I was in the backwoods of an island three hours from anything. A few bulbs hanging from trees illuminated an open circle. Women in bright robes chanted while men beat drums to an ancient rhythm. Young men were wearing spiritual talismans, pulsing their bodies in time-honored propitiations. In the middle, competitors went head to head, trying to take their opponent to the sand. Each one was vying for the glorious title of village champion.

The night I sat and watched laamb, West African folk wrestling, has thus far been one of the most riveting experiences of my life. The experience was only possible because I decided to study in a non-traditional location.

Studying abroad anywhere is a time of cultivating a worldview and having lifelong experiences, but non-traditional places, countries outside of Europe or Australia, can provide the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore an exotic country far from home.

“I chose to study abroad because I wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone,” said College junior Grace Veker, who is studying abroad in Dakar, Senegal. “I knew that if I went somewhere in Europe, it would be different than my life in the US, but I wanted an even bigger challenge,”

Veker believes non-traditional places are the bigger challenge because, in these countries, students are thrown into a culture where almost every cultural norm is unfamiliar. Through these differences one begins to understand who they are and how they perceive the world.

“There are countless times I’ve been challenged here in Senegal. But every time I’m faced with an obstacle, I learn from it and when faced with the same obstacle again, I am better prepared for how to handle it and overcome other obsticals,” Veker said.

In Senegal, I eat meals around one communal bowl filled with an unorthodox pile of food. Everyone sits on the floor and eats with their hands, taking the contents from the outside and moving towards the center. There is no talking. There is no looking at others while they eat. At first, I was uncomfortable. I wanted my own plate with utensils and a meal consisting of foods I could identify.

Then it hit me. In Senegal the most important thing is the people around you. The ritual of eating around a common bowl with my family is a manifestation of that belief. There is no running to the fast-food restaurant down the street to grab a meal before class or the next daily task. This is community, something hard to find in most Western countries.

Meals are now one of the most beautiful parts of my day.

“The best experiences have been when I had little ‘a-ha’ moments about the world,” said College junior Owen Jollie, who is studying abroad in India.

In non-traditional places almost every day is filled with an a-ha moment.

College junior Benjamin Kramer, studying abroad in Costa Rica, said studying abroad has changed the way he sees life in a developing country.

“At first I was mad that people tend to try to take advantage of you by scamming you on prices. However, instead of getting mad about 2 or 3 dollars scammed, I was sad because I realized how desperate they were for money of any kind. It completely changed the way I view poverty,” Kramer said.

Of the roughly 670 Emory students who studied abroad last year, 68% of them went to traditional destinations. According to the Institute of International Education, four of the top five study abroad locations are located in Europe, the fifth being China.

The mere act of choosing to study abroad is difficult. It is inherently challenging. Leaving friends, family and Emory behind for an extended period of time can be terrifying.

“I typically encourage students to go somewhere they have never gone before, but I also stress thinking about the program in ‘academic’ terms. Ask yourself, ‘How will this program help build my skill-set,'” said Kenya Casey, associate director at the Center for International Programs Abroad.

Studying in a nontraditional location gives you the chance to build a unique skill set. Learning an unconventional language and understanding the nuances of an unconventional culture can make a person an unconventional candidate for jobs or future endeavors. These quirky experiences can make an applicant stand apart from the rest in interviews because they followed a path not usually followed.

College senior Samantha Lamon, who is studying abroad in Dakar, Senegal, said she has no regrets in choosing to study in a non-traditional location. “I feel like I would have missed out if I had decided to go with a more traditional study abroad,”

There are inevitably things that will be missed out on when studying in these countries. Often, there are no weekend trips to other countries. There are no late night escapades at grand discotheques, but there is full immersion into a new culture.

“It is not for everybody, that is for sure, but for the right type of person it is an unforgettable and life-changing experience filled with growth and adventures,” Kramer said.

There are study abroad programs in almost every part of the world, each one incredible in its own right- traditional or not. The hardest decision is choosing to go abroad, but after that, research all available programs. Incredible growth can come from the most random of locations.

– By Bryan Cronan