I Got Schooled Abroad

11/05/2012 07:52 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Some people are naturally beautiful. Some people have raw athletic talent. And some people are intellectually brilliant.

I am none of those.

I, unfortunately, was not blessed with any "gifted" attributes. If anything, being the youngest child, I received the leftover genes. And, having two older siblings who excelled in the classroom, it wasn't always easy to follow in their footsteps.

But I forged ahead the best I could.

I rarely aced any exams, and if I did, it was merely because I spent hours the night before cramming my mind with information. Writing papers required draft after draft after draft. And, reading and critiquing Shakespeare...well that was just plain useless.

But if you saw my test scores and grade reports, you probably wouldn't suspect this. On paper, I actually appeared to be quite a good student.

But those grades were masked by the fact that I studied... and then I studied some more. I read and re-read assigned book chapters. I re-wrote class notes before every exam. And I edited papers until the page was filled with red ink blots.

I was finally rewarded for those numerous hours spent slaving away at the computer and locking myself in the library cages.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, my hard work did not go unnoticed. It wasn't recognition from my university that I received, but rather from my fellow students. My dorm floor had named me "Most Studious."

I'm sure you're probably green with envy right about now. It's the cream of the crop award for all college students, right?

In all seriousness, I was honored... Kind of.

I admittedly would've been quite disappointed had I not received the award. I knew I put in the hours. But I'm also the first to concede that this isn't exactly the award every sophomore college student strives for. Most students would be far prouder to be recognized as beer pong champion than bookworm scholar.

But once I'd received the recognition, I had to protect my reputation.

While other students partied until sunrise, I left at bar time so I could start my Sunday study session at a decent hour. While my dorm neighbors were huddled around the TV for movie night, I was in the downstairs lounge cozied up to my textbook.

But a semester later, all that changed. I had the opportunity to go abroad. I took it. I left my university behind and headed off to Italy. But I didn't go to boost my class standing. Instead, I went to learn about a new culture, a new way of life.

I studied... but not like I did back at home.

I stopped worrying so much about my GPA and started to be present in my surroundings. I took weekend trips up and down the coast of Italy, basked on the beaches of Greece for a week and hopped trains from one country to the next. I learned to navigate mass transit for the first time, find my way in countries where I couldn't speak the language and live thousands of miles away from everything that was familiar.

I learned by doing, not by studying. I wasn't reading about art, I was seeing it up close. I wasn't practicing a language in the classroom, I was speaking it with natives. I wasn't watching documentaries on World War II, I was walking through concentration camps.

I learned about the world and about myself.

Most importantly, I learned that while it's important to read about other parts of the world, you can't fully understand the people, the culture and the lifestyle until you experience them firsthand.

I returned home with these new life lessons.

Once I completed my senior year of college, I landed a corporate marketing job. It was what I thought I had always wanted. But during my three years sitting in a cubicle, my Italian study abroad experience would occasionally pop back into my mind.

I realized that I was once again defining myself by what looked good on paper. I had worked hard for a promotion, but realized that making more money and having a different job title wasn't really what I was after.

I was constantly struggling with myself to achieve more. I was ultimately only after one thing: success. Yet all these years I had made the mistake of measuring success by a number.

Instead, I should have been measuring success by my level of happiness.

Years later, I finally realized that. Italy opened my eyes to a world where not everyone lives to work. Not everyone defines themselves by the scores they receive on an exam or a job title on their email signature.

My university education taught me many things that I will forever be grateful for. I had four excellent years of college life that included so much more than classes and exams. I learned a lot while I was there, but the truth is that most of what I remember today wasn't taught in the classroom.

Learning is more than just the books we read, the papers we write and the exams we take. And, it is not something that ends after we graduate from school and start a career. Many of the most valuable educational experiences are the ones that occur outside of the classroom.

Never assume that your intelligence or your worth is defined by a number. GPAs, clocked hours and salary figures say nothing about who you really are. Instead, it is the experiences you have and the lives you touch that shape you.

To this day, leaving the country was and continues to be my most valuable learning experience.