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I, along with 19 other students, are now in the final round of the competition, where we depend on viewer votes to win. Please, head over to AIFS’ Instagram or Facebook pages to like, comment on, or share your favorite photos!
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Graduation is fast approaching, it is a time for transitions – within days I will complete my final assignments, say farewell to my professors, collect my awards, earn my degree, walk the walk, and pull out of the student parking lot one last time.
Just like that.
I do not spend too much time thinking about it, honestly. Maybe this is strange, but I already have my head wrapped up in what comes next -preoccupied with my future.
I am ready to work, eager to work. Freelance projects are in the the early stages, and I look forward to focus my attentions and talents on nonacademic assignments… for a while anyways.
The truth is, I have every intention of working my way through Graduate School, and I plan on doing this within the next few years. With interest in intercultural communications to bolster my value within the international education advocacy field, it behooves me to consider earning my degree abroad.
Yep, as in packing it up, cats and all, and heading to Europe to earn an education ten times more valuable and (hopefully) at a fraction of Stateside costs.
I would be gone two years, and maybe even forever.
While it sounds so at first glance, the more I consider it, the more I wonder if it is not the most reasonable idea for continued education and international experience.
The word “Invaluable” comes to mind.
Over the next few months, while I seek employment and work on freelance assignments, I will also begin seriously researching Graduate studies abroad. Reports and reflection, progress, and frustrations will all be documented here. If this site is going to live up to its Dodging Borders moniker, I best start blueprinting plans and making moves.
The months are piling by now, pushing my experience abroad further behind me. The long, cold, dark days of winter are ebbing into the fresh, chilly sunshine of spring, but my mind is still elsewhere; my mind is still there.
Returning to the University of Rhode Island for my senior semester was no easy feat. Perhaps the winter months added to the gloom, but I was not excited about returning to forty-five minute commutes and American courses dependent on “busy-work” rather than independent study, as I had in Austria. So much of my study abroad experience resonates with me still. There is so much to see and learn about the world outside of what we can see from within our own borders. I truly believe those who disagree only do so because they have never left. Once seen with their own eyes the benefits, differences, or even drawbacks of outside cultures, they will gain an unmatched, clear perspective of not only the world, but of their own culture and their own selves.
During this final semester of graduation preparation and portfolio curation, I have thought about my future very much, and with renewed vigor look to ways I can extend and continue my overseas experiences, whether by attending Graduate School or through my career (or both!). Before leaving for Austria, I expressed interests in international education, and I still am, except now my focus is more on advocating for study abroad and more students to spend time in cultures unfamiliar to them. The educational benefits go so far beyond what is in the classroom. While studying in Salzburg, I was assigned little to no “busy-work,” or homework, outside of weekly readings, which I was never quizzed or questioned about, but needed to know for papers and finals. With this system, I managed my own time and deadlines (without any handholding) and it was a great lesson in personal responsibility and time management. Some students handled this better than others did, but they still handled it. In America, daily assignments and handholding force an unrealistic dependence on the educators, and not enough personal responsibility on the students.
The greatest side benefit of academic independence and less busywork is the additional free time for student exploration. On weekends, my friends and I would hop on a train or bus to historic and cultural landmarks with our notebooks, readings, and flash cards to study for our classes. Not only was it comfortable, but it was affordable. I travelled to Dachau, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Venice …all while doing schoolwork. Once at these locations, I learned first-hand about the World Wars, the Holocaust, Classical music, Architecture, and European politics and culture. No amount of American homework could compare to the history I saw, heard, and felt while studying abroad.
No amount. None.
Since returning to the States, I have been following the news in Europe closely. It is a way I found to feel close to the land I am still a part of. I am also fortunate to remain in close contact with my friend and roommate in Austria. The world is growing closer every day, and the transition is anything but smooth. News of the continuing Refugee Crisis and strains between governments is disheartening, but not a deterrent. Perhaps in lieu of the recent attacks in Belgium this sounds too optimistic, but we must believe there is a future beyond the hate and the harm facing the world today. Europe may now be a hotbed of activity, but I cannot and will not let it dissuade me from my dreams or my purpose. I would not have advised any Europeans to avoid studying in the U.S. after 9/11 and I will not advise any Americans to avoid studying in Europe now.
Our problems do not disappear simply because we refuse to face them.
