So after four years of hard (eh) work on a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience, additional major in Professional Writing, I am graduating! As I have been M.I.A. from this blog, and somehow actually have a few readers to explain myself to, here is a nice wrap up post summarizing the finer points of my undergraduate education and the parts of my life that usually don’t make an appearance on this primarily hiking/travel-oriented blog. Namely, what I “learned” as an undergraduate student.
My first instinct is to say that I’ve learned literally nothing in my four years at a university. I don’t know jack about chemical reactions, and I still can’t write, and I’ve spent four years here and completely achieved my goal of not learning a single thing. In fact, my knee jerk reaction is tongue-in-cheek to say that I am actually much less intelligent than I was four years ago.
But I realized that’s not at all true. I did learn a lot in the classroom. I know about brains, and I actually can write a little bit, and in four semesters of Latin, despite my best efforts to stay completely ignorant to the language, I did pick up a phrase or two.
Still, the most important lessons I learned in my four years working on my Bachelor’s Degree I did not learn in the classroom.
The best lessons I learned in the real life part of college, the part where you slowly start to become an adult. Or rather, you realize “adult” is just an arbitrary word.
The best lessons I learned over the last four years came hard and slow, in lows and highs. They did not involve scantrons, or textbooks, and they weren’t always crystal clear, and honestly still aren’t.
My freshman year I volunteered in a nursing home, writing the stories of people with alzheimer’s and dementia so that they could read their own memories even if they couldn’t remember. That taught me what loneliness looked like, and the importance of small gestures. Loneliness is not knowing your family, your friends, your own stories, and only really knowing you’re dying. That’s what loneliness looks like.
Shortly after, I went to work in the Emergency Room. I learned a lot of lessons in my three months there, but the most important thing I learned is death is indiscriminate. It applies to older people with heart conditions who have taken bad falls, yes, but also the six year old you made a rubber glove balloon for the hour before. Indiscriminate. Almost simultaneously to this lesson I realized that the medical field wasn’t one I wanted to work in.
Working several jobs while taking classes taught me about balance, and working as a writing tutor for freshman I learned that a lot of times writing isn’t really the thing first year students need the most help with.
I learned that sometimes you need to skip class to help people, and sometimes you lie without a second thought to protect them.
On a study abroad, I learned how to work the train system in the UK and that sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I also learned that the same tense situations that lead to bad blood for some people can make best friends of others. We also learned unequivocally that in a heist of 11 girls, I am one of the two who breaks off to shit talk the others.
I learned that you can absolutely change who you are and that you aren’t the words anyone choses to describe you— you pick your own words.
I learned that you can do a bad thing but not be a bad person.
I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received—
“you deserve to be loved the way you want to be loved.”
I learned that not only is being kind more important than being pretty, but being kind is more important than being smart or right.
I learned to shake things off, and how to really, actually take criticism.
I learned how to take a fall, and failure, and how to turn the other cheek.
I learned that better or worse are usually an opinion; there is only different.
I learned that there are no good people or bad people, and that we are all only a sum of our actions. I learned how to apologize and be really wrong.
I learned that other people will surprise you, and never to underrate or underestimate the importance of good friends.
I learned the power of images, and words, and actions.
I learned how to write; I learned I am still learning.
I learned I know nothing at all.
And all of this is a lot more important than conjugating latin verbs and memorizing chemicals.
I’ll leave you with this photo, and a promise to never take myself too seriously:
I’m writing this a little tongue-in-cheek partly because that’s my default, and partly because I’m bummed, and hanging on to a good sense of humor helps keep my head up.
I’m a big plans kind of person—long elaborate plans or short weekend ones, color coded planner and all that jazz. I had plans for this spring break (that glorious week when college students get to not be in class and maybe go do something fun) but alas, I have fallen ill.
