It’s 11pm on a Thursday when I step off the plane. The air is warm and filled with a scent I can’t immediately place, but will later fall in love with: sand, salt, citrus, and cardamom. Arabic music blasts from a car stereo outside of the airport and buses piled high with men on their cell phones, women much more covered than I am (I self-consciously pull my scarf tighter), and crying babies fill the parking lot. “Welcome to Jordan!” someone shouts at me.

I am definitely not in Wisconsin anymore.  Twenty-four hours earlier, I was safe in the heart of my beautiful Madison campus, drinking Spotted Cow and eating cheese curds. I cried as I hugged my friends goodbye on Bascom Hill, that massive statue of Abe Lincoln gazing down on us. Now, all because I’m a journalism student and have this crazy notion that all of the exciting news is in the Middle East, I’m boarding a bus to a small town near the border of Syria to study Arabic.

“Studying abroad in Jordan not only changed my life, it defined it.”

“You know, local news wouldn’t be so bad,” I think, as we bump and veer along a dusty mountain road, forests to the east and the Rift Valley to the west.

Amman, Jordan

In the first week, I eat my weight in hummus, hack out the Arabic alphabet (though my hacking noises need serious work), and befriend a group of students. I breathe a sigh of relief. I just might be ok.

As the months go on, it becomes clear I’m going to be better than ok.  I’m going to fall hard for the language, the place and people, the culture and food, the scents and sounds. I’ll start to smile at the call to prayer – that beautiful, warbling voice that permeates the city and wakes me at ridiculous hours.  I’ll settle into rituals: a stop at the Nescafe stand and bakery each morning for a coffee fix and sweet, sticky honey and semolina cake.  I’m going to become enchanted with the grit of the city, exposed in graffiti and smoke and industrial buildings, contrasted by rolling hills and pastures just outside its borders. I’ll marvel at the blend of old and new; of Pepsi signs mounted next to ancient castle ruins. I’m going to develop a fondness for scarves and elaborate teapots, and become picky over falafel sandwiches. I’ll learn that universities worldwide share comfortingly similar qualities, and I’ll meet some of my closest friends. And by the end of summer, I’ll linger outside of the airport, breathing in that sandy, cardamom-filled air one last time, before boarding the plane back to Wisconsin, a place that will then feel both foreign and mundane.

“I wish that someone would have told me that taking time to pursue a passion doesn’t prevent, but instead ignites, a better future.”

Studying abroad in Jordan not only changed my life, it defined it. I always knew I wanted to be a journalist and cover news in the Middle East, but I had imagined I would be reporting on war, not falling in love with the routines of daily life. I had assumed that traveling to that part of the world would be a duty and a career step, not a joy.  In getting to know the land, the people and the culture, I realized that I was no longer going to be happy settling on a life in the United States, and I wasn’t necessarily interested in strict reporting. Instead, I discovered a new passion for telling stories; for delving into and detailing lives and issues without the restriction of needing to be objective. My perception of journalism, particularly as it pertained to the Middle East, had been shaken and I felt I needed to continue exploring, to see what else was out there.

I wish that, while in college, someone would have told me that seeing the world and having conversations with people was okay; that it was, in fact, a form of education more real, perhaps more important, than four (very expensive) years of formal study. I wish that someone had told me that curiosity, compassion and the ability to navigate the unknown are learned best through experience (and are traits that employers often value); and I wish that someone would have told me that taking time to pursue a passion doesn’t prevent, but instead ignites, a better future. A passport can be worth more than a plan.

“My advice: Go. Travel. Scare yourself. It’s ok.”

After that semester in Jordan, I did return back to Madison to finish my degree. Unable to shake the travel bug, I bought a backpack  right after graduation and spent a year meandering through Asia and more of the Middle East. I didn’t have a plan or a job offer for when I returned. That made me feel both elated and terrified; I was simultaneously convinced that I was doing the right thing, yet sure I was ruining my life. Of course, bankrupt and bursting with stories, I eventually returned to the US and found my way in the “real world”; but my version of the real world now involve a job inspired by travel and fueled by human interaction. I certainly couldn’t have found it – and wou;ld have likely found myself on a different path – without that first taste of a foreign place in Jordan.  So my advice: Go. Travel. Scare yourself. It’s ok.