Studying Abroad from Abroad

In 1. Greetings, The Art of Travel, Washington DC by Sonia3 Comments

Hi my name is Sonia. I’m a senior studying International Relations at NYU Shanghai. I’m “studying abroad” this semester at NYU DC and this is actually my last semester. I will officially be graduating in December, though, I already participated in the graduation ceremony in Shanghai this past May.

I’m originally from Munster, Germany but I grew up in Orlando, Florida. After my junior year of high school, my grandmother sold her house in the Dominican Republic and took me on a two week tour of China. Up until then, the only other places I had been were Holland and Germany. China was completely different and, like On Anticipation, it was nothing that I had imagined. After the two weeks were up, I didn’t anticipate to be back anytime soon. As a senior in high school, I applied to all three NYU campuses and 24 other schools. The only acceptance that made me audibly scream was NYU Shanghai. However, it was not until I received my financial aid offer that I really began seeing moving to China as a real possibility. To my parents’ dismay, I accepted the offer. The summer before starting college, I backpacked through Western Europe, stopping to visit friends and family. This was my first taste of fending for myself but it in no way prepared me for the years to come.

My love for travel stems from my fascination with behavior. Growing up at the crossroads of three cultures (American, German, and Dominican) left me wanting to evaluate the differences between individuals from different backgrounds wherever I went. That’s one of the things that drew me to NYU Shanghai. The opportunity to live and learn with students from over 40 different countries while getting to live abroad for up to four years was too interesting to pass up. I could not, however, begin to understand how this experience would change me. Looking back, I still can’t quantify how much I’ve grown as a result of getting on that first flight at O’Hare airport back in August of 2014.

The first line of Pico Iyer’s piece really resonates with me: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; we travel, next, to find ourselves.” I felt a bit aimless my last semester of high school. Many of my classmates had decided to stay in Florida and attend state schools. I knew I wanted to go elsewhere. I had assumed elsewhere would be in the northeast or Ohio. When I decided to move 8,000 miles away from home, I was excited to reinvent myself. To create a new college version of myself and leave the Florida version of myself behind. I really did lose myself that first semester. I came in as a neuroscience major. By mid-October, I had determined that although behavior was what I wanted to study, neuroscience was not the path that I should take. It took another year for the university to create my, now, major. In the interim, I spent all the money I had earned on traveling through Asia. By this point, I guess you could say I was trying to find myself.

I survived my first two years in Shanghai. I very much lost myself as many of my peers did. The city swallowed me whole and spat me out a few times. At the end of those two years, I was bruised and weary but somewhere between a trip to Thailand and coming to terms with saying adieu to Shanghai, I finally felt like I was finally putting the pieces of who I was together. I spent my junior year in New York City, where I again had to redefine myself, in a way. By the end of that year, I was more self-aware than I had ever been. In August 2017 I spent a month in Eastern Europe, after which, I took a semester off school to work at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. The following December, I traveled, for the first time, to the Dominican Republic.

By the time I returned to Shanghai this past January, I had been gone for almost 3 years. It was very jarring to be back when so much else had changed. But it turned out to be one of the best semesters of my life. The love-hate relationship I had resented with Shanghai dissolved and I really felt at home. I was very ready to spend this fall in Shanghai. But the opportunity to jumpstart my career and move to Washington D.C. was the smarter choice. So I moved to DC this June to spend both my summer and fall here.

I’ve come to realize that it is when I am at my most uncomfortable that I learn the most: both about myself and the world, and this is why I travel.

(Image: Me at the Capitol.; Source: Sonia Alvarez)


  1. Hi Sonia! I also found myself drawn to that line in Iyer’s piece—I feel like college in general is a time where people are able to reinvent themselves and really start to find their own way as they adjust to new environments, and studying abroad only heightens that experience. I applaud your bravery in choosing to study away from home so often and see so many different places during your time in college. I totally understand the idea of being torn between staying in Shanghai and going to D.C., but I’m sure exploring D.C. will be fun. – Sam (in Florence)

  2. Hi! I love that your post is so honest. I, myself, experienced a lot of the same sentiments when I first came to NYU. Being at NYU Paris for the year is really daunting– I have wondered if I could do it so many times. But I’m ready to jump in, and I think your post has just the attitude I need to adopt to do so.

  3. Hey Sonia! I’m glad to hear that there’s another NYU DC student taking this course; it makes me feel a bit better about staying in the states to study “abroad” even though it’s a bit different in your case. That first line of Pico Lyer’s piece also stood out to me greatly as I felt that I deeply resonated with it in that I too wanted to lose myself and later find myself. I also found it really interesting how you talk about your motivation to study abroad in so many different places; as someone who is currently unsure about his opinion on studying abroad, your ambition to delve into new cultures and evaluate their differences and similarities is really inspiring and I hope to develop the same kind of desire as I study in D.C. this semester. I look forward to reading your later works and I hope to see you around campus.

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