Really, actually sick, not just a cold or a stomach bug. I have mono—one of those fun persistent American college diseases that is a bi-byproduct of sharing drinks and food with everyone you know and living in an actual petri dish. You can google it if you want, it’s pretty gross. I’m pretty much out of commission, can’t really get outside, missing class and work sick. And I hate that, because I had plans to be at work those days, and be at class, and I had plans to not spend my one free week on the couch worried about all the class I missed. And as much as it sucks that I’m missing out, here’s where it doesn’t:
Things just don’t always go as planned. You can write something in your planner in ink, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and you have a lot less control than you think you do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; just a fact.
Sure, I knew this before I got mono, and had some minor plans foiled in a minor way, but at the end of the day pulling out plans B and C is always a good learning experience.
I am so very lucky to have my health—mono sucks, sure. And I’m out of commission for a bit, sure. But I am going to better in the next month or two. I can walk, and run, and two weeks of being really sick is still only two weeks. That’s more than a lot of people can say.
Unless it ends up being three to four weeks. Then I’m going to go The Shining level crazy. Send help.
I’m building immunity—now that I’ve had mono, I’m immune to it! Whoo-hoo! Okay, this is a dumb one. I’ll take it off this list.
I’ve got such great friends and family. Seriously, thanks guys—for bringing me not one, not two, but 32 protein shakes, for sitting with me in the ER till 3 am, for listening to me complain ad nauseam, for picking up my shifts at work. Also mom, here’s that shout out you’re always after, love you, thanks for driving me around and hanging out with me.
I now understand karma. I’m not really a “knock on wood” kind of person, but I am not kidding when I tell you not three days before I got sick I was bragging to several people not only about how I hadn’t been sick in years, but how I hadn’t had missed a shift at work (my teaching job, not the tutoring one) ever. Now I’m not superstitious, but that might have been a bad call.
So yeah, being sick is no fun, and I’m missing out on lots and messed up my schedule for a bit, but I’m still really really lucky. All that’s left to do now is make up for the work I missed and try and get back to 100%.
2017 has been an eventful year for me. I had the opportunity to experience some really amazing things, from interning at the Kellogg Biological Station to playing around in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Glacier National Park. Social media tends to give the impression that all things—travel, our personal lives, camping—are always fun and easy, not ever super embarrassing.
I assure you this is false. For every awesome experience I had, a tent leaked, or I ended up leading a group friends down the wrong trail, or I made myself look like an idiot. (Okay, the last one happens more often than not.)
So, in order to fully appreciate 2017 in all her beauty and grace, I have complied a list of my most ridiculous, humiliating, and funny travel/outdoor stories and misadventures from 2017.
The time we ran for a flight
On the way back from a family trip to Whitefish, Montana, my dad, two younger sisters, younger brother and I all found ourselves running through the Salt Lake City airport to try and catch a flight back to Detroit.
Our previous flight out of Portland had been delayed, and we had about five minutes to make it across the airport once the plane landed to catch our next flight. We looked ridiculous (but like, relatable) running through the airport, and even more ridiculous when we ended up making the flight and all high fiving each other, but I don’t think I have ever been happier to be anywhere in my life than I was to be on that plane.
The time we could not find the trailhead, so we got lunch instead
In early January 2017, my sister Claire and I went out to go find and snowshoe the Brown Bridge Quiet Area near Traverse City, Michigan, but for the life of us we could not find the trailhead. Both Apple and Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t figure it out from the map I had saved to my phone.
Eventually, we found a trailhead that we thought (incorrectly) was the trail we were looking for, and snowshoed there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cold and we were lost. We packed up, and rather than workout, we opted for sandwiches.
The time I forgot my stupid camera battery
I think I reached peak self-loathing when I screwed my camera into my tripod at Torch Lake for sunset, went to turn it on and nothing happened. Because I had forgot my camera battery. On the table. Three hours south. For better or worse, I went without a camera for the remainder of that trip.
I missed out on a lot of photos by not having my DSLR, tripod, and telephoto lens, but I did pick up quite a few things about how to get the most out of a phone camera, and I got to hike a lot lighter had way more room in my pack for extra food.
The time some fisherman thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a bass and bluegill
This one is my favorite.
I was out paddle boarding alone on a small lake near Bellaire, Michigan when I stopped to make small talk with some guys who were fishing. They were probably in their late 20s, and seemed nice enough.
