How an Exchange Experience Will Change Your Life

Where would I be had I never studied abroad? 

study abroad - change your lifeI sometimes imagine the answer to this question. My life is pretty exceptional. I’m “living the life” (I have a great lifestyle), so to speak, here in Brazil.

Sometimes I look on Facebook at the people with whom I graduated High School and College, and I see that now most of them are living in the same cities in Colorado. Some of them have gotten a job in Denver. Several have made it to more interesting American cities. But very few are doing what I’m doing.

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It’s not to say that what I am doing—living abroad—is better. But many of these people that I mentioned before are envious of my experience. There is no reason why they couldn’t come live in Brazil. But surely, my past experiences Studying Abroad have prepared me for this kind of lifestyle, along with changing my life in countless other ways.

In this article I will tell you:

  • HOW study abroad changed my life (Part I)
  • WHY you should consider studying abroad (Part II)
  • HOW study abroad can change your life. (Part III)

My Experience

I lived in Colorado most my life. My travel experience growing up was a trip to Mexico once a year with my family. We’d pack up the mini-van and make a 16-hour drive to San Carlos for spring break.

But I never viewed this as “going abroad”.

It wasn’t until I first went to Europe when I was 13 that I really experienced travel. My Aunt was living in Germany, so my family decided to take a trip to see her. I had no interest in visiting Germany. I had always heard that Germans are cold people and I didn’t know what the country possibly had to offer.

But that summer before we left, my mother put me in a one-month Beginning German course. I had a great teacher, and I quickly fell in love with the language and culture. When I went, I couldn’t believe the hospitality that we received. People were always so excited that I knew how to speak a little bit of German. My aunt’s neighbor, an old grandmother, brought my brother and me chocolates every day before we left on our excursions.

On this trip we travelled to other parts of Europe, but the German culture and people made the biggest impression on me.


So when I got to high school (ninth grade), I started taking German class each semester.

When I was 17, my friend’s sister got back from studying abroad in Costa Rica with a program called AFS. I was over at their house listening to her stories. She gave me a pamphlet from the organization, and after reading it I decided that I wanted to go live abroad.

I had never lived outside of my hometown, Durango, Colorado, so naturally I was scared about making such a huge change in my life. But I was excited about the possibilities, so with the support of my family, I was able to spend six months living with a host family in a small German town called Uslar.

I went to school there with Germans around my age. I was the only American and therefore I was forced to speak German a great majority of the time. Really, the only opportunity for me to speak my native language was when I had English with my class, in which the teacher would sometimes ask for advice or help with the lessons.

I fell in love with Germany. I not only made friends and experienced what life was like for a German my age; I also became accustomed to the life style.

Host Family and School

goofyWith my host family, I got to celebrate holidays, travel to Berlin and Stuttgart, and try new German cuisine every day.

I was introduced to a new lifestyle. I reinvented myself to fit the culture in some ways. My eyes were opened. Germans my age were different in a lot of ways. The drinking age there was 16 (five years earlier than in the United States), and I found that this made them much more responsible when it came to alcohol, and more mature in general.

German high school was also different because there weren’t niches like in the United States (people generally hanging out with specific groups of people that are similar to them). People didn’t hang out in groups; they all did things together. Perhaps this was just the lifestyle of a small town.

German Culture

German culture is one of the oldest in Europe. Christmas time was amazing with the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) where I would go with my friends to drink some Glühwein (hot wine with spices) and eat Nutella Crepes.

But more than the differences, I noticed the similarities.

I grew up thinking, and even being taught in many ways, that people in other countries are different; that Americans are unique and exceptional. It’s a sense of patriotism that many people blindly hold having never left their own country, yet thinking that it is better than other.

When I returned home, I grew a negative view of the U.S. But I was young and naïve, and I later used my experience abroad to see how my home country is a great place to live. But more on that in Part III.
I had such an amazing experience in Germany that I knew I wanted to study abroad again. I “got the bug” (this can mean to get a sickness, but in this case it’s a metaphor for becoming addicted to something: I got the bug to travel and to learn languages. This is also known as Wanderlust).

AFS had a couple orientations in which all of the exchange students from the area would meet in a central town. I met people from all over the world this way (widening my view even further). There were several South American Spanish speakers. The only exposure I’d had to Spanish before this was in Mexico, and I had never liked the language. But hearing some different accents, it really grew on me. So when I got to college (university) I decided to learn Spanish and study abroad in Spain.


When I was 20, I finally got to go live abroad again, this time in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. I went for a year (and although that seems like a long time, it was still far too short). I studied at the University of the Balearic Islands, and all of my classes were taught in Spanish.

In Europe, there is an exchange program called ERASMUS. Palma is one of the locations. My study abroad program (CIEE) included us Americans in events with ERASMUS, and other study abroad students. So not only did I make Spanish friends, I made friends from all over the world.

We did all sorts of different things together, from going to the beach, to excursions, to partying. It was truly the best year of my life. I learned Spanish and I met people who are some of my best friends to this day.

I grew more mature from this experience, living with friends rather than with a host family. I really needed to learn how to take care of myself—even though my roommates and I shared responsibilities: we cooked and cleaned together, and even took care of a dog collectively. And of course the language barrier made things difficult sometimes, but this is a natural part of the process.

I had some of the most amazing experiences in Spain, which definitely form a part of my best memories. Let me tell you about a few of them:


Three of my best friends (two Spaniard guys and one American girl) and I took a three day kayak trip around the island of Formentera, Spain for Spring Break. We literally slept on the beach, under a closed bar cabana and in the woods. We also found a closed hotel that had a window left open, and we slept there for 2 nights (we used couch cushions for beds, which was a welcome change from the ground!). We didn’t bring tents.

