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An Athlete Abroad

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The light from my computer reflects off of my glasses. My eyes are scanning the page at breakneck speed. Click, click, click, my fingers fly across the keyboard and furiously venture deeper into the virtual realm. Italy, England, Greece, Ireland, Scotland, Poland, and many more countries are listed in my laptop’s history. I need to go to Europe, I think to myself. No, no, my conscious shoots back, beginning to list the endless reasons why not to go. Financial affordability and the responsibility of being a Division I athlete were only two of them. But you’ve been working three part-time jobs since you were 12! The more assertive side of me argues. That side has a point. I always knew that studying abroad was something that I needed to do in college so I started saving as soon as I acquired a work permit. As a first-generation American, my Polish heritage is a huge part of who I am. My roots stem in Europe. Twelve years of Saturday school learning about Poland and its intricately rich history was bound to have some type of effect on me. Inevitably, my curiosity expanded beyond central Europe and trickled into its neighbors and even those across the seas. But how was I going to get there? Here is what I did:

Talk to your coaches and create a training plan.

I am proud to represent DePaul University as a Division I Cross Country and Track athlete. As such, I knew that I first and foremost had to consider the responsibility involved with studying abroad in another country and the reality behind maintaining my training whilst taking on a full course load. I explained to my coaches and athletic program my strong desire to immerse myself in a culture outside of my own in order to gain a broad worldview. I explained that it would undeniably be beneficial as a Business and English major to study abroad for the summer in Scotland. To my glee, they agreed to let me go.

Apply for scholarships.

After applying for multiple scholarships, I tripped over the financial hurdle, scraping my knee in the process. I was humbled to earn the IFSA-Butler First Generation Scholarship, but I had to shatter my piggy bank, break into my savings account, and turn to family and friends for 0% APR loans. Besides IFSA I also applied to some national scholarships, including the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. Although I didn’t earn that scholarship, it was an opportunity to work on my writing skills and truly reflect on what I desired out of my study abroad experience.

Be determined.

I don’t know of many athletes who have studied abroad. Many face stringent schedules, rules, or programs that don’t allow athletes to consider the prospect of studying abroad. The wonderful thing about running is that you can do it anywhere, anytime (but preferably not right after a meal). The University of Stirling took us on a day trip to the beautiful fairytale town of St Andrews. My friends and I wandered around the picturesque town, stopping at St Andrews Cathedral and Castle, as well as the University of St Andrews, where Prince William met Kate Middleton. Afterward, my friends and I headed down to the beach for a stroll.

Be flexible and open-minded.

I had packed running clothes to change into with the hopes of finding an hour-long window during the day trip to squeeze in a run. I didn’t bring my shoes, but no matter. My bare feet lightly splashed through the salt water, spraying my delighted face. My friends generously offered to lug my backpack around with them while I ran. I passed them for the third time, glancing over my shoulder and gasping, “Almost done! Last interval!” We returned from St Andrews in the early evening which gave me enough time to hit Stirling’s fantastic training facility. Not only does it provide workout equipment, but there are also yoga classes (great for the mind and body), Metafit (almost died, I would recommend for elite Olympic athletes), aquacise (I’ve made plenty of 50+ year-old friends), and a plethora of other classes for all types and ages.

Let your passion for your sport guide you throughout your incredible journey.

I train diligently, reflecting on how blessed I am to be able to spend an entire two months in Europe. I have traveled to London and Dublin and both are absolutely beautiful and historic. Personally, I believe there is no better way to get acclimated in a foreign environment than embarking on a journey in my faithful Zoom Pegasus 32’s. They have taken me across bridges illuminated in the sunset’s soft glow, up to the entrances of monuments and historic sites, and even through pastures with Highland Coos and sheep. Scotland has it all: in the mood for a hike? Walk out the front door of Beech Court and you will find a hiking path across the street. Craving some cool saltwater or sun to bask in? St Andrews is only an hour away. Wish to take a step back in time? Castles are located within walking or train distance from Stirling. I must confess. I am suffering from severe DSL (Deep Scottish Love). No matter where I visit outside of Scotland, I always come back wishing I had never left. I have only been here for four weeks but I have so much more to discover! Every time I venture out I find something new.

Be brave.

Although my dreams always included studying abroad, once I became a collegiate athlete, I wasn’t certain that I would be able to realize them. I was scared to approach my coaches and the athletic department about it. I wasn’t sure if I would be pushing my luck by asking about furthering my education abroad as a committed student-athlete. Although it may be a daunting and intimidating task, I highly encourage student-athletes to simply ask about the possibility of studying abroad. It may sound cliché, but it is truly the experience of a lifetime.

Caroline Kurdej was a Business Administration and English student, minoring in Professional Writing and Applied Psychology, at DePaul University. She attended the IFSA University of Stirling summer program in Scotland in 2016.  Caroline was also a Division I cross country and track athlete and an IFSA First Generation College Student Summer Scholarship recipient.