Lessons Learned from Life Abroad

Erica's blog pic 1By Erica Henderson – This summer I decided to travel.

I’m 25, looking forward to my last year of graduate school, and uncertain what’s going to happen after graduation. I could have gotten a job or internship for the summer, but I was starting to feel like this could be my last opportunity to do what I’d always wanted but never felt able to—travel.

I figured that this seemingly irresponsible summer was a rite of passage that everyone should experience once before life gets too real. And I don’t necessarily just mean travelling. That accusatory question I would hear from some people (“What do you mean you’ve never been to Europe?!) irked me to no end. I realize how lucky I am to have been able to go a whole summer with no income and still cover the expenses of travelling. It’s certainly not something that should be expected of everybody.

What I mean by an irresponsible summer is simply a summer consisting of nothing Erica's blog pic2that one would likely put on a resume. This could be travelling to another country or going on a road trip to Montana and camping out for a few weeks. It could be cramming a group of ten friends into a small rental cottage in some tourist-y beach town and bartending for a summer. It could be working on a farm when you’ve never watered a plant in your life. None of these things are likely to advance my nascent career in the world of educational policy, but judging by my experience this summer, it would still prove to be an irreplaceable learning opportunity.

The month I spent abroad provided an astounding array of random and unexpected experiences. I saw Bam Margera dressed like a pirate, drunkenly trying to start a fight with an Icelandic gang. I hiked a glacier in Skogafoss. I met a girl in Reykjavik who grew up in my neighborhood in Boston. I saw Bam Margera (again) with a black eye. I stayed in a small town in Austria with an old lady whom I’d never met and who didn’t speak a word of English. Later, she and I split a bottle of wine at her grandson’s soccer game.

I drove an ATV along the cliffs of Santorini. I watched the sunset in Oia and then slowly made my way to the other side of the island in time to watch the sunrise at Kamara Beach. I heard the protesters in Athens shouting “OXI!” to the proposal of austerity, and I learned the effects of a suffering economy so plainly in the conversations I had with the restaurant owners who showed me what real hospitality looks like.Erica's blog pic3

I realized I was relying on everyone else knowing English, and I started to feel very self-conscious about that. I learned that Europeans associated America most commonly with guns and Coca Cola. They also loved asking me about the typical college tuition and, after hearing of my sister’s colossal debt from law school, coyly bragging about their free higher education. I found myself, along with a comrade from Dallas, explaining to a group of curious Australians what exactly is the confederate flag, and struggling to explain why it’s still being flown. I was often embarrassed when someone from Glasgow or anywhere else knew more about American politics than I did, whereas I know absolutely nothing about Scotland whatsoever.

In the end I was wrong to think this was my last chance to travel. If it is a passion, one just needs to learn how to prioritize it. I have a friend who is a high school teacher, and she aims to visit at least three Erica's blog pic4countries every year. I always considered that irresponsible, with her looming college debt. Looking back, I realize she is doing it right. That is her passion, and although she often has to forego big nights out, dining at expensive restaurants, or finally buying a car, she never feels as though she is missing out, because she has prioritized what is important to her. I plan to try to do the same from now on.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from my journey abroad was this: I was wrong to think that I wouldn’t learn anything of value to my professional future. I have learned to be open-minded and curious of others’ cultures (though I couldn’t bring myself to try the Icelandic staple: putrefieErica's blog pic5d shark). I want to be more aware of what is going on not just in my own country but also around the world. I gained a new perspective simply hearing others’ reasons for travelling, of which no two are alike. I found that I couldn’t even begin to understand the nuances of international economics, and now have a healthy skepticism when hearing criticisms of countries that are struggling. I am even learning German.

To be sure, many of these experiences are things that I could have found right here in Wisconsin, but the curiosity and perspectives I gained while abroad will inform the way I navigate the rest of my education and beyond.

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