I sit in a quaint little coffee shop writing my last article as a Passion Passport Study Abroad Correspondent. With just a week left in Ecuador until my return flight to the United States I reminisce on the adventures this semester brought me and how, a year ago, I never could have imagined my life would have brought me here.

So much has happened over the course of this semester that has changed me and shaped me, and opened up my mind to a different outlook on life and how one chooses to spend it.

Ecuador is a surprising paradise with bustling cities and a long coastline that reaches to the heart of the Andes mountains. The culture is rich and has so much to offer to a wandering mind like my own. I’m not excited to leave, but I am excited to return to the United States with a different outlook on the world.

My last few days in Ecuador were spent studying for finals and packing my bags, doing “lasts” with my host family and trying to not forget how this city has made me feel.

While studying for my philosophy exam I came across a passage in a reading by Newberg and Waldman, two neuroscientists who study how the brain reacts to different ideas and images. In an investigative study about the brain and religion they discovered that the reactions in our anterior cingulate, or what is nicknamed the “heart or soul” of our brains, shows that the more contact someone has with different religions, people, cultures, languages, and pluralism in general, the less prejudice one has in their brain. It is proven that distrust toward others declines and acceptance and interest in different cultures increases.

This proves the power of travel lies in immersing ourselves in new cultures, that it will change our brain and turn us into accepting, open and curious people.

This concept can be proven on both a personal and international level. People who never get the chance to travel never get to experience this change and, in return, can be extremely biased toward their own country or ideas, which is often the root of many political problems in the world today.

The more I read about this study, the more I realized the relevance it had on my experience in Ecuador.  

People always told me to go with my gut when I was growing up and was being indecisive. But I had never experienced a gut decision quite like deciding to spend this semester in Ecuador, just a month before I left home. I rushed to get my application filled out and signed up for classes in a hurry. My visa was still being processed when I hopped on the plane in early January and I hadn’t spoken to my host family before I arrived. But, for some reason, I was unbelievably calm. I knew I was making the right decision.

The past four months have taught me more than I could have imagined, not just in school but, more importantly, outside of the university gates, too. I struggled with the language at first but, with time, I eventually caught on.  I learned to navigate the bus system both locally and nationally and became confident in traveling on my own. I learned to try foods I thought I didn’t like and make foods that I enjoyed. Learning to budget and manage my time between school and travel became second nature to me and, most importantly, I found a second home in the friends and professors, my host family and, the long, bumpy roads of Ecuador.

Living in a place is much different than visiting for vacation. As I lived in Quito,  I became part of the city. I learned to live like and understand the locals instead of simply being a tourist for the week. I had time to explore “my” city and make friends that will last a lifetime. I became invested in the country’s current events and cheered on the soccer team in an important match against Colombia. It makes all the difference to become part of a culture instead of seeing it from the windows of a bus.

I learned that the world is much more complicated than my personal worries and that nothing can put life in perspective more than leaving my comfort zone.

So, as I sit here writing this article, there’s a heavy feeling in my chest. I don’t want to leave this other world, but part of me can’t wait to return with a new perspective to the rolling hills of Virginia that I call home in the United States .

Travel far and travel often to realize that not all classrooms have four walls and travel is far more powerful than you can ever imagine.