Study abroad programs: more than a trip

Posted on Jun 17 2015 - 7:17pm by Tori Wilson

Study abroad programs are, on the surface, a little intimidating. There are a smorgasbord of countries from which to choose, a dizzying number of classes and programs and lists upon lists of necessary forms and deadlines and costs. But, if you can get past the semantics, it’s probably one of the most rewarding experiences college can offer.

For many people, a four-year college is the first time you’re living on your own. Even if your parents live in Oxford, you have to take control of your life in some aspect: you’re choosing your own classes, figuring out how to fit lunch into a packed schedule, planning your time so that ten page essay doesn’t sneak up on you. But, in a lot of ways, you still have the parental safety blanket. You can call home when your dishwasher overflows and you don’t know what to do, or your fridge is as empty as your bank account. You have people to fall back on when things get complicated. College is adulthood with training wheels.

So, one of the best advantages a study abroad program has to offer is a trial experience of complete independence.

I’m from Jackson. I have my own apartment up here, but I still go home every month or so with a load of laundry in hand and a plea on my lips for my mom to do it, because her washing machine is better, anyway. I’ve been out of the country four times now, and mostly if I want to visit a friend or relative during the summer or over spring break, I book the plane ticket and go. I’m pretty accustomed to the eccentric and frenetic nature of travel on any scale. But before my study abroad experience, I’d never boarded an international flight without a group of people (though I’d caught a lot of domestic flights as a solo flyer). So, that was the first hurdle.

There are 15 people on this English adventure, including our instructor. We’ve all talked some—Facebook is a marvelous invention—and, helpfully, two of the women on the trip are in choir with me. Unhelpfully, they haven’t arrived yet, so I stride out of the airport in search of the bus that’s supposed to take us to our final destination. One of the buses parked just outside the terminal is picking up a group of what I can only assume are elderly tourists, so I cross that one off the list. I fall asleep on the bus ride, thank goodness. When my eyes open, I am confronted with the kind of view you think is only found on the pages of travel magazines.

Alnwick Castle doesn’t exactly loom above the surrounding town, but it asserts itself on the landscape. It’s impressive, and huge, and really sort of defies description. These days, Alnwick is a bit of a tourism destination; it’s steeped in history as the traditional home of the Duke of Northumberland—the family resides there still, during certain months of the year—and, if that isn’t enough to interest you, it was a filming location for the Harry Potter films.

Have I mentioned yet that the castle is to be our home for the next week? Yes, that’s a pretty amazing side benefit of a study abroad program based on fantasy literature.

For two weeks, we explore England—the northern half for the first week, including historic sites such as Hadrian’s Wall and Lindisfarne and picturesque towns like Berwick-upon-Tweed and Bamburgh. That first week we also explore our own literary potential. We write two short stories, each anchored in our own specific brands of fantasy and magic, and workshop them in class.

The day trips are exhausting, and you might think writing is a bit of a chore after a day of walking ancient walls and treading cobbled streets. But really, it’s a sort of cathartic end to each day out; we come back to the castle, pull out laptops and tablets and notebooks, and pour the day’s experiences out in words and worlds. Sometimes, the end result is unrecognizable as inspired by our travels; sometimes the locations are brought to typewritten life for us to experience anew.

The second week is London. No matter how many times you’ve been to big cities, you never quite get used to that sudden shock—the people milling about you, cars whipping past without any regard for pedestrians, the sounds of impatient horn honking and people carrying on conversations as they hurry into shops and tube stations. You have to pause, pull your consciousness out of small-town living and into the city mindset.

But, of course, being the determined and slightly reckless 20-somethings we are, all of us strike out to befriend this new city. Over the past week, everyone’s formed groups—middle school teachers may have bemoaned cliques in our youth, but the truth is it’s easier to navigate life with a core group of friends—and we all break off to find ourselves in London. Four of us—Gabbie, Tayler, Sinclair and I call ourselves the Tea Timers—locate the necessities first.

And if the first week was about exploring our surroundings and internalizing, shrinking them down for our writing, this week is more about introspection. It’s not hard to do—exhaustion and a bit of awe from the sheer size of London keeps many of us close to the hotel, where we spend a lot of time evaluating what we’ve written and revising it. This week may not be one of new prose, but we do have a final portfolio of work due before we leave for home. Stories are considered, characters tweaked, odd sentences and wording reworked or deleted. And we find, slowly, the meaning of the trip in those actions.

Our instructor, Beth Spencer, asks us to consider our “defining moment” from the trip. For some, it’s an easy task: Gabbie and Tayler were stuck in Chicago for over a day because their planes were continuously cancelled, and they learned early on in the study abroad experience to sit back and enjoy what life throws at you. Others found meaning in the walk along Hadrian’s Wall, truly understanding for the first time the age and depth of the history we stood upon. I found my meaning, as I am wont to do, in the creativity we encountered. The trip was all made worth it the moment we stepped into a theatre—English major though I might be, the stage was my first love. Three shows later , I’d decided that experiencing the theatre in the country where it gained its golden laurels was an experience I shall never forget.

But of independence gained and experienced, I can say a great deal as well. We’ve already visited my solo international flight experience, in equal parts frantic and boring. But you learn the value of solitude, too, on such a trip—afternoons spent in a tea room reading a book, or walking through the halls of a museum without anyone by your side to drag you away to the modern art exhibit when you’d rather spend the next hour or so among the pre-Raphaelites. You learn the anxiety of forgetting to put an item on the customs form for the box of souvenirs you shipped home—no more room in the suitcase—the relief when it arrives without any issue, and the bemusement when the shipping company informs you it won’t deliver your package until you pay an ungodly sum of customs fees. But then, it’s worth it to see the look on your grandmother’s face when you hand her a watercolor painting of the English countryside, and hear the squeal when your best friend puts on her authentic Hufflepuff quidditch sweater.

Study abroad is, of course, about the academics. They’ll tell you that the minute you walk into the study abroad office, full of questions and concerns and excitement. But, to the students, it’s more about the people you encounter, the places you see. The country you visit is your classroom. And though you’ll receive credit hours and the grade will show up on your transcript, I found that you learn far more about yourself and your study abroad companions than you do about the course material.

Although the class part was pretty awesome. Thanks, Beth.