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The Office of Study Abroad reports that close to 3,000 students travel overseas each year on university-sponsored programs.
This does not surprise me. Everyone and his or her brother, it seems, has been across the ocean at least once this summer, and they all have the Facebook photos to prove it. My friends have been checking in from all corners of the globe — so many places that I can’t even keep track.
Now, as my time at the University of Cambridge draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about what’s supposed to happen when we all get back to East Lansing — how we return from what the websites and brochures call our “transformative” and “life-changing” experiences.
As both a writer and a researcher, the questions that tend to hang around in my head are always of the “Why did this happen?” and the “What does this actually mean?” variety. So as I take stock of my nearly three months abroad, these are the questions I want to answer.
I had similar reflections after participating in my first Alternative Spring Break trip last March. The conclusion I arrived at was twofold: our primary purpose was to contribute our time and effort to the community and engage in service at the most direct level possible.
A secondary goal — one I did not even realize was in play until the experience was practically over — was to give us the chance to see what opportunities are available for us students, as young adults, to do this sort of work in real life.
We’d all had volunteer experience before, but this felt different, as if instead of punching our cards for service hours, we were taking an active role and gaining experience for a future of continuing service.
I think studying abroad yields similar results. On the surface, it’s about visiting new places, learning and gaining experience. I have certainly done that.
In fact, this summer being my first time off the North American continent, literally everything has been new.
From the basics of taking a trans-Atlantic flight to navigating the London Underground to the more complicated maneuvers of ordering lunch at a Paris café and making small talk with a Scottish taxi driver, I have been on my toes and soaking up new information like a sponge from day one.
My research experience in a biomedical materials lab at Cambridge pushed me to develop an attitude of self-sufficiency at the lab bench and collaboration in the tea room. Taking classes with world-renowned Cambridge lecturers on Shakespeare and Jane Austen has allowed me to look at literature from entirely new angles.
And of course, meeting new people from around the globe has inevitably expanded my worldview, broadened my cultural consciousness and widened my circle of friends.
All of this, I think, falls under that first umbrella goal. Studying abroad takes you new places, gives you both personal and professional experience and gives you the opportunity to learn new things.
The second goal — the one that, yet again, I am only just beginning to get a grasp on — is that this experience has shown me world travel is not just a possibility, but in many ways, a necessity.
I now know how to get on a plane or a train or a bus and take myself to a place I’ve never been before and have no experience with. I know how to get off that plane or train or bus, set off on a sidewalk somewhere and engage with the world. For someone like me, who until now had thoroughly combed the U.S., but nowhere else, this was indeed a significant step forward.
By interacting with people from dozens of nations in varied contexts, from the laboratory to the classroom to the currency exchange, I began to understand how much knowledge and experience I can gain through them.
I now can claim friends from not just England, but also Australia, Brazil, Holland, India, France, China, South Africa and Spain, among others — each of them with a lifetime of experiences that could only be gained by someone living in that particular place and time.
What it comes down to then, for me, is this: I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study abroad, and not merely because of the experiences I’ve had and the learning I’ve done during these three months in England.
Yes, that has, without question, been transformative and life-changing; the websites and brochures have not overreached in their word choice.
But the greater gift I take away from all this is the lifetime of experiences I see ahead of me in a world that I have at last begun to earnestly explore.
Craig Pearson is a guest columnist at The State News and a professional writing junior. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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