I do not believe it is an understatement to say that studying abroad changed the trajectory of my life. This is a common anecdote – many students return from overseas with new perspectives, new stances, new academic focus – however, the frequency of this positive outcome should not diminish its truth or impact. My experience overseas truly changed the direction of my life and without it, I would not be here, writing to you.
Studying in London had become somewhat of a tradition amongst the women in my immediate family, passed down from my mother, to my elder sister, and then to me. Studying abroad not was an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ when I chose to attend Washington College in 2011. While I looked at programs in Italy and Scotland, in my heart, I knew I would wind up studying at Royal Holloway University of London in England, which I did, in the Fall of 2013. My three short months in Egham, Surrey were utterly and positively life-altering. In the simplest of terms, I gained a sense of confidence and self-assurance that I did not possess before I left. I procured the ability to travel independently, adapt to unplanned obstacles, walk into a room in which I knew no one, enjoy a night out with friends, ask for help and, let go of self-doubt and speak up for myself. I had performed many of these actions before, but never confidently. I returned to Washington College comfortable in a way I had not been before I left.
I was initially driven to study abroad, not just because of familial tradition, but because I was desperate to see the world outside of myself. I grew up in a homogenous neighborhood, and was headed to an, ultimately, similar college environment. As a scholar of history, I needed to witness and walk in buildings that were older than anything left standing in the US, and participate in a new and different community. My semester overseas did not change my academic focus too much, although I did go from focusing on colonial America to twentieth-century Britain, however it is really my return to the US that permanently altered me.
I learned that when you return from an extended period of time abroad, your close friends and family get really sick of you saying “When I was in England…” really quickly. Within a week of returning to the US I was desperately seeking new audiences to bestow my months of wisdom and anecdotes upon. I found that audience in Washington College’s Global Education Office. I attended every single Returnee-Panel, FAQ group, Open House, and any other GEO event that would permit me to spend hours gushing about my experience at RHUL. All of my knowledge on strange campus quirks or train-ticket queues went from useless to useful. I loved any opportunity to talk about my experience in England through Washington College to prospective study abroad students. And because of this enthusiasm, when a position as Study Abroad Coordinator was created and posted the summer after I graduated, an existing member of the GEO Team reached out and encouraged me to apply.
Without my experience studying abroad, I would not have become involved in the field of international education. I would not be currently employed by my alma mater and getting paid to gush about the best experience of my life. I would not have the privilege of helping other students do exactly this, every day. Without studying abroad, I would not have the confidence to travel – however locally – independently and confidently. I wouldn’t be as good as speaking up and out for myself and others. I would not be here, writing to you.
Before sophomore year, I’d never really considered studying abroad. But in the spring of 2013, my thought process flipped like a switch from, oh, going abroad might be nice, to, yikes, this is my last chance; I need to go. Royal Holloway, my school of choice, only accepted applicants in the fall. I wouldn’t be able to go senior year, so I suddenly realized that the fall of my junior year was my only opportunity. I scrambled to fill out applications and beg generous professors for letters of recommendation. Just two days shy of the deadline, I managed to submit all the necessary paperwork. Looking back, I am so incredibly grateful for the professors and administrative professionals who helped through that process. Now that I am in the working world and dealing with similar deadlines, I can imagine just how much patience and grace they must have had with situations like mine! I try to keep the same mindset now in my professional life.
Traveling while studying abroad made the biggest impact on my life after college. I learned how to budget, since the exchange rate was so poor. I had to convert totals in the moment to know how much I was spending; a twenty-five-pound dress was actually going to cost about forty dollars. I had to choose wisely where and what I ate. When planning a trip, I needed to research the cheapest modes of transportation, and find out where I could afford to stay. It was a challenge, and prepared me well for life after college. When traveling, I also learned to expect (and accept!) the unexpected. I’ve always had an intrinsic need to plan ahead, but, as we all know, things hardly ever go according to plan. Study abroad taught me to let go of what I wanted in the moment, because what happened instead might be better. I learned to be flexible, and to have faith in a malleable, ever-changing future.
Along with a group of other WAC students who became some of my closest friends, I traveled all around England, and also ventured to Scotland, Paris, and Amsterdam. It opened my eyes to the fact that actual people lived and worked here; they made their lives in places I had only ever read about or seen on TV. I had to revisit many of my deep-seated preconceptions, and I discovered that, no matter where you go, people remain fundamentally the same. Everyone has likes and dislikes, dreams and fears, joys and hardships. This mindset has stayed with me ever since.
My poetry flourished during those three months abroad. The professors expected us to read constantly, and to be reading books other than those assigned for class. Thanks to that expectation, I was always reading something that inspired me to write. Whenever I traveled, I kept a notebook and pen handy. I never knew when something inspiring would happen, and I ended up writing about the smallest, strangest, most magical moments. I have poems now about taking a night bus from England to Scotland, and gazing at the Big Dipper from my foot-wide bunk. One poem features a heron my friends and I saw wading in a canal in the early hours of a foggy Amsterdam morning. I wrote about drinking hot chocolate under the heat lamps of a Parisian café veranda, and listening to the jazz music wafting to us from somewhere streets away. My natural memory is awful, but in the poems keep these experiences close and vivid, and I will never forget them. Study abroad taught me the vital importance of detailed record keeping, and the joy of noticing the little things.
During my time at Washington College, I majored in International Studies, with concentrations in Near Eastern and Peace and Conflict studies. With that, the spring of my junior year, I studied abroad in Egypt at the American University of Cairo, otherwise known as AUC. During my time at AUC, I took intensive classes in Modern Standard Arabic, as well as others in Middle Eastern politics and security. During my time at AUC, I had amazing opportunities of traveling to places throughout the Cairo area, and Egypt as whole, all while becoming friends with people from all over the world. As a whole, the friendships that were created during my time abroad were probably one of the best aspects of the experience, fully immersing me in Egyptian culture, while learning about others along the way. Many of these people I still am in touch with today, and are some of my closest friends. After living in Cairo for six months, I was certainly not the same person I was when I returned home. I came back with a renewed sense of confidence and accomplishment, while not only becoming decent at Arabic, but also independently traveling around Egypt and other countries within the region, while further learning about the political and social turbulence that occurs.
With that, my time in Egypt was life changing, allowing me opportunities and friendships I could never even dream of, while also preparing me for future experiences within the region. I currently work as an English teacher in a non-for-profit high school, located in the Palestinian Territories, in the city of Nablus. I am constantly learning about the everyday issues Palestinians face, especially the roadblocks my students overcome on a daily basis, in which living in a known conflict zone brings an array of issues including travel restrictions, overcoming language barriers, and degrading political policies, and all while living under a military occupation as a teenager. Teaching in Nablus has not only opened my eyes to the hardships many Palestinians face, but also has shown how ill prepared many foreigners, myself included, are to help, especially within the Middle East.
As such, for the upcoming academic year, I will be attending the University of St. Andrews, working towards an MA in Middle Eastern Security. In the end, I would never be close to where I am today without the support of Washington College, the GEO staff, and the experience of studying abroad in Egypt.