I remember sitting cross-legged on my bed waist deep in travel brochures, Frommer’s guides and study abroad packets. I imagined getting lost among the cobblestone streets of London, learning Cantonese in Hong Kong, expanding my wardrobe in Milan, dancing tango in Buenos Aires, overcoming language barriers in Singapore and staying out of trouble in Amsterdam.

All I knew was that I wanted something different. I wanted to get out of Los Angeles and see a new part of the world. I wanted to be in a place a dozen time zones away where I could have my first shot at true and prolonged independence.

Most people assume that I chose Australia because it was the “safest” choice: an English-speaking Western culture with nice weather and a laid-back lifestyle. But the truth is that I wanted total immersion. Experiencing a new culture means staying there long enough to get into the flow of life. Studying abroad in Europe or Asia would come with a temptation to travel to a new country every weekend. I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase, let alone travel so much that I didn’t get a chance to enjoy where I was staying.

In Australia, I have a life, a beautiful home and a routine – all thanks to the University of New South Wales. I’ve gotten to know little hideaway restaurants, scenic walking paths and local families. It’s undoubtedly my home away from home.

While I would recommend this experience to every student, a semester abroad merits careful consideration. Most of the students here are on programs that include weekend excursions, day trips to the city and barbeques on the beach. Their experience in Sydney too closely resembles a school field trip to Disneyland – name tags, bathroom buddies and all.  

The accommodation and resources that these expensive study abroad programs spoon-feed to all of the study abroad students, myself included, is unbelievable. It is enough to make me wonder: Are study abroad programs sheltering us from culture instead of exposing us to it?

It seems that a truly immersive semester abroad is becoming a rare commodity these days. The fact that my friends in Florence and Beijing say life is similar to being in America proves that something’s wrong.

The crux of the problem, as I am experiencing it in Sydney, is that students aren’t willing to surrender certain standards of living in exchange for a broadening of their proverbial horizons. Somehow we’ve tricked ourselves into believing that it’s possible to experience new ways of life without abandoning our comfort zone.

There are also plenty of students who go abroad in search of an extended spring break where the workload is low and the inhibitions are lower. To most of them in Sydney, getting a meat pie doused in sweet chilli sauce on the way back from the bars is considered being “totally Australian, dude.”

We’ve all heard of these Americanized bubbles. They are the reason why the rest of the world holds such shatterproof stereotypes that we live in nothing more than the land of primitive capital punishment, oppressively privatized health care, commercialized mass religion, material excess, pervasive solipsism and much more.  

After a month and a half of living in “Little America,” I decided I needed to get out and do something quintessentially Australian over mid-semester break. I packed a small bag and headed to Alice Springs, a town in the Northern Territory – also known as the Outback.

It was the best decision I have ever made, bar none. I was alone and independent, facing the unknown with no expectations. I met people from all over the world, spending six days trying to make sense of our differences.  

I relished their stories of gap-year-travelling, army experience and seemingly unplanned lives as they listened with envy when I told them I was 20, from Los Angeles, an aspiring journalist with one more year left of university. To them, my life was high-speed and impressive. Their first question: Are you friends with Paris Hilton?

In just one week, I experienced everything I ever wanted from a semester abroad. I tripled my Rolodex with global numbers. I witnessed unfamiliar cultures and habits, while simultaneously giving others an insight into American life. I opened up my eyes and mind and had the time of my life.

This is what the brochures were talking about, and this is why it has always been assumed that sending students abroad bodes well for America’s respectability. A semester in a foreign country ought to be about exploration.

Programs should emphasize stepping out of comfort zones and breaking free from the American pack. Students should experience all that is truly indicative of a region’s culture and heritage, not a Disneyfied version of it. We shouldn’t receive academic credit for denying reality. After all, whether it’s in a classroom setting or not, we’re here to learn.