Boarding my flight from JFK to MAD, I didn’t know where I would be the next time I flew home. Not in a literal sense – but figuratively speaking. Where would I be personally? I knew I would be in a different, more mature place five months after my first flight; but what is it that I would learn that allowed me to grow into the person I was going home.

If you were to have asked me before going abroad, if I considered myself a “global citizen” I would have said yes, naively convinced that my passion for traveling the world and curiosity of other cultures automatically made me one. I was quickly hit with the truth that that title didn’t fully belong to me.  As defined by the Oxfam organization, a “global citizen” is someone who is aware of and understands the wider world – and their place in it. As Americans, although we are aware of globalization and how different communities can be reached by the touch of an electronic screen button, many of us, including myself have failed to realize that this doesn’t equate to our understanding of the wider world itself.

In history class, we refer to Europe as the Old World, and the Americas as the New World – almost as if they are two separate entities, functioning entirely differently. While I wouldn’t refer to Europe as “old”, I do agree that we are completely different worlds – Europe and the United States of America (yes, intentionally excluding the other nations making up the Americas). From education to government to lifestyle to culture, we have just a handful of similarities (given the UK as an exception). I’ve learned this through exploring different countries, talking with people of other nationalities, listening to course lectures, and every time I do so, I come to this same conclusion. I’ve also learned the consequence of us functioning entirely differently. To sum how one of my international friends put it – the United States is this big, powerful country whose only focus is on itself and its global position.

The other nations can’t help but turn their eyes towards what we are doing in America because of our massive influence in entertainment, media, politics, and the global economy. I’ve always understood our large presence on the international stage, but never considered the true effect on others. Amongst other Americans, we joke about how other countries dislike us but don’t take a step back to understand why they look at us or treat us differently. I believe if more of us did we would know the answer – and it’s one I’ve just stated. Our world is globalizing at an exponential rate, but we still unknowingly function as two different entities. If we look at the bigger picture, turn our eyes and focus on entertainment, media, and politics that aren’t just ours in the United States, we would be aware of and understand the wider world, and more importantly, our place in it – that’s what being a global citizen is all about. That’s why going on exchange has been such an insightful, life-changing opportunity.

I could write a book of takeaway lessons from being an exchange student, but this is by far the most relevant. It is what has changed my perspective, widened my lens, and allowed me to say with full certainty that I am a global citizen. It is what has made me a full advocate for students to apply to a study abroad program and take that flight overseas as I did five months ago.