The Secret to Having a Meaningful Study Abroad Experience: Exploring Human Geography
After reflecting on my journey across the world, people often ask – what was your favorite country you visited while you were abroad?
Surprisingly, I am unable to answer that question with just one word because my response always is about the people I met. The lives being led by each person in their country truly changed my own perspective of the world. It left a very memorable mark on my own, personal life.
I listened to my Brazilian friend, Gabriel, talk about how his family members have been hurt from protesting against the government to receive food. They’re unable to get jobs and are starving. I learned from my Croatian friend, Dana, explain how she built her hostel from the ground up against the men in her life always telling her she couldn’t do it. I heard from my Serbian friend, Petra, describe how parts of Belgrade are still suffering from previous wars and how many of her friends and family have had to flee the country for safety. I learned directly how these world events, ones most of us only hear about in the news, have shaped people I know and the homes in which they reside in. It was and still is a humbling experience, only sparking my interest for to learn more.
I studied abroad for 8 months in Europe. 5 of those months I spent studying the sciences at Cardiff University located in Wales. In all my time abroad, I found that the human and soul connections I made were the secret to why my experience was so unforgettable.
My life-altering journey spanned across 25 countries. I traveled on over 40 planes, 20 trains, 50 buses, and slept in over 30 hostels. I met hundreds of new, unique people from all over who opened my eyes to new worldly perspectives.
By branching out and meeting unique individuals, I was able develop a better cultural understanding of the countries I visited both socially and economically. Being able to see the countries through the eyes of the people I met changed how I previously viewed the countries altogether– I LOVED it.
As a woman backpacking alone for multiple parts of my journey, I learned from other women how their gender affects their day-to-day life. It helped me to feel more safe and aware of how I was traveling. The strongest bonds I made were fused by discussing similarities and differences amongst identities and beliefs, often shaped by the geographical area I was being exposed to.
My fascination and yearn to understand more about why a place is the way it is only grew as I received more stamps on my passport. I now have friends from all over the world interconnected, which has expanded my professional network and friendships to an extent I never thought possible.
As an American studying abroad, I found it difficult at times to push away from being caught up in the “American Bubble,” where it was often easier to understand others and feel more comfortable. It was so worth breaking out of my comfort zone, though .The best parts of my life thus far, the moments when I felt the most alive, were while I was beyond the edges of my comfort zone, experimenting in the unknown beauty of the world and personal self-discovery.
I challenge any study abroad student to get out of the bubble and live in a free space with no pre-conceived notions. I challenge everyone reading this to try to get to know people that are different than you. See where it leads you! You’ll realize how big the world actually is — it’s not just a figure of speech or quote on a poster.
To share a few stories of some inspiring individuals I met on my travels recorded in my journal:
April 19th, 2017: Today, I met a married Egyptian and Polish couple while taking their picture in front of the El Prado museum in Madrid, Spain. They were extremely generous individuals and I spent the entire day with them. We ended the day with dinner near the square. Hearing the differences in culture from Egypt to Poland first-hand was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had. The Egyptian man, Mohammad, explained the present-day dangers of Egypt and the rights of women in Egypt from his perspective of being the only brother to 8 sisters. Hearing my Polish friend, Sara, explain her experience in trying to marry Mohammad by dangerously traveling to Egypt over 20 times to be with him blew my mind. I can’t imagine going through that.
June 9th, 2017: Today, I met Bjørg, a 70-year-old woman from Oslo, Norway. I was supposed to take the train to the fjords in the north, but there was a fire in one of the train tunnels so I had to take a bus to a different train station. It turned out to be the greatest thing that could’ve happened because I met Bjørg. She taught me about her childhood in Norway and the culture of Norwegian people – she offered to meet up with me and take me on her personal tour of Oslo. She bought me lunch and she explained how much of historical Oslo is being torn down for new modern buildings and how immigration is causing cultural divides in the nation’s capitol. Hearing Bjørg ‘s perspective, wisdom, and giggles were a part of Norway I’ll never forget.
June 22nd, 2017: Today, I met an incredible Spanish woman on the bus traveling from Nerja back to Granada, Spain. She only spoke Spanish and introduced herself at the bus station. We talked for 3 hours on the bus in only Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish fluently, yet I was able to improve my Spanish skills a great deal as she was very helpful with actions and teaching me new words. Thus, the language barrier was improved. My conversation with Ana was one of the most insightful, inspiring discussions I’ve ever had. She was a caregiver all of her life and tried to float where the wind took her. We laughed together and even cried together on that bus. She tapped my heart with her gentle hand over and over and said, “su corazón, su Corazón, su pasión está en su corazón.” She explained that I needed to find passion in my heart and chase my passions in the future.
All of these individuals invited me to stay with their families in their homes when I return – and I will definitely return.
I often found that many of the individuals I met were ready to discuss their hopes and dreams, because we knew we’d only be together for a couple days and then soon we’d be on opposite ends of the earth. We knew we’d probably never be seeing each another again. The fear of wondering what people might think is no longer tangible when you don’t think you’ll ever see that person again. Thankfully, I am still in contact with many of those individuals that I divulged my soul to and truly do think we will meet up again. So those fears never mattered and I realize that now.
I will always be grateful for developing a strong sense of awareness and passion to learn more about other peoples’ perspectives. I believe that these two things tie strongly into the sheer significance of human geography in the world. Today, while sitting in pharmacology class in my first year of graduate school, I find myself thinking about how the people I met are doing and what might be happening in their cities or countries. Are they being affected differently than I am in my current situation? I find myself envisioning the streets I walked with newfound friends discussing major life events, thinking about how they shaped my human experience in the different places I traveled to. Now, I connect this new learning to people I have met in the states. I think about how their geography could have affected them differently. My longing for self-awareness and self-reflection is more active than ever before, and I feel fortunate to have grown so much while I was abroad.
Katie Vollmer is a student at Drake University and studied abroad with IFSA at Cardiff University in Cardiff, Wales in spring 2017.