It is why I must spread the word and work in a field to expand, improve, and influence the students of our future. Conflicts and terror and misunderstanding are rife, and the best way to combat these issues are through experience and exposure, paving the way for communication and understanding.
Never miss an opportunity to live beyond your wildest dreams.
There really is no limit to the things I can say in support of studying abroad and international education. In the months since my return, I have been increasingly inspired to advocate every student take the opportunities and explore the world. Not only will you gain a perspective of outside culture, you will gain a new perspective of your own. It sounds cliche, but study abroad surpasses anything taught in classes and anything read in books. It must be seen and heard and felt to truly understand its impact on your life.
While I may not ever fully encapsulate and explain the magic, adventure, and marvel at living in a foreign country, I can do my best to inspire and share my experience in hopes of fostering yours.
Recently, I created a motivational video montage as part of my AIFS Global Scholar Program, and I wish now to share it with the WordPress world at large. Please visit YouTube to watch the video. The audio credit goes to Kevin Schmitz, for an excellent remix of Cecilia and the Satellite.
Additionally, right now there is a huge campaign underway encouraging more students to study abroad during their undergraduate career. If you are considering a semester or two overseas definitely check out the #GoStudyAbroad webpage, and apply for generous scholarships which will definitely help you make the most of your overseas experience!
My days and weekends are quiet now. My free time is no longer packed with detailed travel plans and exciting destinations. Every day is not an adventure; every day is just like every other day – empty. None of my friends are available to travel, they are all caught up in their busy routines as they were before I left. I miss having a group of friends around me willing and able to take off for a day or two –relatively cheaply- and visit new and exciting places. While I do have some friends expressing a want to do so, they share none of my urgency or enthusiasm. These days. the idea of getting together and just “hanging out” bores me to sleep.
In the meantime, I am a little surprised more of my friends and family are not calling me up and banging down my door to hear more stories about my time in Europe. Why are they not asking to see pictures? To watch videos? Maybe I would not be so bored “hanging out” if we spent more time talking about that four month long major life changing event in my life.
But what’s there to say?
When friends or family do ask to hear something, or how it was, or what happened, I find myself grasping for words, for stories, for examples, for answers. I can imagine my vacant stare while my mind whirls back in time over all the memories, the experiences, the moments, the places…. I get lost. I stumble over choices and fail to express myself convincingly or wholeheartedly to them. They will never know what it was. To me it was everything and to them it is nothing – It cannot be known through hearing but only felt though being.
Which is why every minute I have been home I feel so disconnected and distant from everybody. I am living in a surreal, dreamlike mood not grounded in either Austria or America, but disconnected from both physically, emotionally, and socially. It is as though my entirety has been divided between here and there: heart, soul, body, mind. I am everywhere and I am nowhere at once. My time abroad is distant and unreal while home is not yet reality. For now, I float between the two.
To overcome these dreadful re-entry challenges I must have patience; all matters resolve with time and tolerance. I knew my homecoming would be a challenge before going abroad so I am prepared for an onslaught of strange, uncomfortable transitions in the days and weeks immediately thereafter. The timing of my return during the onslaught of a cold winter causes a lot of preoccupation and hibernation among my friends and family. This will pass, and with the approach of Spring there will be new enthusiasm for interaction and adventure. By then, with a new semester, a new season, and a new routine, I will snap out of my post-abroad daze, landing once again in reality back home. With time, stories of my semester abroad will be told. There is no need to rush them or the emotions carried with them out all at once. In this way, I will truly never box my memories, but keep them on hand for relevance and reliving in the future.
Looking back to the months before my departure, I remember entertaining plans of all the accomplishments I would achieve while overseas. In my head, there was a neatly defined list of goals lined up waiting for the distinguished checkmarks of an imaginary green sharpie.
But, as with all things, my list became victim of reality, of circumstance, of chance. As the days of my semester abroad clicked by the green sharpie lay dormant, and the neat list forgotten. It is not that I abandoned my goals, but redirected them, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
Originally, I planned to continue my German language courses while in Austria. It makes sense, right? To learn the language in the land of its origin? I definitely touted that line repeatedly in the last few years, but you know what? After the initial two-week crash course in German provided by my program, AIFS, I decided to discontinue my study of the language while in Austria. Crazy, right? To explain: my previous skills in German were satisfactory for basic communication and the course level offered to me in Austria was redundant of my previous courses in America. While this was discouraging, I admit to not working up over it. There was a great amount of pull coming from the other course offerings. Taking German would crowd my schedule, and my new environment got me interested in learning more about life in Europe so I opted instead for classes on European Socialism and culture. No regrets there.
