Where do you go to school?
University of Vermont (Graduating in 2014)
When and where did you study abroad?
2009-2010: Rotary Youth Exchange in Lessines, Belgium
2012-2013: CIEE ALA in Brussels, Belgium
What was the BEST part about studying abroad?
Oh, where to start? It’s hard to pick generalities, because my two programs have been so different, while not losing what makes them so compelling and interesting. Overall, my favorite part about studying abroad in Belgium has been learning about the culture and the Belgian people. Every country defeats its stereotypes in many tiny and tremendous ways, and it’s up to the study abroad student to find out what those ways precisely are. Going off that, even in a country as tiny as Belgium, the variety that exists from region to region and city to city is staggering, and so traveling within Belgian borders is one of my favorite things to do on an open Saturday or Sunday. Additionally, becoming bilingual is by far and away one of my proudest accomplishments, and it got me incessantly hungry to learn more. And finally, getting to say that you left part of your heart in another part of the world – that you left friends and family there, even – and meaning it, and being overwhelmed by that aching and that missing from time to time – that hole in your heart, while throbbing, is an incredibly unique emotion to feel.
What did you learn about the rest of the world from studying abroad? What did you learn about yourself from the experience?
Leaving your own country and your own nationalism for an extended period of time is crucial in order to better understand and better function in the world as we know it. Infinite numbers of disagreements and disputes in history, from big to small, are based in cultural ignorance. It’s important to learn to not judge one’s actions based on your own American standard of how a thing should or shouldn’t be. There is a very deep-set history of events and of rituals which make up a country’s habits and ways of thinking, and it’s up to you as the visitor to pick away at this, the eighty percent of the iceberg below the water, and explore what it all is. Not only do you leave knowing the complexities of a culture separate from your own, but you bring that knowledge back with you in the way you assess America. You’re able to bring a more critical, more neutral, less entrenched eye to world happenings, and you have the skill to explore the root of a problem or of an event before you judge what’s on the surface, both on the grand scale of things and in every day life in the workplace or in class.
Besides that? There is no right or wrong culture (except on a human rights level). No country is perfect. People are moved by your efforts to learn about them and to learn their language. People are inherently good. People are wildly different and at the same time, not so different as you may think.
What was your BIGGEST challenge while studying abroad and how did you manage to handle it?
I experienced a profound sense of a loss for a long time, not knowing who I was or what I was even doing there. It was that, on top of severe culture shock, on top of severe homesickness. I honestly hadn’t realized how badly I had it until I started comparing it against what younger friends of mine who did Rotary ended up going through. I spent most of my first day in Belgium crying and sleeping. I spent most of my nights in bed, my first month, in tears and asking myself what I was doing. I spent most of my spare time desperately trying to study French, beside myself that I couldn’t communicate with my new friends and family. I missed MY family. I missed MY friends. I missed being someone in America, felt like I was a no one in Belgium. I was trying to be myself and I realized all the parts of myself I thought I knew were American, and that it was all cultural baggage that I had to leave behind. In many ways, I recreated myself from my experience and from a sense of Belgitude.
Looking back, I honestly probably would have quit the program and come home had it not been for the infinite love and support of my first host family. Even with their own daughter abroad at the same time, they couldn’t have been more affectionate, more helpful, and more welcoming. Now, here from Brussels, I go back and visit at least every other weekend.
How did studying abroad change your life?
I know it’s what everyone says, but studying abroad in Belgium in 2009 quite literally changed my life. Before I left, I thought traveling was cool but didn’t feel pressed to do it. I got a 1 on the AP Spanish Exam, Spanish being something I took because I thought French was stupid, and so I assumed I was terrible at languages. I planned on studying English in college and being an editor in a publishing house or for a national literary magazine. I planned on being a varsity athlete in college. I planned on staying in New England for most of my life. I planned on staying near my family, not being able to bear the thought of being far and finding it selfish to move away from them just for my sake. Spoiler alert: none of those things happened, or they no longer hold true. Although I do study English, it’s next to my French major.
What Belgium did to erase this person from being was to rip, straight out of me, the parts of myself I thought I knew, and abandon them on the side of the road. The stylized parts of me I’d built up through high school gone, I gradually discovered my true likes and dislikes, I developed goals about which I was far more passionate, and I realized that you’re home wherever you are in the world if you let it be that way.
Aside the personal aspects, what I mentioned about the world above holds true here, as well. Additionally, being multilingual today is phenomenally valuable, and once you learn one language, the next is easier to learn, and the next one after that.
What are your future plans?
I have a loose structure, if you will, but nothing definite other than finishing college. I’ll be graduating from UVM with a double major in French and English in 2014, and with some luck, I’ll be spending my senior year writing a creative thesis on my maternal grandfather’s experiences in World War II. The year after, I’ll apply for the French embassy’s teaching assistantship program, where I’d be placed in a city within the country or its overseas territories to teach English conversation. After that, I’d like to continue traveling, learning languages, and teaching English in this way. Some potential countries on my list are South Korea, Chile, Brazil, Germany, Russia, and Mexico. After that, things get fuzzy. I’d like an MFA in creative writing, potentially from the University of Alaska Anchorage. I’d like a masters from a university in France in whatever might tickle my fancy at the time. I’d like to teach English literature in American high schools. I’d like to ultimately find myself back in Belgium to live, for at least several years. Who knows in what order I’ll do it all, or if I’ll do it all, or how my plans will change? Isn’t that the most beautiful part of the planning?
What’s your BEST piece of advice for someone who is thinking about studying abroad?
Oh, I have too much advice. I firmly believe, like most people who depart to study abroad, that everyone should do it at some point in their academic career, be it high school or college. My fondest wish is to be able to convince more and more students to do a gap year, or even to study abroad between two years of high school, with a program such as Rotary Exchange. Many people have expressed, to me, regret that they didn’t further consider their high school options. Aside that, for those wishing to study in college: study as long as possible. Do the year if you can. The homesickness, the frustration, it all disappears after the six month mark, right when most program end. Additionally, your competence in the language skyrockets after six months, too.
Me being less of a traveler and more of a immerse-myself-in-the-culture person, I’d highly recommend spending more time in your host country and city than perhaps your peers might. Go explore the side streets. Go into the tiny bars and random stores and talk to as many people as possible. Go by yourself. Try out the words and phrases you know in the language and ask people for slang and colloquial expressions. At home, try to eat what and the way you see locals eat. It’s a sad thing to go home and be able to ramble on about your voyages, but not be able to adequately describe the very country in which you lived.
Finally, educate yourself on culture shock and the best ways to deal with it. You need to know the signs and what you can do to combat it in order to continue profiting from it. And it’ll further open up the gate for full cultural immersion.