It was 30 years ago this month that I left the safety and security of my hometown, my family, and my small, private school college campus and flew across the Atlantic to begin the life altering experience of studying in a foreign country. Seeing my daughter off this week for the spring semester at the University of Limerick, I am flooded with still very fresh and warm memories of experiences that not only changed how I viewed the world, but also changed my life.
There are moments in your life that, upon reflection, you realize have significantly altered the trajectory of your life. Graduating from high school in the mid-1980s, I had thoughts of going to college and majoring in English and possibly teaching. That was right up until the moment when I met with my high school guidance counselor who mockingly asked if I planned to teach with that English degree. Not having parents who went to college or were heavily invested in the process, his comment fueled my adolescent insecurities and I pivoted my direction and pursued a safer, more conservative post-high school path.
The path I chose was a relatively narrow one and one that my brother was currently on: go to the business college in my hometown; live at home; graduate and work for my dad’s business. It may not have been by my passion, but at least it was a plan.
Fortunately for me, I decided to take a slight detour during the spring semester of my junior year based on a conversation with a football teammate a year earlier. Following a recommendation from another teammate, he explained how he had just returned from studying in England. At the time, I had no idea that type of experience was available to me. I knew of no one who done anything close to it. I was so intrigued by this unexpected off-ramp that I began my journey to step outside of myself and my college experience the very next day.
Unlike today’s students who expect their colleges to provide them with a buffet of international experiences to choose from, I needed to develop my own opportunity to study in another country. The closet-sized study-abroad office on campus and the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) were amazing in their support of me becoming a student at Richmond College, The American International University in London, England. In the spring of 1988, I left home for college for the first time, traveling over 3000 miles and 6 time zones.
There are not many studies quantifying the benefits studying abroad has on students. The University of California, Merced has assembled statistics from the more notable pieces of research done in this area. You will find some impressive statistics regarding the positive impact on academic performance, personality development, adaptability in their careers, etc. I encourage you to review them.
However, qualitatively, I can tell you that studying for a semester in another country has life altering benefits for students. Not only did it open my eyes to the world, but also challenged how I viewed that world and my place in it. Without a doubt, living in a new country, negotiating travel, currency (pre-Euro), language, culture, and customs of multiple countries truly accelerated my development of self-reliance and independent thought. Studying British history from their perspective, being in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day and Paris on Valentine’s Day, and staying up late talking with floor mates from Jordan, Kuwait, and Israel about home forced me to challenge not only my assumptions, but the assumptions held by most everyone I knew. This idea of self-reflection of varying perspectives stayed with me. It became the topic of my doctoral dissertation and influences my work with students, families, and staff to this day. I do not believe that it would have been cultivated as early or as strongly had I remained at home.
I did not talk my daughter into a semester in Ireland. She knows that my experience was a turning point in my life. She could tell you about how when I returned from London, I started applying to graduate school in order to prepare for my career as an educator, or about the discussions we have had around the importance of respecting differences from around the world, or how her parents provided the means for her and her brother to travel to other countries with their high school. My daughter could tell you about my continued interest for understanding the education systems of other countries as I traveled to Finland, Germany, and Poland to study their educational successes first-hand. I didn’t have to talk her into anything.