As simply as that, achieving German fluency in my semester abroad was silently crossed from the list.
Additionally, I looked forward to volunteering in an Austrian classroom helping students with English since education is an interest of my professional future. Alas, the week of sign-up and orientation I was ill, stricken down with feverish sweat and nauseous trembles. The mysterious Euro-flu captured me and took over my immune system, ravaging me for weeks. I make no excuses, and do not deny I missed a unique opportunity, but overcoming my illness was a priority, and I faithfully believe one closing door merely opens another.
With a hint of disappointment, I regretfully crossed volunteering in an Austrian classroom from the list.
Finally, it was a dream of mine to live abroad in an Austrian homestay with a middle-aged or older woman or couple so I might get the most authentic experience possible of what life is like for an adult in Europe. Due to the shortage of homestay opportunities in Salzburg, however, I was unable to do so. At first crushed by the news, it is now what I consider the grandest stroke of good fortune to come my way thus far. Instead of living with a family, I live in a dorm with my European roommate, Ramona.
A native of nearby Bavaria in Germany, Ramona is 14 years my junior and in her first year at the University of Salzburg. From the day she first arrived, we hit it off. Whenever we are not studying we are talking, and talking about everything. I am so curious about life in Europe and realized almost immediately how lucky I was to meet and live with somebody as outgoing and likeminded as I am. In our months together, I have learned so much about European and German outlooks, opinions, concerns, and ideals. Through her, I experience what life is like for a college student in Europe, and I could not be happier. While I have many questions about her homeland, she too, has many about mine, and I am eager to share with her all I can about my country and culture to dispel any misconceptions or clarify any details.
A few weeks ago, Ramona admitted to me that before we met she had no positive inclinations towards America, American policies, American values, or Americans in general. I was not mad; I was a little hurt and caught off guard about her comment, but before I could respond, she continued. She confessed she was originally not over excited to have an American roommate with what she thought were typical American ideals, but her opinion changed, and she now has a positive attitude towards America –all because of her time with me. Through our discourse, she discovered what was stereotype and generalization in American culture. Whereas the world media portrays America in one way, I showed her another, and it was enough to turn her heart and mind, which I have come to consider one of my proudest moments, and a great achievement of my lifetime.
Perhaps I did reluctantly cross the homestay from the list, but I eagerly replaced it with a fresher, updated achievement: I changed the mind of somebody with a mind already made. I turned negativity into positivity; I succeeded where I never thought to try -and this accomplishment is worth more than a prewritten checklist could ever be.
Europe by advantage of size, proximity, and transportation services makes it ideal for maximum exploration in a minimum amount of time. Three day weekends are opportunities to adventure to foreign lands, famous cities, and unknown cultures. From my home base in Austria, I have traveled to and through Germany, into and across Italy, and up and over to Switzerland… and that is only so far. There is no shortage of options to visit destinations which from the states seem so distant and obscure. Trains and rail crisscross the countryside connecting cities and villages alike. Long haul and international buses link major cities and points of interest. Airlines and airports of various sizes advertise cheap fares and convenience. Riverboats, water taxis, ferries, gondolas, funiculars, ski lifts, trams, cabs, subways, bicycles, pedal-cabs, city buses, taxi cabs, and one’s own two feet put the most obscure or popular places within reach. Every option has its strengths, every option has its weaknesses, but most importantly: there are always options.
The same goes for housing once you arrive at your destination. In Europe hostels are common and frequently used for a cheap alternative to hotel living. Before coming to Europe, I was under the impression hostels were only available to younger adults or teenagers, but this is a fallacy. Age limitations appear to be a trend of the past. In my hostel experience, I have bunked with single middle-aged travelers, had a family of four with two small children staying in the room next door, and an elderly gentlemen living in a room across the hall. While there are certainly some hostels catering to the needs of young adults, if you are only seeking a place to lay your head for eight hours I strongly recommend considering one before booking into more costly hotels. Sure, maybe you share showers and bathrooms with a group of people, forfeit maid service, need to pack your own towels and make your own bad, but for a fraction of the price the inconvenience is trivial.
