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A waste of time. Invaluable. Useless. Reckless. The list goes on to describe the comments and reactions I received when I decided to take a gap year after my high school graduation and become a rotary youth exchange student. 

It was difficult for many to comprehend that I would take a different education route post-graduation. My decision would be conflicting with the social norm by not immediately beginning college. However, I knew that studying abroad was the right decision. Nothing would deter me from trying my hardest to assimilate into a new culture, learn a new language and forge lasting friendships. 

My hands shook as I opened the letter that contained the country I would call home for the next year. Joy flooded over me when I read that I would be living in Belgium. This letter finalized my plans and over the next seven months I began to prepare for my departure. 

[Sienna Chernyavsky beneath the Atomium in Brussels, Belgium.]

My year as a rotary youth exchange student was an emotional roller coaster. The first three months were filled with mentally and emotionally exhausting days. Learning French did not happen with a click of my fingers. But I adjusted. I remained resolved. And I learned. 

I walked up the steps to my host home discouragingly carrying my failed math exam in my hands. My host mother opened the door and asked how my day had gone. I burst into tears as I defeatedly showed her my score. She consoled me for a few minutes, and then looked at me and explained the purpose of my exchange year. I wiped the tears out of my eyes and realized the truth of her words. I was in Belgium to explore the country, build relationships, and learn French. I was not there to become a math major.

While the next few months contained reoccurring tears of discouragement, I continually realigned my expectations. I began to believe that it was okay to not be fluent in a language three months after being immersed in it.

I learned so much. I learned that life’s not just about me. That my life is not the only one that contains struggles, desires and dreams. Studying abroad adjusted the focus lens on my life. Experiences that happened in Belgium that year led me to where I am today. 

The University of Northwestern – St. Paul (UNW) offers a study abroad program for students. This is an opportunity for students to explore the world, experience another culture and receive college credits. 

[UNW study abroad student featuring Machu Pichu]

Studying abroad allowed me to develop valuable life skills. Problem solving, adapting and flexibility are several skills I learned during exchange. I value these skills because I know they are necessary for life. 

It is not too late for you to experience studying abroad. Check out UNW’s study abroad program to discover what opportunities await you. Studying abroad will teach you the most valuable life lessons, let you be immersed in a new culture and form new relationships.