Study Abroad – My Story
Growing up in Colorado in the ’70s I traveled on planes maybe once a year. Most years we traveled domestically, but three times I got to go overseas – twice to France to see family and once to Fiji. In the days before Internet, and long before Instagram, France and Fiji were as exotic as it got – otherwise only seen in Time Life books and Tom & Jerry cartoons!
In 6th grade we studied Renaissance art and history. The hallways around the school were lined with 8.5″x11″ printouts of famous paintings and buildings and we had to identify them. Italy quickly moved to the top of my travel wish list.
Fast forward seven years. I headed off to Malibu for college (at Pepperdine) and not only did they have three study abroad locations – in London, Heidelberg and Florence – they actively encouraged students to take advantage of them, not even charging any sort of additional fee. It was the easiest decision ever. Of course I wanted to go to Europe for a year! Florence was the only program I considered.
Study Abroad – Pepperdine Florence
In September 1990 35 of us (mostly Sophomores) flew to Milan on TWA, and then took a bus to Florence. Our base for the year was a Medici villa, 40 minutes from the center of town at the end of the #4 bus line. It was amazing! The best parts of Pepperdine’s study abroad program were:
Isolation and Family
These were the days before cell phones. We had a fax, we had daily mail delivery, and we had a pay phone in the villa. That’s was it. Most of the group stayed for both semesters, and most of us didn’t go home for Christmas. With classes, meals and field trips together, and living together in close quarters, we quickly became a family.
History Up Close
Florence was our classroom! We had one art class every week in the classroom, and then one every week in a museum. For a semester-long class on Machiavelli, we headed out often to see locations from Machiavelli’s life. For Italian class we walked around the neighborhood and asked people questions. We took day trips to Montalcino, Volterra, Siena, Assisi and all around Tuscany and Umbria, we had a weekend trip to Rome, and we had week-long trips to Greece and London. History was far more real in Europe than sitting in a classroom in Malibu reading about it!
Culture Up Close
Living in a villa surrounded by other American students, we weren’t as immersed in the culture or language as we would have been in a program where students live in apartments or with local families, so we took it upon ourselves to dive into Florence. We made friends and got invited into their homes. We spoke Italian every day. And we fell in love with Italy. Up until 2020 I returned to Italy every year since my year in Florence. It’s my favorite place in the world.
Europe at our Doorstep
Pepperdine had classes in the villa four days a week, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday open for us to travel anywhere in Europe we wanted, as long as we were back by Monday morning. We took full advantage, even without the benefit of low-cost airlines. Armed with a Eurail pass, a backpack and a Walkman, I saw Italy, France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands with friends from the Pepperdine program. Overnight trains, especially with connections and pre-EU passport checks at borders, were never fun, but I LOVED experiencing Europe, and it led to my lifelong love of travel – and eventually to my career as a travel writer.
Why You Should Study Abroad
With the world so much smaller and more accessible, and with every major site in the world showing up on your Instagram feed every day, you may think that’s it’s not as important to study abroad as it was long ago. I’ll readily admit that I don’t think our year abroad would have been as special without the isolation that came from being in Europe before cell phones and social media. But I would still encourage everyone, even my kids who have been to 62 countries, to study abroad at least once. Here’s why:
Culture can’t be captured on social media
This world is full of amazing cultures and amazing people, and you’re only going to meet those people and experience those cultures (and have authentic food) by going abroad. Sit and watch a pétanque game in Paris. Walk through the streets of Oslo during their May 17th National Day celebrations. Hand out rice to monks at sunrise in Luang Prabang, Laos. Sit with Ethiopians for a traditional coffee ceremony. Drink glühwein as you’re wandering from stall to stall in a German Christmas market. Walk into a Turkish carpet store and let them unroll dozens of carpets for you while you drink tea. Head to a local bar anywhere your currency is far stronger than the local currency and buy a round of drinks. The world is magical! And the cool thing is that every encounter with another culture will change you just a little. You won’t notice it when you’re there, but when you return home your friends and family will see a different person – someone who’s more confident, someone who understands world events and their significance better, and someone who knows there’s more to life than what can be seen within 20 miles of where they grew up.
When else will you ever have a chance to live for a year in another country?
College is a perfect time to go overseas for a year because it will never be that easy again. Take advantage of the opportunity! You already completed elementary school, middle school and high school, and the real world is only a few years away. Step back and enjoy life for a year. And you’ll be earning academic credits at the same time in the coolest possible setting!
