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Lessons Learned Abroad

Maeve And Her Host Sister

By Maeve B., YES Abroad 2016-2017, Bosnia and Herzegovina, from Rochester, NY

If I was asked last year to point out Bosnia and Herzegovina on a map, I wouldn’t have been able to. As I’m now nearing the tenth month of my exchange in Bosnia, it’s hard to believe that a country I had never heard of, has become a country I now call home. It seems like just yesterday my vision of studying abroad was more like a dream than an actual possibility. Now that dream has become my life, and very soon I’m going to have to leave it behind.

I’ve always felt perfectly comfortable in my small town back in the States. The people I interact with everyday are the same people I’ve grown up with and known for years. In Bosnia, I was truly an outsider for the first time, which caused me to question my confidence and self-perceptions prior to exchange. Moving to a country where I didn’t know the people or the language challenged my flexibility and patience; it taught me to let go of expectations and instead to accept aspects of culture that were difficult to understand.

Learning a new language was yet another obstacle of exchange. Living in a place where I didn’t have complete control and confidence in speaking the language made me realize how often I take for granted monolingualism in the U.S. I had never before felt insecure about my accent or grammar when speaking until my exchange. With every small accomplishment, whether it be greeting a neighbor, learning how to order food properly, or giving a stranger the time, I learned to appreciate the small victories. It also encouraged me to talk less and listen more when I couldn’t completely understand what was going on around me. I often find myself interrupting friends and family when I talk to them, but simply trying to understand conversations on exchange increased my patience and attentiveness towards others. Not only has this improved my listening skills, but my Bosnian skills as well.

Another slightly shocking aspect of culture for me in Bosnia was the appreciation of free time. In the U.S. I’m constantly occupied with school and extracurriculars, which eat up the majority of my time. Conversely, most people in Bosnia don’t seem to be in a big rush, perhaps because there is less pressure to always be “doing something.” While plans seem to fall through here more often, this has provided me with another lesson in patience and flexibility. In Bosnia, I had far more time to spend with my host family, and explore Sarajevo. It made me realize how often I’m preparing for the next thing. My life in Sarajevo taught me that a meaningful use of time does not necessarily constitute a planned activity or event. Some of my favorite moments on exchange have been enjoyed simply chatting with my host family over coffee.

In the end, I can honestly say that a year of exchange has taught me far more than a year of school ever has. Learning about a place from a textbook is a completely different thing from actually experienced it. While this might seem obvious and even expected, few other high schoolers receive the opportunity to leave their home country and live for ten months in a different one. Going through such a transformative experience at a young age is truly incredible, and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to go on exchange.  Though I will no longer be living in Bosnia, I will continue to hold on to the memories of my exchange and love for my host family wherever the future may take me.