Coming to America to study abroad

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My friends and I went to Yosemite National Park over the weekend. We chose one of the most strenuous trails: the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. When we passed the Columbia Rock landmark, it suddenly rained. We debated whether to continue, especially because it was kind of late — about 5 p.m. Eventually, we decided to continue, because we had already spent three hours hiking and it would be a pity if we gave up now.

When hiking, we must pick a trail and choose whether to keep going up or turn back around. We must, likewise, make a lot of choices in life — such as the decision to study abroad.

You wouldn’t be able to rent a car and go on vacation with your hometown friends. You might not be able to manage bank bills or assemble furniture in your hometown. What are things that you can do only in the United States? Taking a 12-hour plane, being far away from home without knowing anyone, spending a lot of money, speaking a different language and living in an unfamiliar culture — why would you choose that?

Everyone has different reasons for studying abroad, including the pursuit of a new lifestyle or higher education. Some people may care about the process — the journey — to the top, some are looking forward to the scenes at the top, and others may just want to study abroad in order to follow their parents’ wishes.

No matter what your reasons are, once you choose the trail, you are responsible for your choices: to go up or down, to rest or to continue. I still remember the moment when I got off the plane at LAX. I was so scared because I didn’t see the faces I was familiar with. People didn’t speak the same language I grew up with. I couldn’t believe I was about to spend four years studying in the United States. I didn’t know what to expect or how to survive in a foreign country. I wasn’t well prepared for this brand new life.

I’ve been here for two years, and I have struggled a lot with the rigorous academics, different culture, lifestyle changes and language barrier. There were times I wanted to give up, such as when I spent three hours reading 30 pages but failed to understand anything, or when I listened very carefully but still had no idea what my classmates were talking about.

I kept asking myself why I had to suffer so much and why I chose to come to the United States. When I finally made it to the top of the Upper Yosemite Falls, I realized that if you never reach  the top, you are unqualified to judge whether the journey was worthwhile. No matter what you hear from other people, your impression and experiences will be different from others’. You might be disappointed by what you see, or you might have forgotten to bring a camera with you — these dilemmas are similar to the ones you face when deciding to study abroad.

When you are in the United States, you realize that it is not like what you heard from other people or read in a newspaper. There is poverty and environmental problems, such as the California drought. The United States is not as democratic and liberal as is portrayed in the media.

Regardless, the moment you decide to study abroad, you are changed. You’re exposed to a different world, and your worldview changes. The way you encounter people also changes, as does your future.

If you asked me now whether I’d still choose to study abroad, I would say yes. Even though it can be very hard for some people at first, you must and will find a way to survive. On your way to the top, you might fall down or want to give up. If you are lucky, some people may offer you a bottle of water or walk with you for a while. Eventually, however, you must empower yourself with skills and knowledge to solve the problems you encounter.

As just Gandalf told Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there. … If you do come back, you will not be the same.”