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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2001
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Study Abroad
Student to Student

Why Go Abroad?

I missed out on the study abroad experience in college because college itself was simply too much fun. Nothing could tear me away from my four years of independence, not even the promise of an adventure abroad.

To make up for the missed opportunity, I chose to study abroad after college. Like so many other 20-something graduates with a liberal arts degree, I was somewhat lost. In the midst of a discussion on my uncertain future, my college adviser gave me a much-needed boost. “You can do whatever you choose, Miss Hayes. Why, we could even get you into Oxford if we tried.”

That was a dare. And so the journey began.

But I was still by no means certain that this journey was for me. Four months after Oxford had accepted me into its Comparative and International Education program, I still hadn’t committed. The final decision came as I was strolling down a William and Mary brick path, eyes down, and spied one brick stamped with the word OXFORD. Rationally, of course, I realized that Oxford was the name of the brick company. But in my mind it was a sign! Just what I needed after weeks of tottering between staying and going. The point? Any reason for study or travel abroad is a good reason.

Without my expecting it, my year in England turned out to be the most rewarding of my life to date. The following suggestions are in retrospect the tactics that helped make that experience so special.

Suggestion #1: Study up. During my pre-travel preparation, I occasionally hesitated to ask a question for fear of seeming ignorant, but I quickly realized that not asking left me far more ignorant. Ask. If you don’t know the language, practice. The more you know about your destination, the easier your transition will be.

Suggestion #2: Once abroad, talk to everyone. Whether you are traveling or studying, you will encounter a diverse range of people. Take advantage of it. When given the chance to interact with the “locals,” take it. In my case, my British friendships earned me home-cooked meals, house parties, free stays in London, and delightful days at Wimbledon.

Suggestion #3: Be native. My best Oxford times were the warm spring days by the river, watching the Summer Eights crew races. Take lessons from those who know the country best and enjoy their traditions. You will feel more in tune with your surroundings if you do.

Suggestion #4: Learn what you like and dislike. Time abroad will help you figure out more of what you want and don’t want out of life. Follow what your journey teaches you.

Suggestion #5: Enjoy being where you are. Travel broadens your horizons, but take time to enjoy your temporary hometown as well. And when you travel, spend more than just a day in any city. Savor the sounds and sights without too much hurry to move on to the next church or museum. You will feel far more at home.

Suggestion #6: Don’t let anyone else dictate your experience. Go your own way, and don’t be swayed by co-travelers or classmates from making your own decisions.

Suggestion #7: Be prepared for others’ stereotyping of Americans. If only I had known that I would be expected to speak for my whole country! In Oxford’s multi-cultural atmosphere my friends and I often represented our nations on issues of foreign policy, entertainment, and other cultural phenomena (like Britney Spears). My word sometimes became American dogma, although against my will. I learned to express things more quietly, with less American slang, and with more sensitivity now that I, for once, was the outsider. Let’s face it: Americans are not viewed prettily in many corners of the earth. We are known as spoiled, loud, coarse, and invariably self-centered. Be prepared for these stereotypes, and work to break them down.

Back home, I am still a bit lost. But my time abroad provided several pointers for the future, including the completion of the research which won me my current job.

To return to the path that led me abroad: In the final semester of my senior year I confessed my fears about going to England to a friend who had spent a year in France. “I’m too little to go so far away,” I said. And she replied, with a smile, “That’s exactly why you should go. It will make you bigger.” And so it did.

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