By Rachael Phillips, Global Co-op
As part of the study abroad community in high school and now a student at Northeastern, I have noticed a clear trend of “country-hopping” among young, curious, and internationally-minded students. Every Dialogue, study abroad semester, and international co-op is somewhere new for a month or six, filling your passport and never getting the same stamp twice. I am not here to argue against this trend, however, I do want to offer a story from another perspective: the benefits of returning to live in a place you lived before.
When applying for a co-op for Spring 2018, I had to make a decision: do I go somewhere entirely new for the thrill, the surprise, and learn about a country or a region I know little about? There are tons of reasons I could have chosen this path: to get out of my comfort zone, to explore beyond Europe, to visit a city I have heard amazing things about. However, anyone who knows me knows that I have had one foot in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where I studied for a year in high school and stayed connected with even throughout my time at Northeastern. After several week-long visits and many research papers related to the country and my experience, I was missing Sarajevo and longing to return.
I was hesitant about going back to BiH because it felt like I was “playing it safe” by returning somewhere I already knew. I realized that the main reason I was hesitating was because of other people’s views: don’t you want to see somewhere else? You have so many opportunities at Northeastern, why stick to the same country? Why do you like Bosnia so much, anyway?
I asked one trusted advisor in Sarajevo if she knew of any NGOs looking for interns, and she put me in touch with the director of Žene za Žene (Women for Women) almost immediately. I started working for them in January, and it has been a great fit so far. The organization works with women on a number of empowerment projects, with a major focus on economic empowerment and teaching women skills so they can start small businesses and participate in economic life.
I have benefitted from returning to Sarajevo in ways that I wouldn’t have if had I gone somewhere else. I now speak Bosnian at an advanced level and am able to build up these skills rather than starting from learning “my name is” in a new language. Most importantly, I have a network of people to reach out to for help or company. At the end of the day, every country is only made up of its people. Having a network makes you feel more comfortable and connected to the community, and no matter how many tourist sites you visit, you will never know the country without knowing the people. I think this is a major aspect of living abroad that can be lost when each new location is so temporary.
My network of people centers around my host family, who I lived with for my senior year of high school. I have always been grateful for them letting me into their home and helping me understand the culture, customs, religion, and language that I was thrown into. However, at the time I didn’t anticipate how they could continue to be a supportive rock for me three plus years into the future. This semester, my host mom has consistently invited me to drink coffee with her at her office where she introduces me to her co-workers and brags about my achievements like I’m her own daughter. When I need to unwind, I hop on the bus to their apartment with my host brother and sister as if I never moved out. That’s what makes me feel less like spending a semester abroad and more like coming back to my hometown.
Through this co-op, I have realized that my commitment to the Bosnian language and my desire to return to Bosnia is meaningful to the people I work with. It shows that their culture is important in the world and that Bosnia has things to offer outside their borders. It shows that some people outside of the region care about their country and want to learn about their lives.
Sarajevo has a large international presence. However, unlike Paris and Berlin, Sarajevo is not full of foreigners delighting in the culture and trying to learn the language. While Bosnians are endlessly friendly to visitors and genuinely interested in their stories, it is not often that foreigners attempt to get a deeper understanding of the culture. So when someone from outside of Bosnia takes an interest in the language, culture, and people in a genuine and personal way, it has an impact.
In conclusion, I don’t know what my plan is for my next co-op, or anything else in the future. Maybe I’ll go somewhere completely new and have a great experience. However, I am certainly seeing the benefits of staying connected to Bosnia and getting an even deeper appreciation of everything the country offers me. I intend to keep this connection throughout my life, in one way or another.