Huang: Study abroad gave me the courage to stop conforming

Yujia Huang, Columnist

Before I took off to spend eight weeks in Hokkaido this summer, studying abroad had always meant something different for me. I had heard fellow Northwestern students speak about the amazing scenery they saw while studying abroad in Copenhagen, as well as the delicious dim sum they got to try between undemanding courses while enrolled at an institution in Hong Kong. As a result, I naturally equated going abroad for a semester with relaxing and taking a break from the hustle of school. Before I took off to Hakodate, Japan, I was confident that my time studying abroad would be enjoyable, but I didn’t know it would change my life.

Studying abroad was nothing like what I had imagined. Not only did it exceed my expectations, looking back, I can now say that it was the best experience so far for me as a college student.

Sure, I relaxed. I enjoyed the local onsens, munched on delicious bentos from convenient stores and had the luxury and comfort of taking only one class for the entire summer. However, studying abroad was so much more than taking a short break from the hustle and bustle of the busy Northwestern life. Studying abroad exposed me to different worldviews and led me to reconsider what it means to live a good life.

Studying abroad was life-changing. For the first time, I was in an environment where the name
“Northwestern” meant nothing to those I interacted with. People would look at me with
confusion when I told them that I go to Northwestern, and I had to explain that Northwestern is an “elite institution” in Chicago, the United States. For the first time, careers like finance and consulting were not admired or put on a pedestal. Blue-collar jobs are respected in Japanese society: whether you are a driver or a construction worker, people would treat you with kindness, and your salary would allow you to live a decent, respected life in society. I met students who studied architecture, veterinary studies, and art to their heart’s content. When everyone was introducing themselves in my class, I was surprised how few studies studied “financial economics” or “computer science.” For the first time, being “undecided” was okay. When I told the rest of my class that I am still undecided after a year of exploring and taking different classes in college, people responded with approval and passionate recommendations rather than indifference or mere surprise.

Studying abroad is liberating. It offers a new environment where you can step away from all the assumptions you’ve absorbed, whether that is from home or school. It provides a precious opportunity to meet new peers completely different from all the friends that you’ve made before. It teaches you that is not only okay, but good, for you to make decisions about your studies based on your interests rather than peer, parental or institutional pressure.

For the first time since freshman year, I felt that it’s truly okay to have different interests than other people on campus. I realized that prestige is not that important to me, and I want to be able to follow my heart. I had not realized that spending a year at Northwestern had affected some of my values, and the pressure of the pre-professional culture on campus had started to affect the classes I had been adding to my shopping cart.

There’s a story that reminds me of my experience abroad, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other, and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

It’s nice to be reminded of what water is. Though the young fish looks silly, I think it’s fair to say that we all sometimes forget the context that we live in. I can now thankfully say that studying abroad did the same for me: It reminded me of the type of environment I was in, and it helped me go forward to become one step closer to who I was meant to be.

Thank you, Hakodate, for those eight weeks.

Yujia Huang is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.