Editor’s note: Opportunities to participate in study abroad opportunities are a core part of student life at Illinois State. This story features students that went abroad and complete their program prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) and travel restrictions that followed soon after.

Jennifer Obmann and Nicole Golebiowski have one thing in common—they love to travel and knew that leaving their comfort zones would not only be a life-changing experience with new friends and connections, it would also give them new perspectives on their careers. Although they selected their study-abroad destination on contrasting notions, they aimed to achieve the same goal—see more of the world. Obmann chose to travel to Ireland because it was an English-speaking country while Golebiowski took an adventure to Thailand where the official language is Thai.

Studying and living in Ireland was a dream come true for Obmann who found out she was 71 percent Irish years ago. It was an opportunity to learn more about her heritage. “I believe that the people that are supposed to be in your life aren’t always the ones around the corner. I am also somebody who gets tired of routine and wanted to make a change and experience all I could while I was young.” However, it was a difficult choice between Thailand, Scotland, and Australia for Golebiowski. Choosing Thailand meant pursuing her dreams of exploring the possibilities of adapting to a new environment, learning a new language and trying new food. “You always hear about students studying abroad in Spain or England, but I wanted to be different. I wanted to do something no one has done.”

Ireland became home for Obmann who maximized social media in connecting with new people and making friends in Ireland with whom she explored more countries. Beyond the four walls of the classroom, these trips were educational for Obmann who visited and learned more about historic sites that she read about growing up. Her time studying at the University of Limerick, her host university, was rewarding as she received numerous opportunities to connect with other international students, explore Ireland on organized tours and was even treated to a Thanksgiving dinner considering she was far away from home and family. With the amazing friends she met in Ireland, Obman explored six more countries (England, Poland, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Hungary)

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Obmann also shared some advice for students considering studying abroad. She advises students to watch a lot of YouTube videos and research about the host country. “It helps a ton in terms of where you are, where to find things, and how to interact with people. Learn how to say ‘yes’ if they struggle with pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. I learned what really matters and what really doesn’t. You won’t fully soak experiences in if you spend your time worrying about minuscule things. I learned how make decisions on a whim, and to travel to countries with a very limited knowledge of the language and my surroundings. I learned how to compromise and became very close with new people. I opened myself up to these people who quickly went from strangers to best friends that I will have forever. I learned that people may be from different countries, and may have grown up in different cultures, but we all go through and have gone through similar things.”

While studying abroad in Thailand, Golebiowski traveled to 10 different countries, maximizing her weekends to explore new countries while studying for classes on airplanes. She recalls the remarkably welcoming attitudes of the locals as they shared their culture and family traditions. Nicole definitely achieved her goals of not only trying new food but learning how to make dishes like fried spring rolls, pho bo (beef pho), bun cha (BBQ pork meatballs), papaya salad, and egg coffee. Exploring the North of Thailand (Chaing Mai) was also an adventure as she visited an elephant sanctuary and enjoyed the breathtaking temples on every street. “My study abroad experience was an experience of a lifetime, no words can describe how great it was. I was able to make friends with locals, students from all over the world who were also studying abroad, trying new food, learning a new language from my locals. While studying abroad I traveled to 10 different countries, I would spend my weekends studying on airplanes and in my hotel, for the classes I had during the week then spend my weekends exploring new countries.”

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Golebiowski’s study-abroad experience taught her to appreciate the smallest things we have in life. Recounting one of such experiences, “I met this artist on the streets who told me he had something to give me. He then showed me a photo outlining a five-step process. He explained how oxygen is our first friend and no matter where we go or what we do, we always have a friend with us. So we need to remember to breathe and feel the oxygen. We feel it in our feet-so when we are walking, we know we are never walking alone. We feel it in our arms-so when we do things, we never do them alone. The oxygen goes to your mind and helps you think. And then you feel your heart and by breathing, you can control your emotions not be sad, enjoy your happiness, and stop yourself from being angry. This man also told me that once we stop wanting, we will be truly free. He pointed to the bags of souvenirs I had and said that money and things don’t make us free because it leads to us wanting more. In order to be happy, we should pursue it through the good deeds we do and the relationships we create. We need to remember our first friend, oxygen, and let it help us become happier so that we can then share our happiness with others. It was a sweet sentiment and the philosophy resonated with me.”

Understanding what it feels like to make a decision about studying abroad, Golebiowski advises students to challenge their fears and make the move. “Don’t let anything hold you back. Traveling abroad allows you to learn things no one can teach you at school. I was the only student at Illinois State University who studied abroad in Bangkok, Thailand and it was the best decision I ever made. It allowed me to make new friends and expanding my network.”