Unexpected Culture Shock: Going “Abroad” Within the U.S.

Maybe I was naive. I just didn’t expect anything to be different. All my other friends leaving for programs abroad were going to exotic sounding cities, and going to Washington, D.C. seemed as foreign as going on a road trip. Sure, it was a few hours on a plane, but I wasn’t crossing an ocean to get there. I wouldn’t have to learn a new language or prepare my stomach for new types of food. Besides, I went to UC Berkeley, a college where students from all over the world came together to form a diverse community. As I finished packing the night before my flight, I remember telling myself, “You’ve got this.”

I was so wrong, and it was apparent as soon as my plane landed. As I looked around, people in dark suits with serious facial expressions seemed to make up the entirety of the crowd, and my petite frame felt even smaller than it usually did. I wasn’t exactly scared, but I was definitely shocked. There was a lot more to Washington, D.C. than I had expected, and there was a lot more to this city than a change from the California weather. The people weren’t the San Francisco tech engineers or business consultants I had constantly been surrounded by, and even though the food wasn’t drastically different, I had to get used to not having avocados (I’m a spoiled Californian, what can I say).

As a couple weeks passed, I realized more and more that going across the country had a lot of similarities to going abroad internationally. The difference in culture was something I hadn’t prepared for, but it made me even more grateful for the opportunity. I learned so much from my semester in D.C. that I can’t imagine who I’d be today without that experience. I only wish that I had acted more like a tourist during my time there, in that I wish I had taken full advantage of my time to explore as if I were an outsider. I wish I had asked more questions while I was preparing about places I should see and activities I should do. I had a lot of assumptions and going across the country helped me realize a lot of things I assumed about myself and my country.

Just as you should keep an open mind when traveling, keep an open mind when you’re looking into programs. Below are three quick points on why a non-international program may be great for you:

Rare “Once in a Lifetime” Opportunities
You may be able to travel to “x” country one day in the future, but what about the programs you’re looking at make them truly unique? Do they offer chances for activities that aren’t realistically possible for the average person? There are activities I did through my program that I know I’ll never get to do again, like riding a special subway for government employees.

If you’re considering a last-minute abroad program, oftentimes programs within your country have much more flexible deadlines than international programs.

Professional Opportunity
My program focused on an internship and research paper, so everyone in the program worked roughly 35-hour weeks during our time there. An internship in an international program may be much harder to pursue, or may not be possible. If you haven’t had much work experience, a program “abroad” within your country may be the perfect opportunity.

Going to D.C. was the perfect semester-abroad program for me, and I highly encourage you to check out programs within your country that you may not have considered. I’m pretty certain there’ll be things you didn’t expect!

2 thoughts on “Unexpected Culture Shock: Going “Abroad” Within the U.S.”

  1. Great post! I think you make some really important points. As you mentioned, one of the many things that studying at a different location in our home country does for us is to bring to light our hidden assumptions about ourselves, our country, our general approach to the world, and many other things, not to mention all the delightful discoveries we make about the new location and its culture. These are things one simply cannot achieve by reading a textbook. I also loved your mention of how you noticed the very different culture of DC, compared to your home base. Finally, it’s a great point that non-international programs have a lot to offer as well. I would love to hear others’ experiences in non-international programs. Could that be a category, if it isn’t already?
    Best wishes to all.

    1. Thank you for reading and your comment! Really appreciate hearing your feedback. We’ll continue posting tags on the blog posts, so you can click “USA” for blog posts about programs in the U.S.

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