They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When I got back from studying abroad in Athens, Greece, this past spring, I had more than 700 pictures and so much to say about my time abroad. My semester in Greece was wonderful, difficult, magical and trying all at the same time. There were good days and bad days, and, in the end, I wouldn't trade my study abroad experience for anything.
I attend the University of Kentucky, but when I chose to study abroad, I enrolled in a non-school sponsored program called Odyssey in Athens. This program takes place at the University of Indianapolis' Athens campus, a division of the University of Indianapolis where several hundred international and Greek students study. The Odyssey program included 22 students, and we lived in apartments near campus in central Athens.
Most of the classes I took in Greece did not count toward my journalism major but instead were general electives. These electives included "Greek 101" and "Greek Art and Architecture." Sadly, my classes were not up to par with classes I have taken at Kentucky. Although I felt my education didn't measure up in Greece, I can honestly say that all programs are not like mine. Friends in another study abroad program in Athens told me their classes were challenging, and most other study abroad students I have talked to had good educational experiences.
For me, my Greek "education" was about culture, life and myself. Culture shock hit me hard. I was used to grocery stores open 24 hours a day, not having to turn on a water heater 45 minutes before a shower to have hot water and being surrounded by English speakers. Suddenly I was thrust into a society where everything shuts down on Sunday and stores close for "siestas" in the middle of the day.
Over time, I learned to think in euros, not dollars. I learned some Greek words that helped me get by every day. I found the cheapest place to get a gyro (pronounced "euro," by the way). I hopped on the Metro and navigated Athens with the best of them. That's the thing about culture shock: Soon you are so immersed in the culture that you forget you were ever shocked to be a part of it.
Traveling around Europe and Greece was amazing. Athens is a great city, but the rest of Greece is absolutely beautiful. I fell in love with a place called Monemvasia, which has the clearest sky and the bluest water I have ever seen. I became enchanted with northern Greece, where I spent a lazy weekend strolling around the town of Kastoria. I also traveled to Switzerland, where I hiked to the highest point in Zurich, and to Spain, where I watched a bullfight.
Still, over all these other things, the best part of my study abroad experience was the people I met. I made amazing friends and formed lasting relationships. Without these people in my life, I don't think I could have made it through my four months in Greece. These people enriched my life, supported me constantly and shared the adventure with me. For them, and for my experience, I am forever grateful.
My advice is to put your heart into your study abroad experience. Be prepared to change as a person, but know that these changes are for the better. Don't be afraid to try new food or to travel to new places. You'll probably get sick and you'll probably get lost -- I did both -- but these are things you can't avoid and overcoming them makes you stronger. Keep a journal and write in it regularly; you won't remember little details 20 years from now, so it's worth it to record your memories. Most of all: enjoy. There will never be another time in your life quite like this, so live every second of it.