I always thought that I understood myself and my place in the world, until I studied
abroad in Poland. Throughout my childhood, I heard stories about the country my great
grandparents had emigrated from, picked up a few phrases of the language, and enjoyed
the traditional music at times. In deciding to study abroad, the location, it seemed,
was unquestionable: I had little doubt of my want to immerse myself into the culture
and history of the land of my heritage.
However little the doubts were, the nerves set in as I packed my bags and boarded
the plane. Going to this foreign country without knowing anyone or understanding
the language became extremely frightening the closer the departure time arrived.
I had yet to understand the impact these next four months would have on my life.
I was welcomed with a warm hug as I landed and the adventure began. Exploring Warsaw,
a city almost completely destroyed in World War II and rebuilt by the communist government,
was exciting and made fun and easy by our program coordinators who helped us find
our way. As I got into a groove within the city, I found my favorite spots and most
interesting niches, my favorite pierogi restaurant, study café, market square and
royal gardens. Knowing that I was traveling and exploring on my own in this unknown
city created a new self-awareness. It made it even more special to know that this
place was so specially connected to my family.
It seemed that every corner I turned I was learning something new. First, learning
came in the academic sense. Our professors were important and influential people
within Poland, one being the former ambassador to Canada who helped to get Poland
in the U.N. Not only did they give us the information about politics, history, literature
and language, but they also gave us their personal stories. They told us about being
in prison during communism or when they assisted with the strikes in the Gdansk shipyard.
They truly opened my mind to a vibrant culture, the often rough and tumble history,
and a new political and economic structure that is getting its bearings still today.
I got in touch with this country and Eastern Europe, a part of the world I had never
taken the time to study before. Through their instruction, I began to relate to it
in a very personal way. It is so different to learn about a culture when you are
all the way across the world. But when you are living it everyday, every aspect of
the country, the history and language, begins to engross you.
The second type of learning came in a personal and intrapersonal sense. My fellow
American students and I lived in a dorm of the university on a floor of Polish and
international students. We interacted with students from Scotland, Japan, Belgium,
Spain, Greece, Sweden, and other countries daily and were able to learn about their
cultures and their perceptions of different cultures. This, to me, was just as valuable
as the classroom learning. I was able to eat with them, drink with them, and explore
with them. Not only learning about others, I also truly learned more about myself.
With different trips around the country and to various other countries, I learned
my boundaries and my flexibilities. I achieved so many things on my own that I never
thought I would be able to do: communicate in a country in which I did not speak the
language, find my way on a map (a huge accomplishment for me!), and even struggle
with difficult subjects, like when I visited Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.
Through every experience, good and bad, I learned what my weaknesses and strengths
were and, essentially, was brought closer to who I am and who I hope to be.
My experience abroad was one of the best times in my life. I had an absolute blast
meeting new people and seeing new places. In looking back on my four months away
from home, I realized that Poland was the perfect place for me to be; the land of
my family truly became my second home. It offered so many opportunities to learn
and grow. For me, studying abroad not only opened my mind and heart, it forever changed
the person I am today and will be in the future.