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One afternoon, I was climbing up the Acropolis to visit the Parthenon when I saw two African men selling bracelets to tourists. Taking a chance, I walked up to them and delivered the traditional Senegalese greeting. I knew that many Senegalese immigrated to Europe. "Salaam Alekum," I said. Both of their faces lit up with surprise and joy. "Maalekum Salaam," they responded.

I continued to have a conversation, using my sparse Wolof and French, explaining I was living and studying in Dakar. One of the men was from Senegal, the other from the Gambia. I walked away smiling with a bracelet the colors of the Senegalese flag on my wrist.

This story exemplifies three benefits of studying abroad: first, experiencing new places and cultures; second, having the ability to connect with new groups of people through language; third, acquiring confidence through navigating a new setting and learning about ourselves and the world around us.

Experiencing a new culture and way of life changes one’s perspective of his or her home, the world and the learning process in general. One begins to realize that no one way of living is “correct” or “normal,” and that while humans possess universal traits, we are all different. These differences create unique ways of living and diverse cultures.

I’ve discovered new meanings of time and trust, and the Senegalese have revealed to me a new definition of family, community and friends. Along the way, I have broken down ethnocentrism and realized how little I know about the world around me. We all have so much to learn, and studying abroad creates exposure to many lessons and perspectives. One builds knowledge, gains wisdom and meets people along the way.

Having the ability to communicate with more people creates opportunities for new learning experiences, stories and connections with people around the world. While we may learn from books, professors, documentaries, etc., I’ve found that nothing can replace an individual’s story. The unique question-answer style and empathy that one gains from a face-to-face conversation allows us to connect with one another on a personal, more concrete level.

Everybody has a story, and everyone has something to give, which we can learn from. By studying new languages, one opens themselves up to the opportunity to learn from new people, to hear new stories and to potentially understand a group of people who are otherwise misunderstood.

While studying abroad, you also learn about yourself and your position in the world among others. For example, I’ve learned how to better self-regulate my emotions and the importance of balance in everyday life. Studying abroad is a challenge. One discovers new feelings and must learn to process and manage these emotions. In many ways, one becomes aware of how he or she feels at every moment. It’s a challenge but, also, a growing process.

I also better understand my outward identity. As a white man with an American passport, I hold privilege. Americans have freedom of movement: Our passports allow us to easily obtain visas and to travel to many places others cannot. Meanwhile, many Senegalese people will never be granted the permission to enter the United States. At home in the United States, I have simple amenities such as hot water and electricity that many in Senegal do not, quality health care and education, as well. Once you realize your privilege, you shouldn’t take it for granted. In fact, you should realize its unfairness, and you ask yourself, what can I do with this privilege?

Studying abroad is a life-changing experience, but my learning will not stop once I return home, and your learning does not even have to happen abroad. I challenge all to break down ethnocentrism and to examine their identities in relation to others. I ask others to spark up a conversation with someone they normally would not and seek education in unconventional places.