by Dr. Heather Tracy, Ed.D. Posted on Medium at: https://medium.com/@drheathertracy/the-best-way-to-learn-about-america-and-yourself-is-to-leave-it-1cef548fb43f
Find an opportunity to leave. I’m not talking about a 2 week trip to a Mediterranean island, which although lovely, basically leaves you with a very nice tan and a smaller bank account. I’m talking about real cultural immersion and all of the messiness that comes with it — the language, the food, the driving, the music, the politics, the weather, and the people.
Why bother? The challenges life hands you abroad may be much more difficult outside of your comfort zone, but the benefits — if you are open to them — will change you, your perspective, and your life for the better. Yes, you will (hopefully) learn a marketable skill by mastering another language. But perhaps more importantly, you will learn problem-solving, empathy, humility, patience, perspective, openness, and completely new ways of communicating — not to mention the grit and confidence that you can indeed get through pretty much anything.
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A Warning About the Two Approaches:
Now in my 17th year of living and working in Costa Rica, I’ve seen my share of US citizens trying their hand at living abroad with varying degrees of “success.” Some define success through personal growth and self-improvement. These people come in with all the gusto to learn the language and live like the locals. Others define successful immersion as trying to continue living (or to improve) the lifestyle they had in the US but for a cheaper price. Don’t be this person. Those who seek such luxuries for a cheaper price not only find frustration a daily state of being, they are missing a grand opportunity.
Growing up in a small Midwestern town, I did my best to achieve and experience what was available. I took the advanced public school course load, loaded up on extracurriculars, saved up my restaurant tips to join the high school trip to France, and was awarded a full ride to an excellent university. But my values and lifestyle were never really challenged.
Yes, college certainly challenged me since I was a bit out of place amongst students who had mostly gone to private Catholic high schools, joined sororities and fraternities, and didn’t seem to have any need to work the after-school jobs I had to work. A graduate school research practicum placed me in a public high school where I experienced how it felt to be a “minority” for the first time. But none of these experiences resulted in me being fully immersed at all times in a place where there was no one else like me. Therefore, I just kept being me.
Was There Something Wrong With Being Me?
No, not really. Sure, I had a questionably (un)healthy dose of Type-A perfectionist drive to achieve; I even ended up at an Ivy League school. That’s what was rewarded in the US, and people were proud of me. But I also never really tried anything that I wasn’t fairly confident I could master, and therefore I never really grew. I learned things in Costa Rica that I never would have learned had I continued down a safe, traditional path. I wasn’t broken, but I also wasn’t whole.
What I Learned From Cultural Immersion in Costa Rica:
So What's The Point of All of This?
When I go back to the USA (which I do quite often now), I’m more aware. I notice more. I empathize more. At the same time, I’m more empowered and clear of who I am and what I want. I don’t let the drama, the sensationalized news, the airbrushed social media, or the demanding professional culture take over my life. I am not sure I would have this awareness without an extended immersive experience in a foreign culture.
What quality cultural immersion can spark is reflection, awareness, empathy (for yourself and others) and intentional action. Cultural immersion experiences make you face questions you might not have ever asked yourself. In a way that no book or article can achieve, a true immersive experience brings you face to face with yourself, how you grew up, what you believe, and what you want… and it allows you to empathize with the perspectives of others and how they grew up, what they believe, and what they want. From that point on, it’s all up to you. But you will be better for it.