We ate spaghetti for six days (one night we forgot to buy fresh water, so we just cooked the pasta using sea water. I’ve never had such a salty meal in my life!).

We kayaked around 50 miles one day. My friend decided to get out of the kayak to pee and tipped it (flipped it over), with me inside, into the sea. After that we decided it’s better to pee into the drain holes.

By the end of our journey, we thought our arms were going to fall off (it was difficult just to carry my life vest, and near impossible to bring the kayaks onto shore). But, after three long days of paddling and sleeping in odd places, we made it all the way around the island. Despite all this, it was the most fun and beautiful trip I’ve ever been on. And whenever we weren’t in the kayaks or panting from exhaustion, we were laughing until our ribs hurt.


Another one of the adventures I undertook was trying to hike from the small town of Valledemossa to another town called Sollér in Mallorca. Sounds easy, right? I was with the same two Spanish friends that kayaked Formentera with me. We expected this hike to follow a beaten trail (a path that has been used by many people) and take just a few hours.

We made it halfway between the two towns when the trail veered (turned) towards another town. We asked some other hikers that we saw, who luckily had a map, where the trail to Sollér was. They told us that there wasn’t one and that we needed to take the trail down and follow the road to Sollér.

But we wanted to hike, not walk down the road. So we used my friend’s iPhone to point us in the right direction and started off. It took much longer than we expected. We ran out of water, and found a pipe leaking some water into a pond (we had no idea where it came from) and we decided to fill our bottles (it ended up being potable, luckily).

It started getting dark when we finally arrived above Sollér.

But the only way down was a steep descent, and in the dark this could be dangerous. But we were not prepared, as we had no sleeping bags, tents, food, or even a lighter. Camping would have been chilly (cold).

So we decided to go hike down—or should I say tumble (fall) down—using our phones as flashlights. We eventually made it to the road with just some scrapes and bruises.

The first thing we did after getting a hostel in Sollér was to get a huge pizza with all the toppings and a beer!

Sleeping in a Cave

One awesome weekend, we planned a party for all of the exchange students at a beautiful beach called Cala Varquez. We had bonfires, played guitars and sang, jumped off of cliffs, swam, and had some drinks.

There’s nothing better than a party on the beach with good friends.

Once again, it got pretty cold out at night, and my friends and I didn’t bring a tent—just some blankets. We tried sleeping on the beach, but it was freezing (very cold). So we decided to try sleeping in the cave, which was warmer. Eight of us squeezed (fit into a small space) in the cave, sleeping front to back. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it was much warmer, so we slept well.

The next morning, we saw that someone else was sleeping in the cave, face down. We were worried and we weren’t sure if he was ok. No one volunteered to get up and someone said, “throw a rock at him.” So we did, and sure enough he moaned—he was fine.

We got up and went outside. About half an hour later, the guy in the cave came out. It was our Brazilian friend. And we asked again if he was ok and why he was sleeping on his face. His response was, “No one understands me,” in his thick Brazilian accent, and we spent the next 20 minutes laughing about it.

I still laugh to myself sometimes thinking about these experiences. My year studying abroad in Spain is something I’m glad that I’ll never forget. I had all of these survival adventures that I can’t compare to any other time in my life.

And living in Spain has now brought me to Brazil. Amongst the friends I made there, the Brazilians were the ones whose culture and language intrigued me the most. I knew that after I graduated from college that I wanted to move here and learn Portuguese.

And I made it happen. I’m getting more comfortable every day speaking Portuguese, and I’m living an awesome life here in Brazil.

So, where would I be had I never studied abroad?

I certainly wouldn’t be in Brazil writing for Real Life English.

I would have never met and gotten to know many of the people who I consider my best friends.

I’d have a much more closed view of the world.

And I would probably be bored at a 9 to 5 job in Colorado, not sure what I was doing with my life. Well, I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life now, but at least I’m in an exotic place where every day there is something new and interesting to experience!

I hope you have found my experience and stories funny and interesting. I hope it’s inspired you to make a change in your life, to save some money, and to study abroad. If you feel bored with your stable life and you crave something else, then go out and make your life an adventure!
Even if you can only go abroad for a short amount of time, you will be given a new perspective, and the benefits will last you your entire life. I highly recommend you consider some sort of exchange program, and I hope this series of articles will convince you.

I’d love for you to post below the country or city where you’re dying to live or study abroad. Why do you want to live there? And what actions are you taking to make it happen?

If you want to know how study abroad can change your life, then be sure to read Part II and Part III! Want to learn more?

  • Great article, man! Nothing beats traveling!

  • adonis says:

    very good. You’re helping me to study English. Tkss!

  • Bárbara says:

    Hi, I’m from Chile. I want to learn English and I would really love to study abroad in Vancouver, Canada! But I’m not 100% of sure…. I know it’s a great experience and is gonna change my life but it’s hard to me to leave my family for 6 months! I think that I will do it but I can’t deny that I’m afraid… I want to live there because I heard that it’s so beautiful! and it always caught my attention. I hope to face my fears and make it happen 🙂

  • Atsuo Iwasaki says:

    Yeah,Surely we will be given a new perspective over the world.

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  • Gabriela García says:

    Me encantan tus artículos, uno me ha llevado a otro y he leído casi todos!

    • Agnieszka Tkacz says:

      That’s wonderful! I hope you will stay with us for longer 🙂