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Heidi Kahle

OPINION 2/18/14 5:40pm

Study abroad offers life-changing experience

This past week marks two months of being back in the U.S. since I spent this past fall semester in Senegal. Coming back home to Rice has been far more difficult than I ever imagined, in terms of re-assimilating to the American and Rice culture. But I’ve also never been a happier person. That’s because studying abroad was, for me, a life-altering period of time in which I challenged myself more than I could have ever imagined, and I have come back with a completely new way of examining the world around me. Now that I’m back at Rice, I want to make it my mission to encourage others to go abroad and understand new cultures and new ways of thinking. Studying abroad should not be the exception, but the rule.Studying abroad, for me, was never a question of “if” but rather of “where.” I had taken some French in high school and at Rice, so it felt natural to improve my proficiency in a second language. I realized, however, that I did not want to go to France and have a regular Western-European semester abroad experience. As a sociology major and Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities minor, I’m constantly studying underprivileged communities and developing nations. Senegal fell naturally into place: It’s a former French colony, a developing country, predominantly Muslim, home to around twenty ethnic groups and characterized by a turbulent history of colonization, the Atlantic slave trade and finally independence. All of these aspects were things I had never lived through and experienced in my life. I was giving up everything and everyone I knew for a semester to live in a place that was completely foreign to me in every way possible.Studying abroad in Senegal was single-handedly the best decision I’ve made as an undergraduate student at Rice. I learned about the nuances of a new culture, what it means to be part of a warm, loud Senegalese family, explored the rich arts of another society and learned not just French, but some of the local languages as well. Being in Senegal was also extremely tough, and without my family and close friends around me, the challenges were that much more difficult to endure and overcome. As a white woman, I was constantly harassed: Though I got used to it and developed coping mechanisms, I was never completely comfortable. I dealt with intense heat and a new dress code, without any relief from air conditioning. I often couldn’t communicate my true feelings to others because of language limitations. I got food poisoning frequently and also faced a limited diet, with a lot of starch and meat. When I was most overwhelmed and anxious, I didn’t have a quiet space to myself at my host family’s home where I could have complete solitude. Many of these examples are little things we take for granted at Rice and in our home communities.I did not even realize how fortunate I was to have my experience until I was back home for just a few days and realized all of a sudden that I had a deep pit in my stomach: I burned to go back to Senegal, take another walk around my host family’s neighborhood, take another trip to the gorgeous beach, just a 15-minute walk from the house, and see all of those people – friends, family, neighbors and the regular passersby – who made my experience so meaningful. Not everyone at Rice has the opportunity to go abroad, particularly to a place like Senegal, where they can fully immerse themselves into a completely foreign living experience. But if someone does have the opportunity, I urge he or she to take it. I promise that person will regret it if he or she lets the opportunity slide by. Though I love Rice, a constant critique I have is the lack of adventure students have and their comfort and complacency with the Rice bubble. I love Rice as much as the next person, but my peers will not get to understand other cultures and places that make the world so beautiful and diverse unless they challenge themselves to go beyond the bubble. And when other students go abroad and come back, it’s important be an ear, listening to the challenges and triumphs they share. I promise they will have so many funny, unbelievable stories to tell, with so much to offer to the Rice community.Go abroad, and make it a defining life experience. I encourage students to push their peers to go abroad and expand their horizons as well: It will re-define the way they continue with their life.Heidi Kahle is a Will Rice College junior

NEWS 2/7/12 6:00pm

Photo: Presidential showdown 2012

Martel College junior Ben Chou (left), Will Rice College freshman Ben Hawriluk (center) and Brown College junior Sanjula Jain (right) face off at the Student Association Presidential debates last Monday. Voting runs through Monday, Feb. 13 at 11:59 p.m. at sa.rice.edu/election2012.