A newer option for housing, which I admit I have less experience with, is the Airbnb ( https://www.airbnb.com/ ). Basically, this is a service found through a website where people list their homes, apartments, or spare rooms online, and for a price will rent the space to you or a group of travelers for, again, a fraction of the cost a hotel would be. While for obvious reasons a lone guest may feel uncomfortable staying in a stranger’s home, the security of a crowd makes this experience a fun alternative to the hostel environment. Personal homes have the advantage of variety, charm, and uniqueness not found in a dormitory setting. They can also provide seclusion away from busy tourist centers in neighborhoods, offering a true glimpse into the living style of the local culture. Airbnb makes it possible to find authentic living and even privacy at an affordable price, and for this, it is certainly worth trying!
As with all journeys, there is always the question of the unknown. Trains break down, buses get caught in traffic, blisters slow your step, luggage is lost, hostels overbook, and Airbnb rentals may disappoint, but this is the thrill of adventure. Be ready to accommodate, make a plan B (or C), get frustrated, and laugh at the disorder. Everything will find a way to work itself out eventually. Be prepared for both setbacks and good-fortune, with the proper mindset going in, nothing will overcome or overshadow your weekend travels.
For over a month I have been living in Salzburg, and while there were rough beginnings, I can now say I feel at home.
Last week I traversed the streets of old town, looking at it not through the tourists’ gaze but through the eyes of one who lives here, and I have to say, it was one of my greatest feelings yet on this overseas experience. I noted with appreciation the efficient progression of the construction in old town, I swiftly maneuvered through alleyways and narrow streets directly to my destination, deftly avoiding flocks of tour groups marveling at the baroque architecture and stopping to photograph Salzburg’s massive –and beloved- fortress.
I know when and where to find the buses I need, and more importantly, when they stop running. I accept the weather is at best unpredictable, and mastered the art of dressing in layers. Indoors, it is always too hot, and outside, too cold. I respect that native Austrians will not smile at me directly on the street, but have learned smiling at their dogs will get me a nod and a look of appreciation. I need not be reminded the stores are closed on Sundays, and therefore diligently complete my shopping on Saturdays. I realize no server or restaurant staff will ever rush me out the door, and if I want to leave, I best request the check.
When I walk I am careful to avoid hogging the bike lanes, and always keep an ear open to the dinging bells warning me of their approach. I know when crosswalk lights start blinking it is a good idea to pick up the pace, and when it’s red I better hold up. I now know what it means to wear sensible shoes, packing flip flops and stilettos was an absolute waste – blisters turned to calluses and pedicures are a thing of the past. I never complain about hoofing it up hills, I realize a true mountain always awaits on the other side.
While I often feel separate from the crowd due to the language barrier, I do not mind the solitude. I know enough to get me by, and if I am confused I follow the body language and subtle ques of those around me. The time I spend in public without the overwhelming drum of conversation to distract me is something I value very much. Without interference, I can truly appreciate this land, my surroundings, and the culture. Without hearing, I feel the heartbeat of the city, the very pulse of Salzburg. It flows around me, through me, into me.
I am now three weeks into my semester abroad in Austria, and I can confidently say life is finally –thankfully- settling into a routine. It sounds cliché, but the time really flies. It seems like only yesterday I lugged a hundred pounds of I-can’t-live-without-it luggage halfway across the world into a country I did not know, into surroundings I could not navigate with people I barely understand, but I am now here, I am settled, and I am ready to proclaim victory over my fears and concerns.
But it was not always so easy, so idyllic. To those of you reading this post in hopes of gaining understanding of what it entails to leave behind your home, your family, your friends, your pets, your towns, and your schools, I will not sugar coat. There was heartache. There were tears. There were profanities, and certainly, there were doubts.
I began my journey with an optional group excursion offered by my program, AIFS (the American Institute for Foreign Study), to London, England. I thought this would be an excellent place to begin my Austrian adventure since my ancestry is, aside from Austrian, English. However, this turned out to be one of the most exhausting weekends of my life. Jetlag was never overcome, and the miles I walked through London’s streets in a mere 36 hours put blisters on my feet I only this week fully recovered from. I did meet many of the people I would be studying with, but many of us were in the same position: We were tired, miserable, exhausted, nervous, stressed, and oh, did I mention tired? Truthfully, the weekend now seems a blur of sightseeing and deprivation, but I will save the details of this for another post, at another time…
Back to Austria.
