Some Things Can Only Be Seen By The Results They Cause

Part I. Pre-Departure

Some things can only be seen by the results they cause.

At the young age of thirteen, I was diagnosed with a generally painful, self-limiting skeletal condition, which could be aggravated by physical activity and long periods of standing and sitting. However, I told my doctor that I didn’t feel any pain associated with my spine. Nothing hurt, nothing felt different, except maybe my perception of myself.

My desire for renewal only increased with every promise to myself that I was not my condition. I told myself I could do whatever I set my mind to. Thus, I became passionate about one day studying abroad.


Part II. Abroad in Chile

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Photos taken at Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra, Chile.

Valparaíso, a city that always surprised me, became my home. Words that flood my mind when I think of my Valpito include gritty yet groovy, edgy air, and bohemian vibes. Every corner of the city vibrant with colors and art. It is truly a unique metropolitan maze infused with a new of living.

Photos taken in the streets of Valparaíso, Chile.

My time in South America was an experience filled with endless hours cooped up in buses, exploring breathtaking landscapes, petting innumerable stray dogs, sharing of stories and laughs, and making new friends – And I wouldn’t trade these memories for anything in the world.

Each day I sought for the next adventure, the next challenge to push myself to my limits and to understand the world around me. Each adventure had moments of pure clarity and beauty.

One of my greatest adventures was living with a host family. I never expected to love and care for my host family and friends as much as I do. Growing up with two older brothers, it was like second nature to have two younger host brothers who joked with me and picked on me all the same. I never before had considered anyone non-blood related to be part of my family, but now I see that you can find family anywhere. The way I was accepted and welcomed into their home was absolutely remarkable and felt so natural. They taught me so much about their culture and what it meant to be part of their family. They will forever be my Chilean mom, dad, and brothers.

Photo with my host brothers taken in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Photo with my host brothers taken in Viña del Mar, Chile.

When I left for Chile I was in search of new stories and memories. I found so much more.

Part III. Re-Entry

The results from studying abroad can clearly be seen.

A little over six months ago, as a 20 year old, I could have said I had never gone through a serious heartbreak. Maybe it is sad to admit that, or maybe it should be a relief to admit that my heart has not been punctured or wounded in ways that change it, perhaps I should have even prided myself on it. But leaving Chile – I think that is the closest I’ve come. Nothing hurt but my heart.

Could leaving a place that became a home cause my heart to feel the way it did?

Photo taken in the hills of Valparaíso, Chile.

Photo taken in the hills of Valparaíso, Chile.

Everyday I was guided by warm colors covering the hills and a new guide to me – the ocean. I witnessed sunlight grow from the mountains and had it dance in the palm of my hands before I watched the ocean swallow it whole. My nose would tell me when to wake up each morning, the comforting and undeniably delicious aroma of freshly baked bread. Each day there was a new door, a new direction, and a new way to be. My perspective grew wider and higher with each passing experience. The frequency of my exploration forcing me to reflect as I experienced. I felt alive. Surely it was the grandest moment of my life.

Photo of sunset in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Photo of sunset in Viña del Mar, Chile.

Just like that it was over, and I returned to Wisconsin.

What I didn’t anticipate is the reality of re-entry. As a favorite movie of mine states: “It’s the halves that half us in half” (Like Crazy). Being whole is a luxurious idea. When I left Chile I found that it had become part of me; then I realized what it was like to be halved.

If you’ve studied abroad you’ve heard the “Stages of Transition”: the anticipation, the honeymoon, the frustration, the plunge, and the adjustment. I think we talked so much about it in my pre-departure study abroad class it will forever be ingrained in my mind. For me at least, my six months in Chile felt like one big long honeymoon. Of course I had a few ups and downs, but nothing in comparison to the return.

Returning is hard. It takes time to adjust.

Part IV. Advice

My regards to those who will one day find themselves in a similar situation. What one comes to understand over time is that you go from one life-changing experience to another and you will continue to see the world, but in a different light.

1) Wisdom is about experience.

Just because you’ve returned from such a life changing experience doesn’t mean the experiences stop. It is important to continue to challenge yourself and open new doors. In the end, the times in your life when you step out of your comfort zone and try to see what the world has to offer end up being the stories that define you.

Photos taken while hiking the W trail in Patagonia, Chile.

2) Stay driven.

Studying abroad challenges you in ways you never thought possible. You have to overcome language barriers, adapt to new currencies, broaden perspectives, take risks, and more. Your experience abroad redefines and solidifies where your interests lay, both personally and academically. Travel and adventure will be craved. Yet, life happens and sometimes sight of what is important is lost because we get caught up in the day-to-day life. It is important to sit down every once in a while and go over your goal plan. As your goal becomes clearer and you get closer to it, you may need to adjust the plan you have been using to reach it. Always keep an eye on how you’re feeling and where you are going. Keep your course fresh and updated. Life changes so fast and we need to change with it and change up our plan to stay in the game and on point.

3) Friendship is coming together, no matter how close or far it may be.

You’re going to miss your abroad friends and all the adventures you once had. Upon arriving home, it is hard to communicate your experiences with people who weren’t there with you. People aren’t as interested in your study abroad experience as you thought they would be. You are going to desperately want everyone to grasp your intercultural experiences. It is important to understand that they had experiences here while you were gone too. Find ways to communicate to the friends and family who remained, but also find new friends who can relate to your experiences. And of course, stay connected with your friends from abroad. Share your frustrations and joys with them, plan trips to visit one another, and most of all – enjoy the lifelong friendships you made because the experiences you had with them are unforgettable.

Photo taken in Pucón, Chile.

Photo taken in Pucón, Chile.

4) Soak up the lifetime of benefits.

We all know there are benefits to study abroad. Whether you studied abroad for one reason or another, we all have the benefits: academic, social and cultural, personal, and professional. But, do you know how to use these benefits to your advantage? Less than two percent of American students study abroad, so it gives us a competitive edge when it comes time to apply to graduate school, internships, or careers. Employers seek employees with international experience in our global economy. It is important to learn how to promote your skills and provide specific examples while studying abroad to verify your skill sets.

To conclude, returning home is hard and readjustment can be slow, but I can guarantee it’s worth it. Studying abroad will be one of the best experiences of your life.

Photo taken in Los Ojos Del Caburgua, Chile.

Photo taken in Los Ojos Del Caburgua, Chile.

Kaitlin Cullen studied abroad with API in Valparaiso, Chile. She currently serves as a Peer Mentor on her home campus – University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.

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