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University Alumni Travel Abroad

What Is It and Why Participate?

Staying Connected With Your Alma Mater

As a student it is easy to remain connected to your school if you so desire. Emails fill your inbox each day informing you about current events and networking opportunities. Similarly, it is relatively simple to maintain personal contact with friends, peers, professors, and other members of the university community.

One might think that with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other online networking tools, it is easy to keep in touch beyond graduation. However, despite these technological developments, it is inevitable that the bond to your former school will—at least to some degree—lose its strength post-graduation. If you move far away from your former alma mater, staying connected to the university community becomes even more difficult.

As an international student, I always had a somewhat different relationship to my alma mater, Columbia University. In Europe, the tradition to identify strongly with one’s university is not very widespread. Wearing sweaters with your university’s name is less than common in Europe, and buying a mug that says “Columbia Dad” (or “Mom”) simply does not happen at a university in Germany. The same goes for the tradition of “giving back” (which includes both donating money as well as other educational resources and/or services); in Europe, you do not form the same connection to your alma mater as you do in the United States, and I imagine that a similar statement could be said about schools in Asia and other parts of the world.

An Experience On An Alumni Travel Program

Living abroad always makes it more difficult to keep in touch with one’s former university community. When I found out that Columbia was hosting an Alumni Travel program to Barcelona, I decided to give it a try and re-connect with my alma mater. As a freelance writer and photographer based in Madrid, I could take a fast train to get there in less than three hours; to me, this was a selling point compared to the 8-hour flight to New York City, which was also naturally more expensive.

Moreover, the program itself sounded appealing: Art, Architecture, History, and Tapas was the focus of the 4-day Barcelona tour. I had visited the capital of Gaudí only once and had been very disappointed that I wasn’t able to enter the Sagrada Familia church due to the long lines. The Columbia program, on the other hand, would take care of all of such hassles for me; V.I.P. entrances were the key to all of the scheduled museum tours, where professional tour guides, actual Columbia professors, as well as the Dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts would accompany alumni. As a great fan of art and architecture, I was hooked.

Of course, the details of every alumni travel program will vary. My references to the Columbia program in Barcelona are, therefore, by no means applicable to all Columbia programs nor to all university’s alumni travel programs (assuming that they have such programs available in the first place). However, my experience in Barcelona may help serve as a starting point for fellow alumni to see whether they, too, might consider traveling as a way to connect with their former college. Here are some aspects to consider:

  • Cost. It is common that a university travel program will want to show you the best of the best, and thus can be expensive. Think about what you will be receiving in exchange for the cost:
    • How many days is the program?
    • What will you be seeing?
    • Are there V.I.P. tickets?
    • Will there be tour guides, professors, deans, etc?

  • Accommodations. Usually, accommodations will not be included in the costs, but a specific hotel will be designated for you to stay in, and a special group rate will have been secured. Consider arriving a day early and staying a day longer just to adapt to jet lag. It may be possible to stay at a different (and perhaps cheaper) location, but be aware that you will lose time getting from one place to another (as well as communal breakfasts and other socializing opportunities).

  • Food. Lunches and dinners included in the cost will be specified on the program. If you have special food requirements and/or allergies, be sure to note this beforehand.

  • Program. Does it have a specific focus? Ask for a schedule in advance, and see how it is planned out. You may be asked which activities you want to participate in, so read up beforehand on the specific locations, museums, etc. Usually, the university will provide you with all such information in advance.

  • Speakers. Who are they and what can you learn from them? Perhaps they even include a former professor of yours that you would like to meet again.

  • Participants. Again, this will vary from program to program. In Columbia’s case there was a great diversity among the participants, which included alumni from back in the fifties to current students. Naturally, finding a program that will suit all of them is a bit of a challenge. Inquire beforehand whom you will be traveling with. You might even considering asking some of your former college friends whether they want to join you.

Why Attend a University Alumni Travel Program?

These days, there is a myriad of ways to travel. Arranging one’s own flights, accommodations, and tours is always an option, but even when it comes to booking with a tour operator, there are so many to choose from. Some people choose to tour the globe tasting regional cuisines, while others seek an organized yoga retreat. There is even a sector devoted purely to chocolate travel or whiskey travel, for those who are aficionados of either.

Traveling with one’s former university is still an option fewer people consider. So why do it?

  • Networking. Both the participants as well as the speakers present an opportunity to re-connect with the university community. Networking can be a form of socializing but can also lead to professional bonds and job opportunities. While attending a program overseas is never the guarantee for signing one’s dream contract, it is always worth a shot asking about what other participants do. Then, you can think about how you and your skills might fit in and/or complement their current requirements.

  • Socializing. This is the part of networking that is not necessarily going to end up in a job opportunity. Enjoy the trip simply as a way to re-connect with old friends, or meet entirely new people that you had never met in college. Frequently such programs will include alumni of all ages, so one night you may find yourself having an interesting conversation with an alumnus from the 50's, while the next day at lunch you could be speaking to a current student. More often than not, you can also spend time talking to university employees who will inform you about the latest educational happenings.

  • Learning. Universities are about learning, and so are the travel programs that colleges organize. The great thing is that in this case, there are no exams involved. Enjoy learning without pressure; attend the sections you want, take notes if you wish, or just go along for the ride. In the end, you are sure to learn something, and probably more than you expected.

  • Travel. This might sound obvious, but a university travel program will take you places. Even if you have been to the location in question before, you will probably see it in a different light. The professors and speakers will allow you to see it with different eyes, and the organized lunches and dinners can be a way to socialize with people in a foreign, but still rather relaxed, setting.

Alumni Program Availability

The first place to inquire is at your own university. The concept of alumni reunions has become more and more widespread, but not all universities offer travel programs (yet). Another option is to attend a university travel program with a friend whose alma mater does offer such a program. You can also attend a program as spouse, or even as a parent of your daughter and/or son’s university. The key is to not to be shy about asking; more often than not universities will be open to hosting more participants.

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