There are countless joys of cultural immersion: learning a different language, finding yourself comfortable within your new surroundings, and making friends from a myriad of backgrounds. But these are often accompanied by constant insecurities, culture shock, and homesickness for the comforting familiars left behind.
It can feel insurmountable, and before I met the people who changed my life, I wondered if it was. As a 19-year old relocated to Angers, France to study and intern, I was paralyzed by trepidation and loneliness, and so shy that leaving my dorm was a terrifying thought. Thankfully, by the third month of my stay, I had become very close with several other students who were experiencing the same heartache and confusion. Although few among us spoke the same native language, we all understood the anxiety of presenting research in front of our unfamiliar classmates, or the frustration of being dismissed by professors because of our accents. What developed between us was an incredible sense of compassion and devotion. We sought to protect one another as we navigated the school system and the city with increasing confidence!
The ways in which we developed these bonds were numerous. We spent hours poring over new material and helping each other understand foreign concepts, sometimes studying together all night before walking back to campus to take our exams. We exchanged our French, English, and Spanish essays to get a native speaker’s insight on grammar and writing style. Speaking of language, I came to love the unusual ways that my friends phrased their thoughts in English, which often reflected nuances of their mother tongue. Our efforts to use international idioms were always appreciated, but often diverged from the original expression; I once came home to a note from my French hallmate that said in elegant lettering, “I love you to the moon and backwards.”
All of us in our turn had times when we needed one another’s strong support and encouragement. We sought ceaselessly to stand by one another however we could. Through every heartbreak and ache of loneliness, I knew with certainty that these people would hold my hand through the night. Perhaps the hardest times were those of the terrorist attacks in Europe and in Turkey, when the homelands of my dearest friends were suffering. Their fear, grief and anger were palpable. Although we were often at a loss for words, we learned the incredible value of being present for colleagues and friends in the midst of their pain. I learned that it isn’t always what you say that means the most, but how willing you are to shoulder another person’s grief and walk beside them through their trials.
While most of my friends stayed in Angers to finish their studies, I had to leave the country in order to finish my last year of university in the US. And although the impending distance stretched over 5,000 miles, I did not doubt for a moment that I would still have these incredible people with me. Three of my dearest friends walked me to the train station that would take me to the airport, taking pictures, laughing as we embraced one another, making my last hour in Angers one of the most beautiful.
Three months later, these are still the people who brighten every day, challenge me, teach me (my French and Spanish grammar is always up for correction), and demonstrate a love that transcends distance and circumstance. Taped to the inside of my car where I can see it every day is a French note that translates to: “Today you are one day closer to reuniting with your dear hearts.” I guard this note zealously for the time when I rejoin the people who taught me with grace and kindness how to cherish others regardless of time and distance.
If you’re jet setting to an international campus to study abroad in the near future, plan to develop and build these global leadership skills:
1. Courage: It is a bold and courageous move to leave everything that has defined you in an effort to learn and grown on the soil of another land. When homesickness creeps into your heart or a new experience catalyzes raw and uncomfortable feelings, be brave. Pushing forward through hard moments in your career, academics and social settings will be worth it.
2. Flexibility: Whether you can’t understand what a professor is teaching or immerse yourself into customs unfamiliar to you. Be flexible in mind and action. Mental flexibility is key to understanding your own cultural biases and growing from learning others.
3. Empathy for Others: Imagine being in the shoes of those around you and strive to feel from their perspectives. This can help you to settle into your new home and also lead to others trying to imagine what it’s like in your shoes.
Get ready my friend, the world is waiting.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is accredited in intercultural management, is the resident etiquette expert for CBS Austin’s We Are Austin, regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, The New York Times, and numerous other media. She is the best-selling, international award-winning author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, named to Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2015 and recipient of the British Airways International Trade, Investment & Expansion Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.