After an unforgiving 3am wakeup call in London, my exhausted group boarded a plane headed for Munich, which eventually led to a bus taking us to our new home, Salzburg. Regretfully, the day was overcast with drizzling rain, the all too perfect-unperfect weather to match the mood. I had requested a home-stay, and only discovered on the bus I would not be placed in an Austrian home. I was devastated; months of planning, and all my packing, revolved around me living in someone else’s house. For whatever reason, AIFS withheld our housing information until our arrival, so only at the last minute was I made aware of my immediate future of unprepared-for dormitory living. My mood was as gloomy as the afternoon, and it showed no signs of getting better after a brief taxi ride from the city center to my new dorm.
The building -which shall remain nameless- was dark, rundown, and evidently unloved. Entering the lobby through an entrance overgrown with ivy? Weeds? Vines? All of the above? The wet odor of mold, mildew, and emptiness blasted my senses. If not for my exhaustion and my need to drag a hundred pounds of I-can’t-live-without-it luggage, I might have run screaming from the building at that very moment, but I held it together out of desperation and hope. Perhaps there was a mistake? A misunderstanding? Alas, I knocked on the office door and introduced myself to a pleasant woman, and sure enough, I was home.
Thankfully, there was an elevator, which whisked me efficiently to the top floor of the dorm. At the very end of the hall I found my room. Or most of it, in bits and pieces, anyway. The door was wide open, and I discovered a sparsely furnished, dusty space, with bare what-I-call bus-station bench twin size beds. My mini fridge was wide open, the shelves missing –but not totally so, it took me only a moment to find them freshly wiped down and perched upon and into my toilet. The bathroom light did not work, which was for the best, since the darkness kept me from spying the mold thriving in my shower until the next morning. I was grateful and thrilled to see I had a balcony, and with relief threw open the door to let in the fresh air. Unfortunately, this space was also neglected, as I was met with dirty lawn chairs, sun-bleached beer cans and overflowing, soaking wet ashtrays. My only respite was my view: the incredible sight of Festung HohenSalzburg, sitting mightily on its mountain. This famous and beautiful landmark was one of the attractions to lure me to this city, and now, it was my oasis, my reminder, my relief. Defeated and depleted, I sat on my bus-station bench bed and sobbed until I could sob no more.
The next day I was consumed by efforts to make better my stay. I spoke with the AIFS office, and thankfully they saw to it my accommodations were cleaned and repaired over the course of several days. My nights were lonely and uncomfortable. Without the internet, I was cut off from the outside world. My sleep suffered, a week into my stay I was lucky to be getting three hours a night, but always there and always steady was my oasis, my fortress high upon the hill. I learned others too had problems with their housing. They have no elevators, they require two minute showers, they are far from the city center, or they have tiny closet kitchens.
None boast a balcony. None have my views. None see my sunsets.
My Romantic nature was slowly building steam, gaining strength and revitalizing me. I hosted a group dinner for my new friends in my spacious kitchen and felt, for the first time in a week, happiness and contentment. Relationships formed buoyed me through my loneliness, and kept me afloat during long nights battling ancient Ethernet connections and moldy walls. I could not run and abandon my plans to study abroad, so I made the most of it.
It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Today, my dorm is still the hot spot for group dinners and social gatherings at sunset, although still boasting the same run-down and mildewed walls. A once unknown city is becoming all too familiar thanks to my oasis, my central beacon on the mountain. I learned my university is far closer to me than the home stay I once desperately desired. I am making friends in my dormitory, who, like me, find comradery in our unloved building.
Three weeks in, and the trials and tribulations of my first days are all but a memory. On weekends, I travel with friends to museums, castles, rivers, lakes, and towns. On weekdays, we attend classes. Coursework and homework distract me from the mold –which I hear will someday be removed- and life has become a comfortable routine of normalcy. I now have no regrets, except that I let myself be so overcome with grief those first few nights. Lesson learned: when in doubt, stand strong, and like Festung HohenSalzburg high on its mountain, you will never be conquered.