Earlier this year, Salma Awad boarded a plane heading to Athens. Watching Egypt disappear as she crossed the Mediterranean, her emotions teetered between excitement and anxiety. Having traveled before, she carefully researched her destination’s culture, food and tourist traps and was ready to reach out to locals for friendship and guidance.
After just four months living in Greece, which included hiking a volcano, becoming an expert in using charades to overcome language barriers and eating plenty of souvlaki, Awad returned to Cairo — the same person outward, but inward, forever different.
“Life-changing” is an oft-used term when people reflect on travel. Exiting the comfort zone and exploring a new city and culture can have a profound impact on a person’s worldview. Sometimes, such a change is immediately noticeable, while at other times, we don’t recognize the shift until long after we return home.
Now back at AUC, Awad, an architecture senior, shares some of her memorable experiences and insights about her semester abroad at The American College of Greece.
I believe that Greece picked me.
The first thing I was drawn to was the country’s abundance of nature. I am a nature-driven person. I can spend hours staring into the sea’s horizon or listening to the songs of birds and the rustle of leaves as the wind passes through. When I first googled the campus in Athens, the greenery surrounding the campus spoke to me. I knew that it was my place to go.
Same, but Different
Egyptians and Greeks have very similar cultures, from the way we talk and our mannerisms to the food we eat. But there are differences.
Early on in my travels, I experienced the bystander effect, which isn’t really a thing in Egypt. My roommate, who is also Egyptian, and I had just finished our first grocery run, and it was a 30-minute, uphill walk back to the dorms. Our bags began to rip, and our groceries spilled onto the sidewalk. Panicking, we looked around to find people staring, yet no one offered help. We laughed it off, but this was a big shock: realizing that this reaction isn’t always present in other countries. I think this challenge of cultural norms made us more independent and taught us how to handle — and laugh off — stressful situations.
No matter the duration, living in another country comes with emotional challenges. The biggest challenge there was being away from my family. It may sound small when I write “four months,” but I haven’t been away from my family for that long before. There were days when I felt homesick — especially during Ramadan and Eid — and I’d cry to them and tell them how much I missed them. Other days, I’d remind myself, and be reminded, that this is a great opportunity to learn, grow and develop as a person, so I should make the most out of this experience.
The most important thing I learned was how to face my fears. My professors, friends, roommate and family all challenged me to do this in different ways. In my Color 1 class, I learned that when I’m afraid to do something, I should close my eyes and open my ears to my gut. One’s gut feeling is powerful and can help navigate through fear. My professor taught me that it’s okay if my painting comes out terrible or ruined. Sometimes it’s about the process and not the outcome because the outcome will happen eventually. It’s the process that needs to be worked on.
While abroad, I realized I forgot that I believe in magic — which for me, is the product of the colors and emotions within a space. When I think of a memory, I remember how a particular room or part of nature made me feel, and what its color was. Moving forward in my education and career, when I design a space, I want to make sure that I remember to make it feel colorful, kinder, welcoming and, most of all, magical.
I feel very lucky and grateful for the eternity of the study-abroad experience. It helped me figure out what I want and need in my life and career, as well as how I wish to pursue my academic work. Travel makes you aware of your true likes and preferences when you are on your own. It teaches one more empathy and understanding of differences. Everyone’s experience is by far different from the other, but if you remind yourself to enjoy all that comes, no matter how different, challenging or experiential, you’ll understand how it was all worth it.
Most importantly, remember to bring back your experiences home with you. It can be challenging at first, but your learnings aren’t restricted to the place you acquired them. You come home and continue to learn from them.
When you return, I suggest reflecting intensely on your experiences, including what you liked and what you wish you could improve for next time. The realization of how you matured and your increased ability to read situations and people will be one of your greatest moments.
There are two simple ingredients to know if you’ve actually changed: It’s all about reflection and the habits you created in your time abroad. Believe you did change. You just need to sit with yourself and reflect on all the good, bad and everything in-between circumstances and situations you’ve been through during your time abroad.