This summer I travelled to Perú for six weeks to travel, volunteer, and practice my Spanish. When hearing this, many of my friends and professors will ask what Georgia Tech program this was through—study abroad, exchange, etc.—and I will tell them that it was simply on my own. There are plenty of ways to go abroad without going through Georgia Tech, but you do give up some certain securities and advantages when you do this. Here, I will address some of the pros and cons to my own personal experience going abroad as a college student without my college to fall back on.
-Growth. When traveling alone, it throws you out of your comfort zone whether you are ready or not. Although this can be scary, it forces you to mature quickly and realize who you are: what you’re comfortable doing, who you want to talk to, what are your strengths, what makes you anxious, etc.
-International Friends. One downside I saw of many formal study abroad programs were that you are mainly socializing with other Georgia Tech students. You live with them, eat with them, and travel with them. For me, I had to meet friends along the way. I stayed with locals I met through Couch Surfing, made friends in my hostels, stayed with host families, and just talked to anyone I was around without feeling too self conscious to ask for their What’sApp or Facebook information to hang out later. Meeting locals and also other international travelers allows you to experience many different cultures, while gaining connections throughout the world.
-Money. Traveling by yourself is generally cheaper. You can shop around more for flights especially if you do not have a set date. You can choose to stay in less expensive hostels and of course do not have to pay for tuition.
-Make Your Own Plans. This one speaks for itself. You do get to do this through study abroad programs of course, but when you travel alone—you are your own travel agent.
-Language. Without the comfort of your American friends, you are forced to use the language that the country uses. For me, because I know Spanish, this was perfect because I had to speak conversationally in Spanish which isn’t something I get to do often. Of course, this can cause some barriers as well.
-Volunteering. I had ups and downs with my volunteering experience, but overall I’d say volunteering is a great way to get to know the country and also learn more about yourself. In one city, Huancayo, I worked at a “Cuna Más” (or Wawawasi in the other native language, Quechua) which is a government-funded free daycare program. I worked with about ten children all under two years old. In Cusco, I worked in a hospital (San Juan de Dios) with severely mental and physically disabled children. In both sites, I was able to observe government programs, healthcare, and how raising children differs culturally.
-Assurance. I had many situations where they were not what I had expected. For example, in Huancayo I was set up to stay with a host family with many other volunteers. Although Huancayo is the capital of its province, it is fairly small and still poorly developed mainly due to the terrorist activities of Shining Path in the 80s and 90s. My home there did not have heating (and it was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit!) or a shower. There was also only two other volunteers. With Georgia Tech, you know what you are expecting and have first-hand testimonies from other people who have gone on the same trip.
-Classes. I took private Spanish lessons at a Spanish school/hostel in Cusco which definitely improved my Spanish, but I did not receive course credit for them. It would be extremely interesting and advantageous to take a course load abroad. I would have loved to also been able to experience university culture at another school, instead of just hearing about it from my local friends. Many people also become closer with professors when they go abroad, and this is something I missed out on.
-Safety. Being in a large group especially with older members makes you feel safer. Often times, I did not feel entirely safe. My family did get supplemental health insurance for me, so that is something I would advise, but it was always nerve-wracking driving in a place with almost no stoplights and narrow, turning roads. In addition, I was always a bit weary of trusting some of the casual friends I made and strangers on the street. I definitely had some close-call experiences that I probably could’ve avoided if I had gone with a group. In addition, Couch Surfing is a great resource but can be a gamble safety wise. Personally, I always choose to stay with females. Also, I will initiate conversation on Couch Surfing but prefer to continue communication through Facebook so I can get some validation of who they are.
-Loneliness. Although I made a lot of friends and consider myself a social person, I would definitely get lonely. I got sick in Huancayo and decided to stay in a private hostel room for a couple of nights and that could be pretty solitary.
-Experience. If you’ve never travelled alone, I don’t know if I’d recommend you traveling alone. I’ve had some experience traveling alone or with my sister, navigating independently, but I still go anxious at some points. Routing yourself through a busy bus station and being guided to different taxis and rooms etc. can be very confusing especially not in your own language. Traveling alone and making friends is also a special skill that definitely takes practice.
-Missing Georgia Tech! I definitely missed a lot of my peers, friends, and faculty! Georgia Techs students are very globally minded and often have similar traveling styles, so that would have been a lot of fun and comforting!
If you’d like to know more information about traveling abroad on your own, I would look at volunteer websites such as Oprakash and Ubelong. Another resource that I would recommend is AIESEC GT. AIESEC has a chapter at Georgia Tech and accommodates GT students to volunteer and intern abroad. I encourage EVERYONE to go abroad at some point whether it is on your own or with a Georgia Tech Study Abroad Program or Exchange!