There was an AP article in my local paper recently written by Justin Pope called “American students abroad pushed out of ‘bubbles.’” Briefly, the article is about study abroad practitioners coming up with ways to get students out of their comfort zones, away from popular location programs, and, once abroad, getting them to immerse themselves in the host culture. Pope also causally alludes to the idea that bubble-bursting can lead one to being a more marketable candidate to companies.
The ‘bubbles’ Pope writes about are two-fold. First, it is practitioners trying to get American students to go to places different than the “hot-spots like London, Barcelona, and Florence,” where they will be challenged more, forced to be engaged more, and, so, the logic goes, learn and grow more. Second, those students who do choose these non-hot-spots where they do not necessarily speak the language or have many other Americans mucking about tend to stick to the group they came with isolating themselves.
My first study abroad program was to Dublin, Ireland. It was a faculty-led joint summer program between the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. We lived together in the dorms of Trinity College. We had classes together. We explored the city and country together. The interaction with locals was limited, unless a strong effort on the part of the student was made. I was too busy figuring out who among this large group I’d hang out with to worry about whether or not I was getting to know the locals. I recall during the exam period the Irish TA was talking to my group of friends and he chided us for not branching out and getting to know any UM students as we were all UW students. We all ‘Hey’d’ in protest that we may be all from UW but none of us knew each other prior. We thought that was commendable.
Commendable or not, my goal on this program wasn’t to get to know the locals, as terrible as that sounds; it was to prove to myself that I could go to another country on my own, meet people I didn’t know, see things I had never seen, and learn things I didn’t know. As some might say “Mission accomplished.” Dublin was what it was – a glorified summer vacation where students travel, drink, learn some history, and go home.
As much as I loved that summer and loved the people I befriended, it didn’t prepare me for my time the following fall in the Netherlands. This was a bubble burst for me. It was an exchange program. I lived in the flat of the Dutch girl who went to UW. I had two Dutch roommates. I had taken some Dutch courses prior to going and the program included a language class component. Reading and writing – no problem, but speaking the language was my weakest area. Though the main courses were taught in English, everyday interactions needed to be in Dutch. This added to my already fierce culture shock. I found I had been coddled by my Dublin experience.
Because actually speaking the language to an actual Dutch person was the toughest part for me, the times I succeeded contained the greatest joy. For example, a couple of friends and I went into a sandwich shop for lunch. We all ordered in Dutch. I was the last to go. The man behind the counter complimented me on my skills, knowing clearly we were all foreigners, and asked how long I had been speaking the language and how long we were studying in the town. When I went to sit back down, the others asked me what he had said. I was a bit chuffed with myself as I shared the conversation with them.
Another time I was riding my bicycle home on afternoon and someone on the street stopped me and asked the time. I took my time answering because I wanted to get it right. I replied and sped off grinning from ear to ear. Someone had asked me the time! I knew what they were asking! I was able to answer properly! It wasn’t until I was home that I realized I had given him the wrong time. I was an hour off. But I didn’t care. The interaction had happened. My bubble was getting thinner and closer to popping.
My time in Ireland was a whole lot of fun. The experience of that trip, though safely inside the bubble, made an impression and affected my life in great ways. I don’t knock those “hot-spot” programs. They just need to be understood for what they are, as one student that was on such a program said in the article “her time abroad was a great introduction to international travel that will push her to visit more exotic destinations in the coming years.” For me, that exotic location was the Netherlands.
I looked around the room of the pre-departure meeting for the University of Wisconsin faculty-led summer program in Dublin, Ireland and wondered which of the faces I was too shy to make direct eye contact with belonged to someone I would soon befriend. A handful of the typical college groups were present: hippies, charmers, philosophers, ladies men, pure Wisconsinites, innocents, leaders, and academics. Would it be freshman year all over again? Having to navigate the different personalities of the dorm, trying on each emerging group like a pair of jeans to see which ones would fit the best? That process took weeks; this program was only six.
Once in Ireland, I began the trying-on process. Each night after class I would mix and mingle. By the end of the first week I thought I might have found a group. On the first available travel weekend eight of us planned a trip to Dingle Peninsula on the southwest coast of Ireland. This would be the test to see if I liked who I had found or if I needed to try on some more groups. I just didn’t know the test would be so harrowing.
It was 11:30 at night and the eight of us had just been cheated out of our spots on the last hostel shuttle of the evening by a group of French adults who swooped in out of nowhere at the last second and jumped inside the bus. It was either call for cabs or leg it. We were poor college kids so we decided to leg it to our hostel on the outskirts of Dingle. The road, like most country roads in Ireland, claimed to be two lanes but was really one and a half lanes. Both sides of the road were lined with tall, thick hedges. There was no shoulder, no sidewalk. We had no choice but to walk in the road. Off we went single file.
The walk began normal enough. We were venting about the French shuttle stealers, our first impressions Dingle, and about our newly purchased hurleys. The lights of the town faded behind us and the darkness intensified. Then out of nowhere a car zoomed up behind us. It was going so fast we hardly had time to react. There was no place to go but up so we hopped up and squashed ourselves up against the hedges. If the car slowed down at all I surely didn’t notice. After that first near death experience we devised a system where the people in the back of the line yelled, “Car,” to those in the front, we would heed the warning, hop up into the hedges and grab on for dear life.
