Somehow I had this subconscious assumption that the only real difference between study abroad and backpacking would be no homework to worry about. In reality, though, I wouldn’t even put them in the same category–they don’t have much in common, other than travel.
The biggest difference is the types of relationships you make. One of the hardest things for me about study abroad was making friends with people who don’t speak my language. When you’re in a place for so long, friendships are more concrete, and there’s more pressure to make a good impression. One thing that makes it difficult is that people assume I don’t speak Spanish, so no one initiates conversation with me. And here I am, half wishing they would, and half fearing they actually will. Because, last semester, even with those I got the opportunity to talk to, once we got past the “Where are you from? Why are you here? What do you study?” part, conversation officially went out of my comfortable Spanish range. So all semester I dealt with the frustration and discomfort of not being able to build long-term relationships. Hopefully this semester will be better, but the relationships are still different from those made while backpacking.
Backpacking relationships are super low-pressure because they are universally accepted as being fleeting. In real life, the first thing you ask a new acquaintance is their name, but while traveling, I’ve hung out with someone all day on the bus or talked all evening at a hostel without either of us asking. We all know we’ll forget and that we’ll probably never see each other again anyway, and it’s not really not that important after all. Backpacking is about getting minute glimpses into strangers’ lives, whereas study abroad is like skipping from easy to expert level in “university life.”
In study abroad, you’re forced into a challenge every day, whether it be culture, language, or personal-based in class or everyday (or extraordinary!) activities. In backpacking, you have the freedom to decide whether you want to climb a volcano and hang out with a group of Argentinians that doesn’t speak English, or go on guided tours with English-speaking friends–and with either option, you’re winning at life!
I could get by traveling for ten years in Latin America without learning the amount of Spanish I’ve been forced into by circumstance in a month as a student. Also, I’m glad I was required to learn a language by circumstance because now I know what is required of me to learn a language on my own.
So basically, study abroad and backpacking only overlap in that you’re not at home, and while both are fantastic experiences, neither could ever substitute for the other.