You get to see a destination as a local
We try to travel deeper whenever we can, and I’ve strongly advised against visiting places for just one day, but when you live somewhere, you get to see another side of the destination completely. You’re there outside of the tourist season. You’re able to visit the famous sites early in the morning or late at night and have them to yourself. You can learn the main streets, but then get lost and discover lesser-known areas and the transitions between neighborhoods. You’ll become the regular at the coffee stand or ice cream place and before long get insider advice from the people who recognize you from day to day – and maybe an invitation to dinner with their families or an excursion out to the countryside. And you’ll be there for annual celebrations and events. In short, you’ll get to see what most tourists miss, which is the absolute coolest way to experience any destination!
It will help you discover your passion (and get hired)
It’s a big world out there, and you’ll have literally millions of options when you graduate. You may discover a new passion when you’re overseas. Or maybe you’ll just know that you NEED to move somewhere that spoke to your heart. What’s certain though is that you’ll have language skills and a world perspective that will make you more desirable to employers. When I was in healthcare and needed to hire people, I always prioritized the applications of people who had studied abroad.
You’ll have life-long friends
A lot of my closest friends in the world came from my study abroad experiences. We’ve had reunions, including several in Florence. I went to a birthday party in the middle of a Lithuanian forest. I’ve met up with people around the world, including in the UAE, Malaysia, Spain, St. Lucia, Estonia and throughout the US. And a few years ago, my son and I got on the wrong train at Amsterdam’s airport and ended up in the countryside. We were rescued by a study abroad friend who peddled us on her box bike all the way to our Amsterdam hotel! Seriously, it’s good to have friends everywhere.
Study Abroad Whenever You Can!
I titled this post ” Study Abroad – The Best Decision I Ever Made” and I mean that. I spent my Sophomore year in Florence, and then headed to the Pepperdine Heidelberg program the summer between my Junior and Senior years. By getting additional course credits that summer in Germany, it allowed me to only take two classes my final semester of college. How did I spend the rest of my time that semester? I interned at President Reagan’s Los Angeles office. And I was hired by a person who had also studied abroad at Pepperdine’s Heidelberg program! So as a direct result of studying abroad, I got to spend three days a week with a former President of the United States – an amazing opportunity.
I mentioned my healthcare profession above. I was with my company for 18 years. Partway through my tenure there I went to my boss and asked if it was ok for me to work from Oslo, Norway for a summer. I enrolled in the University of Oslo’s International Summer School and got to study abroad one more time – as a 30-year-old! I loved that summer living in the UiO dorms, traveling around Norway and meeting students from 90+ countries so much that I returned the next year and did it again, taking me to five total semesters studying abroad – two in Florence, one in Heidelberg, and two in Oslo. Plus I took a one-month grad school class in Eastern Europe. They were some of the best experiences of my life, and I’m hopeful that my kids, when they reach college, will do the same. Yes they’ve already traveled a lot, but absolutely nothing compares to living abroad for a semester or a year with people who quickly become your best friends.
Advice for Studying Abroad
- Seriously, just go.
- Do it for you and not for social media. Put your phone down and enjoy the experiences playing out around you. And yes, that’s coming from someone who earns a living on social media.
- Pretend you’re isolated. That was easy for us thirty years ago obviously, but there were advantages to it. Even if you can easily fly home for Christmas or family events, think about staying at your destination instead. Take full advantage of your overseas base. Limit your calls home and interactions with friends back on campus.
- Learn the language.
- Talk to people. Make friends with the locals.
- Be responsible. Don’t go crazy just because you’re 5,000 miles from home and this is the most independence you’ve ever had. There’s a great show that comes and goes from Netflix called Scam City. Some episodes are adult-oriented, but the series should be required viewing by anyone young heading overseas. It will keep you out of a lot of trouble!
- Take a credit card without a surcharge for foreign transactions, and an ATM card without transaction fees. And think about taking a backup ATM card tied to another account, just in case.
- If you’re traveling on weekends or during school breaks, only go with one or two other people. The larger the group, the harder it is to find a consensus on anything!
- If you’re cooking pasta, use water.
Study Abroad Programs – Your Turn
Did you study abroad? Where did you go? What was your favorite part? And what advice do you have for others thinking about studying abroad?