If Not Now, When? Conquering the Bucket List Abroad

bucket list item: swim with dolphins

I’ve been building my bucket list from the day I was born. Learn to ride my bike with no training wheels, take my first road trip. Maybe it’s because my story starts small—the same small town in Western North Carolina, the same small school from pre-school to graduation—but I’ve always itched and ached for wider horizons, for more complex lessons to learn and thoughts to think. At Vanderbilt University, I’ve found that wider horizons demand longer bucket lists and bigger dreams. Run a marathon, change someone’s life, travel the world.

With so many things to do and places to see, I sometimes become overwhelmed by the experiences yet to be had.  As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”  Can you hear them?  Can you feel them shake?  For me, studying abroad was a major step in writing myself into the stories I long to be a part of.  And so, it was around this time last year that I stretched my sights even further by writing myself into a study abroad adventure at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. With my bucket list and a whole semester before me, I knew little of the breadth of experiences and adventures I was catapulting myself into headfirst.

Bucket List Item #1: Live and Work on a Family Farm in New Zealand

I can’t quite describe why, but for a while my bucket list has been topped with “Live and Work on a Farm.” I think it’s an experience that everyone should have at some point in their lives, to build character if nothing else: strenuous manual labor, the simple pleasure of working with your hands, deep understanding a different way of life. Following my semester of study, my IFSA advisor helped me secure a WWOOFing arrangement north of Auckland in Silverdale, NZ.  In exchange for room and board, I lived with a Kiwi family for two weeks and worked on their farm—feeding the chickens, weeding the gardens, and slowly becoming a part of their family.  At Victoria University, I learned that New Zealand’s culture places emphasis on sustainability and nurturing the earth.  From my host family, I learned that nurturing the earth feels like dirt under my fingernails, and sustainability means eating eggs for breakfast that I gathered the night before. It was one of my most memorable and formative experiences abroad, and I couldn’t recreate it or trade it for anything. It all happened because I finally figured out how to set motion to my bucket list.

Bucket List Item #2: Swim with the Dolphins

After watching too much Discovery Channel when I was little, I decided that I couldn’t leave this world without managing to swim with the dolphins. One of my excursions with IFSA Butler allowed me to do exactly that. We jumped off the boat into the coldest water my body has ever felt, but what paralyzed me was being face-to-face with the most majestic and strange-looking creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on. We let our loudest dolphin calls sing through the water as flippers splashed around us until our voices were stolen from us by the sight. If you never slide on that wetsuit, if you never jump off the boat, you will never know how it feels to hold eye contact with a dolphin, and that’s something you don’t want to miss.

Bucket List Item #3: The Southern Lights Contingency Plan

Another big-ticket item on my bucket list is to “See the Northern/Southern Lights.” Upon realizing that this semester in New Zealand might be our only chance, my best friend and I vowed that, if the opportunity EVER came up to see the Southern Lights, we would take it. No questions asked, spit handshake verified. Though the aurora australis never flared up enough for us to jet down to see it, we always had a contingency plan at the ready. Flights, hostels, and bus schedules were ready to book at a moment’s notice, and I literally set my internet browser homepage to www.aurora-service.net so I could check the forecast every day. Studying abroad taught me to always listen for when adventure calls, and to be ready to act when she does.

Those random experiences you’ve been dying to have won’t happen by themselves, you know. If you don’t buy the plane ticket, you’re never going to watch the sunset over the Southern Alps of New Zealand. This seemingly obvious epiphany prompted me to use my study abroad experience to realize some of my most random and gratifying lifelong dreams.

And so here is my challenge to you: Those experiences you crave? Don’t let them live and die as single lines on a half-hearted bucket list. If you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad in college, you might be giving up your opportunity to ever live in a foreign country, let alone a myriad of other adventures that are waiting for you overseas. Jump in at the deep end, cross the Rubicon. Take the bull by the horns, and a billion other clichés—just don’t let this opportunity pass you up. Turn your bucket-list into a resume of experiences that shape your character, grow your perspective, stretch your independence, evolve your mind, and deepen your understanding of others.

Kathleen Archerd is an Economics student at Vanderbilt University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand in 2015. 

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