If I’m being completely honest, I felt doomed during my first 24 disastrous hours in Ireland. The day was full of stressors that gave me the impression that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be on my own. Above all, I realized that talking about studying abroad and actually going abroad are two entirely different things. In retrospect, this needed to happen, and everything that took place on that first day allowed me to build my confidence from the ground up.
It began on the plane. The kid in front of me reclined their seat all of the way back for the duration of the red-eye flight, crushing my legs in the process. I didn’t sleep a wink, said nothing in protest, and walked with a limp through the Dublin Airport. However, I wasn’t phased yet. Regardless of what had happened on the plane, me and my hiking backpack had made it overseas and that was something to celebrate.
Not so fast. I approached the customs officer with my indexed folder of documents, thick as my arm, feeling prepared. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the anxiety inducing procedure that is going through customs, you have to be very clear and intentional about why you’re there, where you’ll be staying, and how you’ll be supporting yourself. I attended Zoom trainings for this very moment. Every student going abroad is instructed on how to get through customs smoothly when they arrive at their destination. I was not so lucky. The officer took one look at me and the third degree began. He was deviating from the script I had walked through in my mind, and that was enough to shatter the confidence and self-assurance I thought I had thirty seconds before.
I was getting schooled in the first rule of study abroad: things will not always go according to plan. Being committed to how I thought a situation would unfold not only reinforced my tendencies for rigid thinking, but also gave me no recourse for when things inevitably did go wrong. I never thought that going to a foreign country would be a walk in the park, but I did naively assume that my American life experience would be enough to get me smoothly to and from the airport. My own anxieties aside, the last thing I wanted to tell my parents was that I had gotten detained in Dublin because the customs officer didn’t understand what I was doing in Ireland.
Eventually the officer either became satisfied with my answers or just wanted me out of his line, but not before hand writing a firm must-leave-by date in my passport. When I caught up with the rest of my flight, it became clear that everyone else had retrieved their luggage and was on their way out while my suitcase was nowhere to be found.
Absolute worst case travel scenarios were realizing themselves in front of my eyes as a series of unfortunate events. After rummaging through piles of discarded luggage all around the baggage claim floor, an overwhelming sense of relief washed over me seeing my lone suitcase circling the last carousel. I could finally leave the airport. What I didn’t know then was that when everything goes wrong on your first day in a new place, it makes everything good that comes after feel much better in comparison.
My study abroad experience departs from others you might read about as I was working full-time at Real Nation, a full-service agency in Ireland specializing in educational programming, marketing, and experiential events. Further, I was able to earn six-credits from digital marketing classes through the Smith school. I loved being able to draw from the real experience I was gaining in the office, and directly applying it to my studies. Pursuing an international internship wasn’t something I had initially planned for. All I knew is that I wanted something to stand out on my resume, and I desperately wanted to travel. If you feel similarly, I recommend looking into the Global Summer Internship Program offered through the Robert H. Smith School of Business, and you absolutely don’t have to be a business major to participate. I would go so far as to say that not being a business major made the experience even more enriching for me, as I was able to take classes and make connections with mentors I otherwise would not have had access to.
For anyone that has doubts about the value of working abroad, my time in Ireland gave me priceless professional experience and personal growth that I couldn’t replicate if I had stayed in the United States. Having international experience in my desired field of advertising has expanded my professional network, personal frame of reference about the industry, and what conditions in an office create the best work. Whether or not your internship ends up being your career, having international experience on your resume shows potential employers that you have the ability to adapt, seek to be challenged, and hold independence as a core value. These are the kinds of soft skills that never depreciate in value, and make you a more infinitely desirable candidate in the hiring process.
In the grand scheme of study abroad, everyone will have their Dublin airport moment. Whether it’ll take place in an actual airport or somewhere else, I can’t predict that for you. But what I can say for sure is that approaching problems with a humble perspective lowers the stakes and leads you to a better solution regardless of the setting. My experience in Ireland was full of a thousand little disasters that I had to mediate and I was better off for it. This shifted my mindset from operating from a place of fear over the things I couldn’t control, to a place of confidence in my ability to deal with things as they came up. And besides, nothing that I faced in the office would be as bad as taking the wrong train to Galway and ending up in rural Waterford. But that’s a story for another day…