The other day I had a unique opportunity to participate in a first of its kind White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. It was a perfect day and being respected as a professional was perhaps the greatest gift any of us could have received. But it was about much more than stroking some egos, it was a day of action and a day of problem solving. The issue at hand? How to encourage more American students at all stages of life to study abroad.
The figure that shocked me the most at the summit was that while more than half of American students want to study abroad, only 10% actually take part in study abroad over their entire academic careers. The desire is there, we just need to help folks accomplish this important life goal, because that’s what it is. As an alumnus of a high school exchange program, I can personally attest to the importance and the life changing events that happen when students take the plunge and study overseas.
Starting today, the Federal Government is beginning a determined push to educate people about the importance of study abroad and to help students find the resources they need to make it a reality. The project is known by the hashtag #StudyAbroadBecause and you can follow it on Twitter and other platforms. There are so many great reasons to study abroad or to take part in an exchange, but I thought I’d share my own personal answer to #StudyAbroadBecause.
In high school I took French and soon learned that I had a peculiar affinity for languages. I raced through several years of French education in half the time and was excited with each new phrase learned or verb conjugated. (learning foreign verb structure is still a favorite hobby – fun I know) When I was a Junior, an exchange opportunity arose. My family hosted a French student and the plan was for me to travel to France to complete the exchange. We completed our obligation and my parents somehow scrounged up the money to put me on a plane to Paris, to fulfill a long held dream of mine. I was 17 years old and it was my first time leaving North America, my first time truly exploring a new country and my first individual travel experience.
Sure I was with other students, but outside of organized tours, I was mostly on my own to get to and from school and explore my neighborhood. Looking back now it’s hard for me to imagine, but for the first half of the trip I was fairly miserable. The family I stayed with was odd, there were clear communications barriers and I didn’t like Paris. No, that’s not quite right, I hated Paris.
I’m not sure why. I think my juvenile American self was overloaded with sensations; too much was different and with no familiar emotional anchors to keep me steady, I was floating away; I felt lost. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t another case of a spoiled American abroad. I enjoyed the organized activities, I liked seeing Notre Dame, visiting Versailles and even seeing U2 live in concert (with Velvet Underground as an opener). But when left to my own devices I found the city to be dirty, chaotic and abrasive.
Then one day I decided to venture out on my own for the afternoon, a departure from my daily routine. I had learned the layout of the city well enough and the metro finally made sense. I had spent 17 years living in cities no larger than 100,000 people, most of them much smaller and my small town self was finally getting used to life in the big city.
I loved the water even back then, and found myself walking alongside the Seine, the dark and brooding Notre Dame in clear view. I was starving and my options were limited, so even though it was early by French standards I plopped myself down in chair at a sidewalk cafe, and ordered lunch.
I sat there on a beautiful summer’s day, drinking red wine, eating my oddly-timed steak and watched the boats slip by on the Seine. Like a scene out of a movie, birds chirped, children laughed and lovers embraced. I had somehow fallen into a Romantic Comedy featuring the most romantic of cities, it was an alternate universe. Gone were the grey buildings, surly people and confusing streets. In their place was the Paris of the movies, a beautiful, romantic and cheerful place where life is reaffirmed and love consummated. A mental switch went off, and I fell into the scene, no longer an observer of what Paris should be, but a participant. That lunch on that afternoon changed forever my thoughts about Paris, it instilled in me a deep love for the city that persists still to this day.
This was an important day, the likes of which happen only a few times in our lives. I was beginning to doubt if my long supposed love of travel and seeing the world had been incorrect. I was worried that like Don Quixote I was tilting at windmills, chasing a dream that was just that, a dream. That afternoon though saved the trip, and in the process saved me. It was a beacon, showing me the path I needed to follow in my life, telling me that my gut was right after all.
I think that without too much exaggeration I can safely say that my experience in Paris defined who I became as an adult. It cultivated a deep love of travel, which in turn led to the career I enjoy today. There are plenty of facts and figures and dry, dusty reasons as to why students should study abroad, but my own answer to #StudyAbroadBecause is to find your passion and to discover the person who you will someday be.
Have you every studied abroad? How would you answer the question #StudyAbroadBecause? Add yourself to the mosaic below!