Several times in my life, I have decided to move abroad for an extended amount of time. It wasn’t for aimless travel or party hopping (although there were elements of both in each big trip), instead I wanted to take time out to better myself in some way. I wanted to reinvent myself.
Here’s how how my reinventions worked:
Trip #1 – 12 Months of volunteer work split evenly between the Philippines and Sweden (Age 16)
I was in my mid-teens and this was my first big trip away from home. I had just finished high school as valedictorian and I was a total nerd. While I was great academically I wanted to improve socially. I wanted to be stronger socially than I was academically. I wanted to stop hiding behind book smarts and develop some social savvy.
To achieve this social makeover I completely dispensed with academia for a year. Because I was working with other volunteers that I did not know, I decided that I could be whoever I wanted to be. Instead of a bookworm I decided to be the life of the party. I threw caution to the wind and pushed myself to be bolder than I had ever been, louder than I had ever been and to literally “try on” a different personality – a far more gregarious one. If I failed the stakes were low because I would go home in a year and nobody would need to know about my little experiment.
How did it work out? Well, the year was a tough one. I missed home and my family. I had my share of work and social failures. But, to an almost shocking extent, I was a VERY different person at the end of the year. True, I was definitely in one of the more formative stages of development because of my age. But there was more to the transformation than that. I found that people accepted me for the gregarious, extroverted personality that I projected. I never heard, “Aren’t you supposed be more studious and serious?” or “Where’s the nerd I know?” People didn’t know better and they accepted my reinvention. A transformation that would have met a lot of resistance at home, happened almost effortlessly. It worked! I was ecstatic. And I knew that this was just the beginning.
Trip #2 – One year of language study in France (Age 19)
The next reinvention was in language acquisition. I had grown up bilingual, used to speaking Swedish at home and English at school. Now I wanted French. And all I had was school French. I knew that if I wanted to improve I would need to move to France.
I relocated to France for my entire freshman year of college. I immersed myself in French classes, made French friends and traveled as much as I could.
By the end of the year I tested at university-level French and felt very much at ease switching into any of the three languages that I spoke at the time. It felt very liberating. Mission accomplished.
Trip #3 – 12 months of volunteer work at an international school just north of London (Age 22)
Halfway through college I was feeling restless and I wanted to put to practice all the theory I had been absorbing in my International Public Relations classes. I wanted to know what I was talking about because I had practiced it in real life, because I actually had experience.
To get this experience I talked a principal friend of mine into taking me on as a Public Relations officer at an international boarding school just north of London. I drafted up a list of duties that I felt I could perform and pitched the idea to him. He took me up on the idea and I started one of the most interesting years in my life in which I got to learn about British media relations as well as travel worldwide recruiting students for the school.
By the end of the year in Britain, it was hard to leave because I had enjoyed myself so much. I had been able to transition from doing mock press releases for class to pitching real ones to real media outlets and fighting with them when they screwed up. I was able to take my class presentations and turn them into actual business pitches in Thailand, Sweden, France and elsewhere. I landed the school one of its biggest accounts – a group of students from Hong Kong that started coming over for English Language study. It was really exciting.
Trip #4 – Half a year of language study in Latin America (Age 25)
When I moved to the United States I was almost immediately notified that as fun as it was that I spoke French and Swedish, both would be fairly useless in America and the foreign language to learn was Spanish. I took a couple classes in the US and a night class during my year-off in the US but I wanted to improve and actually feel confident in the language.
So I country hopped in Latin America. I started off with a month of Spanish tutoring in Lima, Peru and then spent several months in Buenos Aires, Argentina, improving my Spanish. I tried to learn from the mistakes I had made learning French. I went to a language institute AND hired a private tutor. I restricted contact with the English speaking world, I immersed myself in Argentine culture and I made sure I made a lot of close Argentine friends. Even simple things like joining a group that played soccer every Sunday morning helped me immensely with language acquisition.
At the end of my half year experience in Latin America my Spanish proficiency had grown by leaps and bounds. My Spanish proficiency was stronger than my French and I took a lot of pleasure in coming back to the US and eavesdropping on conversations that had been impossible for me to understand before. When I moved to LA several months later I was able to navigate the city so much more easily because I spoke Spanish.
How About You?
I have heard so many stories of how people have used travel to reinvent themselves and grow in their quest for savvy, global do-gooding. Do you have a story you want to share? If so, tell me in the comments…