Study abroad provided me with the mechanism to not only enrich my language learning experience, and my understanding of the world, but also to rediscover some of the hidden beauty in everyday life.
Prior to attending Columbia, I had come to accept that I would probably never experience life in another country. Maybe that sounds a bit extreme, but it is the truth. In the near decade I spent as a member of the workforce before pursuing my bachelor’s degree, it had been hard enough to find time to leave the Tri-State Area. During that time I had necessarily set all of my international dreams aside. Truthfully, when I arrived at General Studies in Fall 2016, I did not even plan on studying Chinese, let alone doing so the very next summer in China. However, after a series of serendipitous events marked by hard work and honest self-reflection, I found myself boarding a plane last May named a Presidential Global Fellow set to take part in the Columbia Summer in Beijing: Chinese Language program.
There is much evidence supporting the notion that cultural immersion is the most effective way to study a new language. Though I doubt that the literature can quite capture the incomparable rush of pride and satisfaction that occurs when the dumplings that arrive to your table in a dimly-lit Beijing Hutong are PRECISELY the ones that you asked for. No words can do justice to the feeling of trust created when, after stumbling through a description of your intended hairstyle, you hear the stylist’s buzzer drawing near. During my time in Beijing it was not the big events that defined my experience, but these smaller ones. I learned more about myself, and China, while walking through adversity and discomfort to accomplish the usually monotonous tasks of every day life than I did standing at a guard tower on the Great Wall at Simatai. Any spiritual awakening I experienced came from the fleeting relationships formed within brief exchanges with native Chinese, and not from visiting any number of ancient temples or hiking the Sichuan mountains.
I say all this not to denigrate those other experiences but instead to highlight the unique opportunities afforded by study abroad programs like CIB. Study abroad provided me with the mechanism to not only enrich my language learning experience, and my understanding of the world, but also to rediscover some of the hidden beauty in everyday life. As a result I am a better citizen, at home and abroad, than I was a year ago. My two biggest takeaways from CIB are: First, the most important lessons are not learned in the classroom, and second, always remain open to embarking on a journey that at the moment seems impossible.