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Before I took off to spend 8 weeks in Hokkaido this summer, studying abroad has always meant something different for me. I have heard fellow Northwestern students speak about the amazing scenery they saw while studying abroad in Copenhagen, as well as the delicious dim sum that they got to try while taking undemanding courses while enrolling at an institution Hong Kong. As a result, I naturally equated going abroad for a semester with relaxing and taking a break from the hustle of school. Before I took off to Japan, I was confident that my time studying abroad would be enjoyable, but never did I think that it would be so life changing.

I was wrong. Studying abroad was nothing like what I had imagined. Not only did it exceed my expectations; looking back, I can now say that it was the best experience so far for me as a college student.

Sure, I relaxed. I enjoyed the local onsens, munched on delicious bentos from convenient stores, and had the luxury and comfort of taking only one class, instead of four, for the entire summer. However, studying abroad was so much more than taking a short break from the hustle and bustle of the busy Northwestern life. Studying abroad opened me up, challenged me to different worldviews, and led me to reconsider what it means to live a good life.

Studying abroad was life-changing. For the first time, I was in an environment where the name “Northwestern” meant nothing to those I interacted with. People would look at me with confusion when I tell them that I go to Northwestern, followed by lengthy explanations, where I tell them that Northwestern is an “elite institution” in Chicago, the United Students. For the first time, careers like finance and consulting were not admired or put on a pedestal. Blue-collar jobs are respected in Japanese society: whether you are a driver or a construction worker, people would treat you with kindness, and your salary would allow you to live a decent, respected life in society. For the first time, I met students who studied architecture, veterinary studies, and art to their heart’s content. When everyone was introducing themselves in my class, I was surprised that majors like “financial economics” or “computer science” was not even mentioned once. For the first time, being “undecided” was okay, not mocked upon. When I told the rest of my class that I am still undecided after a year of exploring and taking different classes in college, people responded with approval and passionate recommendations rather than indifference or mere surprise.

Studying abroad is liberating. It offers you a new environment where you can step away from all the assumptions you’ve been told, whether that is from home or school. It provides you with the precious opportunity of meeting new peers who might be completely different from all the friends that you have made before. It teaches you that is not only okay, but GOOD, for you to make decisions based on your interest rather than peer, parental, or institutional pressure.

For the first time since freshman year, I felt that it’s truly okay to not be interested in what everyone seems to be interested in on campus. I realized that prestige is not that important to me, and that I want to be able to do anything that my heart tells me to. I had not realized that spending a year at Northwestern has affected some of my values: the pressure of the pre-professional culture on campus has started to affect what kind of classes I have been adding to my shopping cart.

I still remember a humorous dialogue I once read: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other, and goes “What the hell is water?”.

It’s nice to be reminded of what water is. Though the young fish looks silly, I think it’s fair to say that we all sometimes forget the context that we live in. I can now thankfully say that studying abroad did the same for me: It reminded me of the type of environment I was in, and it helped me go forward to become one step closer to who I was meant to be.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis


  • Yujia Huang

    Thrive Global Campus Editor-at-Large from Northwestern University

    Welcome to my column featuring conversations with various American entrepreneurs.