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Don’t overlook the value of international experiences


By Aitash Deepak     11/14/18 12:17am

When I was 13 years old, my dad came back home one day and told me that we were moving to Angola in a month. I remember asking myself, “Angola? Where even is this place?” After all, I was a young Indian boy, and I hadn’t seen much but my local Mumbai neighborhood. As the news started to sink in, I began dreading the reality of leaving behind everything I held dear. 

Now, though, when I look back at that pivotal point in my life, I realize the true value that was hidden in experiencing life abroad. My hope is that you too will see the often-overlooked value of living internationally.

Moving to Angola was one of the most challenging times in my life. I didn’t speak the language, all my friends were back home and, like many 13-year-olds, I was worried about not fitting into a new environment. But one particular experience did a lot to shape the way I look at the world today. 

In our backyard in Angola, we had a mango tree flourishing with ripe yellow mangoes. I had always been fond of mangoes. When I was much younger, my friends and I used to climb up mango trees and pick the best mangoes before the birds got to them. We would eat mangoes for breakfast, drink my mom’s homemade mango milkshake with lunch and have a mango dessert after dinner. 

We had to travel home to India for a week, so while I was away, I anxiously waited to savor some homegrown fruit. However, when we returned, most of the mangoes were gone. After a conversation with our gardener, we found out that he had taken them for a friend who could not afford to feed his family any other way. 

This heartbreaking, deeply personal experience with poverty in Angola heightened my awareness of poverty back home. India is no stranger to extreme poverty — when you drive through big cities, you see beggars on the street and people living in shanty houses. However, I, like many others, had simply overlooked such poverty. When I went back to India after experiencing life in Angola, I felt more inclined to give back to people in need. I was also more aware of food waste and vowed to cut down on the food that I and people around me threw out. Observing poverty in a foreign environment, where your senses are heightened, helps shed light on issues that seem everyday and unremarkable. If you choose to spend time living abroad, you too may become aware of other aspects of your daily life that you take for granted.

This past summer, I decided to take an internship in Argentina, banking on the four years of Spanish I took in high school. Although working in Buenos Aires was manageable, since the engineers I worked with spoke some English, it got much harder when I was sent to Comodoro Rivadavia, a small town in the south of the Patagonian Desert. 

No one spoke English. I struggled to communicate with peers who spoke fast and used slang among each other. It got lonely and every day for a month, I would glance at the clock repeatedly, waiting for its small hand to turn to five. If it sounds depressing, it was. 

At the same time, though, I developed resilience each day that I pushed myself to try to speak in my broken Spanish. I also learned to truly appreciate my friends and family who were always willing to cheer me up on difficult days. To this day, I wonder why I thought it would be a good idea to work with a company that uses Spanish as its only language of business. But that’s who I am — my decision to take up this tough internship was rooted in my will to constantly challenge myself in international settings.

So, if you have the resources to travel abroad, you should! If you can find time to study, work or volunteer abroad, by all means, do it. It will expose you to cultures and norms that are completely different from what you might now consider normal. An international experience will push you to be more adaptable, self-sufficient and help you develop new skills like cross-cultural communication, possibly in a foreign language. While I consider myself to be lucky to have had such experiences since middle school, resources at Rice like the study abroad office and faculty department heads can help anyone find out about and prepare for time abroad. Going abroad by yourself can seem daunting, but I encourage everyone to spend some time in a foreign environment. Regardless of how much you enjoy the experience, it will make you a more aware, empathetic and resilient person.

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