brimming with self-confidence—enough to run for senior class president and apply for a full-ride leadership scholarship to my top-choice university (spoiler alert: I got both!)—as well as the curiosity to not only study international political science and economics but also to study abroad four more times.

I didn’t realize that the connections I made and arguments I had with other exchange students from across the globe would allow me to become a more patient, vulnerable and kind person when I was faced with differences.

I didn’t realize that 15 years later I would dedicate my career to helping other students experience what I had, and to become better versions of themselves by stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Steigen Sie bitte ein für Flug 414 nach Juneau, Alaska. Wir fliegen gleich ab. This time I understood.

I boarded the plane to fly back to Juneau, bags packed full of Kinder Schokolade for my brother and Swiss chocolate for my parents. I carried a few other things too, but they didn’t fit in my suitcase: the confidence to navigate the world on my own, the curiosity to find more global adventures, the new connections I had made in Germany, and the new connection I had made with myself.

Tess doing tie dye
Tess learning about traditional tie-dye with CET students in rural southwest China in 2018.

Tess Cannon serves as high school and pre-college manager at CET Academic Programs—a study abroad provider based in Washington, D.C., that is affiliated with Academic Travel Abroad—and helps college, high school, pre-college and gap-year students have the kind of cross-cultural experiences she enjoyed.

Top photo ©Boris Stroujko/Adobe Stock