Hey y’all! My name is Joel Swiatek, and I’ll be spending this fall at the University of Edinburgh and cannot wait to begin my studies! First, a bit about me.
I’m a fun-loving senior studying Computer Science at UT, originally hailing from Dallas. The best way to describe me is that I’m always down for an adventure, and I love to play. You can often find me camping at McKinney Falls, swinging by Taco Joint before class, or working on programming labs at GDC.
I also tend to jump into things headfirst, which is why after never traveling internationally before, I’m currently sitting alone eating dumplings at an airport in China. The story of how I got here is a whirlwind and I’ll spare you most of the details, but it involved a thirteen hour layover in San Francisco, a nine-day holiday in New Zealand, bungee jumping, some very fast jet boats, an eight-day visit with my wonderful girlfriend who is studying abroad at the University of Sydney, and a few large cups of coffee. I had a lot of fun adventures, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun you’re going to have when YOU study abroad, so instead I’m going to tell you about two BIG ideas I’ve learned after spending my first three weeks outside of the United States. Disclaimer: this is based on my personal experiences, and you may or may not agree.
Big idea number one: People appreciate positive energy and genuine connection, no matter what you look or sound like; feeling connected to others makes you a happier and more compassionate person.
Take a moment to think about your best friend. If you’re like me, from the moment you met that person, there was a mutual SOMETHING that you could both feed off of and use to form the basis of a friendship. It just worked. What the actual thing was didn’t matter, just that you both shared it. I think that when we share (or feel that we share) things with strangers, we humanize them and are more likely to treat them with compassion and respect. What’s more, it doesn’t matter if the stranger looks, sounds, or thinks very differently from you. Some of the most friendly, welcoming people I’ve ever met have come from a completely different background and culture than me.
Often the hardest part about meeting new people is finding that first mutual connection you can bond over and share. This can make travel intimidating and scary, because you have to leave most of your life behind and likely don’t have many connections where you’re going. I think one way to get over this obstacle is to just make an effort to be incredibly positive and open to new ideas and meeting new people. One game that’s fun to play is to treat every stranger as a friend you haven’t met yet, and then try to figure out why you’re friends. (Please do be careful around strangers though!)
Big idea number two: Just like people, problems come in various forms and sizes, but everyone has problems and concerns. In this way, we’re all connected.
This is something I realized after meeting a bunch of people from all different lifestyles all at once (I did a tour group called Contiki in New Zealand, so I spent 24 hours a day with the same ~30 people for nine days). Some people seemed to have it all figured out, and some people seemed to be obviously struggling. After getting to know everyone more deeply, I realized that no matter how much it seems like someone has everything under control, they struggle with something. It’s just human nature. Someone else’s problems might seem inconsequential to you, but that doesn’t mean their problems feel any less challenging for them. Ryan Lochte would never tell someone who can’t swim well that they’re silly for wearing pool floaties, just like I wouldn’t tell Ryan Lochte he can chill out and doesn’t need any more gold medals.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of judging people who come from different backgrounds or cultures than you, especially when most people around you look and sound the same as you. I think that traveling and immersing yourself in other cultures is a really great (if not the best, it’s certainly the most fun) way to avoid this prejudice. If we can all realize that people fundamentally share many of the same basic worries, I think we’d all have a bit more compassion and the world would be a better place. While deciding to study abroad as a really tough decision to make, I’m already glad I took the leap.
(As a bonus, here are two pictures that represent how I anticipate the next few weeks will go as I move in and start classes.)
This post was contributed by Joel Swiatek, a 2018 Global Ambassador.
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