Further up the road seemed to narrow, we entered a curve, and the hedges felt like a cage. That’s when the line of speeding cars came. The person at the rear yelled, “Car!” All eight of us hopped up, purses, backpacks, shopping bags of hurleys and all, onto the side of the hedges desperately looking for a secure foothold, grabbing at whatever would hold us up with our already cut up hands, and pressed ourselves as flat as possible. The first car came speeding by and then another and another and another. I turned my head to see how those in front of me were faring and all I could see in the high beams of each passing car were their arms and legs splayed across the hedges . This is the vision etched in my brain.
Fortunately, we all survived that night and by the next morning we found the events ridiculous, funny, and to this day that vision makes me think of the ‘The Sound of Music’ scene where the Von Trapp children are high in the trees that line the roadway while their father, the Baroness and Max are driving below them. At the time, though, my heart was pounding, my hands were cramping, and my grip was slipping. I knew those cars would hit us if we fell into the road. Being in that precarious predicament with those seven (a hippie, a charmer, a philosopher, a ladies man, a pure Wisconsinite, an innocent, and a leader) whom I (an academic) just met, told me this group had passed the test and I didn’t need to try on any more groups. I had found my friends.
I come from a family that traveled a lot domestically when I was little, particularly to the major historical towns in the East: Sturbridge Village, the Mayflower Landing, Jamestown, and Williamsburg. These were certainly not vacation destinations my sister and I would have chosen, but it wasn’t up to us. I, however, did get to choose where we went on my first European vacation.
In middle school, I was the nerdy kid who took Latin because “learning the roots of words will help with the SATs.” As I was really enjoying class, I chose Rome and Pompeii for our trip. A ticket deal allowed us to have a few days in London on the way to Italy. I may have been forward thinking in choosing Latin, but I didn’t know I’d get to see the dead language brought to life.
I knew I was lucky. I was certainly the only kid I knew going to Europe. But I didn’t quite exactly know what I was going to be experiencing. Saying “Yes” seemed to be the easy part. Mixed in with the excitement was the anxiousness of encountering the unknown. London proved to be a good stepping stone. I tend to be a silent observer so the fact that I could read the signage and understand what was being said around me went a long way in comfort building. I found, however, that very few people would sound like my teen crush, Prince William, with his posh accent. Nevertheless, London served as a great jumping off point.
Italy was altogether a different experience. It was where I had my first gelato, where I learned my mother’s true travel style of walking until you can’t walk any farther and saying “oh just a bit more,” and where my Latin class was transformed into more than just an SAT prep course. Rome was all glitz and glamour with the Forum, Colosseum, and Circus Maximus while Pompeii was more modest – a Williamsburg of Italy, if you will.
I was awed by Pompeii. Our tour took us past the pistrina (bakery). There was something familiar about it. It wasn’t until we passed again that I realized that I had seen this same exact bakery in my textbook! That was the moment my brain shut off all the other thoughts in my head: why did I wear these jeans, why didn’t I bring sunglasses, why must my mom embarrass me with all her photo taking, when’s lunch. These were replaced with silence and then, “Whooooooooaaaaaaaa.”
I had made the leap, the connection between classroom and real world. The story of Caecilius was instantly brought to life. I could finally see him walking in the Forum, buying bread in the pistrina, shopping in the tabernae (shops), seeking out entertainment at the amphitheater, training at the palaestra (athletic fields) and finally dying in the eruption of the looming Vesuvius. The language might have been dead but there was still so much to learn from the lives lived, the traditions kept, and the empire built and felled.
It was the experiences from this trip, good and bad, relaxing and stressful, fearless and fearful that gave me the gumption to say “Yes” to future travel opportunities. I was definitely bitten by the travel bug – the European travel bug.
Here’s how I kept going. I was one of the smart kids, a repeat scholar athlete, in the top ten of my class. Academia was my comfort zone. For me, going abroad through a school made the most sense. I didn’t think I was outgoing enough to survive the grunge-chic option of backpacking across Europe nor did I think an organized tour would grant me the opportunities to forge the types of relationships I wanted between foreigner and countryman. Like the family trip to Rome and Pompeii, I wanted to make the connection between classroom and real world. In college I said “Yes” to studying abroad in a summer program followed directly by a full year (which turned into just a semester, but that’s a whole other post), and then a couple of years later I completed my Masters degree at a European institution.
My continued Yes-saying has brought me to Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Italy, Russia and Japan.
My name is Lindsay and I started this blog in order to reach those women out there who are on the fence about participating in that study abroad program, taking that road trip across the country, interning at that company in the big city, or getting on that plane and traveling to another country. I’m not here to tell you “how to” seize these opportunities; I’m here to share with you what happened to this girl who thought she was too shy, too dependent, too scared but said Yes!
Follow my postings as I hope to provide another voice in the conversation about study abroad and travel – from my perspective. In addition to my tales, I intend to share my points of view on hot topics in the international education field. As I love the planning stage of a journey, look for city reviews and suggested itineraries.