The Great Unknown


Steven could have opted to study abroad in Sweden, a country that was somewhat familiar to him because of his family roots. Instead, he chose the unknown: Hong Kong, a bustling, vibrant city in southeastern China where old meets new.

“It was a little scarier to me,” Steven says. “But it was a challenge that I felt was worth taking.”

Steven did his best to prepare before leaving Illinois. He attended study abroad meetings and reviewed all the information he could get his hands on. He also reached out to other students who had done the same program for both advice and recommendations.

Yet even the best preparation can only go so far when you’re traveling to an unfamiliar place. “I was more underprepared than I thought I would be—as in, I was not very familiar with Hong Kong itself or the surrounding area,” Steven says. “But that was a tremendous experience once I got there, being able to learn on my feet and get used to it.”

Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto) - portrait of Steven
“It’s a different culture, but people are people everywhere,” Steven says of Asia. He’s pictured here at the Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto, Japan).

When he first arrived on his new campus, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Steven made it a priority to get to know the other exchange students. “I wanted to have a good group of friends when I got there, especially because I didn’t know anyone on my way over there,” he explains. “I was lucky enough to have a roommate who I really liked, and we remained very close throughout the semester.”

Steven also began to establish a new routine. “That was something I didn’t realize would be really important,” he says. “But being in a place that was so foreign, such a very different living arrangement, even—going back to a dorm, having a roommate, being in a shoebox-sized room again—I found that developing a routine was really important to adjusting.”

Much of Steven’s time was spent in the classroom, taking business courses on organizational behavior, negotiations, and corporate strategy. HKUST is an English-speaking university, so Steven didn’t need to know a second language. He also found the structure, from the grading rubric to the semester’s timing, to be almost identical to that of Illinois.

Having that familiarity in his coursework made it easier for Steven to explore his surroundings in his free time. “One of the first things I noted was that Hong Kong felt like the New York City of the east,” he says. “The amazing part is there is something to do on every single street and every single inch of that place. It’s so small, but it’s so dense.”

Temple Street Night Market- Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s Temple Street Night Market

Steven was able to experience all aspects of the city, including the Fifth-Avenue-like atmosphere of Admiralty, the chaotic street-market haggling of Mong Kok, and the scenic seaside of Sai Kung. As time passed, he was also able to fully immerse himself in it.

“If it was a Saturday and I knew I had a test on Monday or Tuesday, I would go into the city to a coffee shop and I’d study there for hours—a very normal, average thing to do. But the fact that I had gotten to the point where I felt comfortable enough to do that and go out on my own and experience the city in a very real, residential way was really exciting for me.”

Between attending classes and enjoying Hong Kong’s culture, Steven also managed to take three side trips to other notable locations in Asia. His first visit was to Hanoi and Halong Bay in Vietnam. Later in the semester, he flew to Beijing, where he walked the Great Wall of China. He rounded out his extra travels with a trip to Kyoto, Japan.

The sights Steven saw along the way were part of what he enjoyed most about his time abroad. “What I loved about my travel experiences was how distinct each of them was and how I was able to get unique things from all of them,” he says.

Kyoto Japan- Fushimi Inari with friends
Steven and his classmates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Steven will also remember the people he met. “I made some really, really amazing friends over the course of four months, and we got to do some pretty amazing things together just because of where we were.”

When Steven reflects on the ways he improved himself through his study abroad experience, he emphasizes two things: communication and adaptability.

Because of the language barrier, Steven had to learn how to communicate more clearly by speaking more directly and paying more attention to his body language. He also became a better active listener. “That’s incredibly valuable,” he says. “Because even if I never travel again, I’m going to be able to better talk to people from different cultures all over the world.”

Steven is also proud of how he was able to adapt to new surroundings, including orienting himself to the culture and settling into a routine. “Before I left, Hong Kong was a massive question mark. I had no idea what to expect,” he says. “Going to a place that I knew so little about and getting to the point where I felt comfortable there has eliminated a lot of barriers and excuses that I might have for traveling in the future.”

From the places he saw and the people he met to the insights he gained, Steven’s time abroad will remain with him long after he crosses the graduation stage in just a few weeks.

“It was almost like a capstone experience of my university experience here at Illinois,” he says. “It was something I learned a lot from and truly will never forget.”

Beyond Hong Kong

illustration of a Japanese torii

On Kyoto, Japan

“Kyoto was tremendous, and exactly what I needed at that time in the semester. It was before finals, and I’d been a bit stressed out with work. I was ready for a change of pace from the Hong Kong scenery, and Kyoto provided that. It’s an incredibly quiet and friendly and beautiful city. It was a really great experience to simply be quiet and interact with the city in my own way without any pressure of doing what other people were interested in doing or seeing. That was really valuable to me.”

illustration of a pink lotus

On Hanoi, Vietnam

“While Hong Kong has a very distinct Asian culture to it, Hanoi is deeply rooted in its history in a way I have never seen before. It frankly put a lot of things into perspective for me. For example, rarely had I thought about the United States of America being 300 years old. But then I’d go to a temple in Hanoi, and it’s been there for over 1,000 years.”

illustration of Chinese paper lantern

On Beijing, China

“The clear highlight of that trip was being able to visit the Great Wall. That was the first time I was nervous to visit a place. It was akin to meeting a massive celebrity—but instead of talking to them, where there’s some pressure of saying the wrong thing, you just have to walk. And I was still incredibly nervous to be there. It felt truly surreal to see something that I had seen in textbooks for 10 or 15 years and genuinely thought I’d never, ever get to see.”