I told them that if you go around the next bend, and then stick to the West side of the lake until it narrows, it’ll open up into a smaller cove that has lots of fish; not many people fish there, because it’s harder to find.
One of the men narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Were the fish long and fat or short and small?”
I frowned for a second, not really sure what he was asking, until I realized he literally was asking if I knew that they weren’t fishing for bluegill. I tried not to laugh.
Unreal, I thought to myself.
“There are large and smallmouth bass, and there should be some trout too. The DNR stocks the lake.”
The time I ate a fistful of Lake Michigan pebbles
I knew this one was going to be embarrassing long before I got anywhere near the water. My friend Kasidy and I had decided to try out Lake Michigan surfing through Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.
I took one look at the nine foot boards, the two-foot surf, and the line of rocks just beneath where the waves were breaking, and could see exactly where this was going. We had a great day— both of us ended up getting up for more than five seconds at a time, and I took some of the least graceful falls of my life.
The best part of this was when I was sitting out in the water, straddling the board, I turned into a small—and I do mean small—wave. The wave pushed the board up under me and smacked me clean in the nose, cutting me off mid-sentence. Real cute.
Doing that stupid Dune Climb again
There is no hike in the world I have as deep a resentment for as the Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb. It’s only about four miles out to the Lake and back, and it’s a sort of inaugural, very “Michigan” hike, but four miles up and down over hot sand is kind of the worst.
This spring, early enough that we thought maybe it would still be cool out (wrong), my good friend/roommate Hannah and I went out to tackle the hike and “initiate” her to Michigan. Han is an Illinois native, but she’s spent the last four years living in the good old mitten state.
Nothing super eventful or particularly embarrassing happened, I just included this because I want you all to know how much I hate that hike.
The time we couldn’t find parking in Glacier
There’s a pretty clear lesson here, and it’s two-fold. The first part is that you’re better off visiting national parks in the off-season; the second is do your research. When visiting Glacier National Park, my family spent almost two hours aimlessly driving the crowded Going-to-the-sun Road after trailhead parking in the Avalanche Lake area was too full—we got up earlier then next day, getting into the park at 7am instead of 11am, and had no trouble at all and the park nearly to ourselves.
The times we didn’t see stars at dark sky park
This was a regularly occurrence for my friends and I in 2016 as well as 2017. There have been several occasions where we have trekked out to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and had clouds and no sky at all.
Clearly, we haven’t really learned any lesson here, because we keep doing it, but we always have a good time up on the beach.
The time we almost literally died
(This is an overstatement.)
This August, when on an early hike through Glacier National Park, my father, sister and I spotted a grizzly across the Lake from us. There were a few other people at the lake, and the bear was probably a hundred yards away, which was really too close.
We booked it out of there pretty darn quick. The bear probably wasn’t interested in us, and bears don’t really seek out humans, but grizzlies are fast, huge, and not something to mess with.
The time I sunburned exactly one shoulder
I love kayaking, and being on the water period, and because of that I always end up staying out longer than I really planned to. On this particular occasion, my dad and I were out on Torch Lake one morning, and decided to paddle South to the mouth of the Torch River—about a 6 mile trip.
I realized about halfway back that not only did I forget sunscreen, but because we headed back around noon, the left side of my body had been facing the sun the entire trip. I’ll leave the burn lines to your imagination.
The time we got followed
This misadventure is less fun, but still important.
Last March, my friend and I were hiking at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, when some men, probably not much older than us, caught up to us at an overlook started whispering to each other and looking at us. We didn’t think much of it at first, and quickly moved onto the next overlook to give them some space, thinking that they were waiting for us to leave. Rather than stay at the overlook a normal amount of time, they immediately followed us, continuing to whisper and look our way.
Maybe they weren’t talking about us, and maybe they didn’t mean to follow us, but sometimes you just get a bad vibe, and better safe than sorry.
I pointed out their behavior to Estee and we turned and went back to the previous overlook. They followed again. At this point, we turned and walked quickly back to the car, the two men following us the entire way. The parking lot itself was crowded with other hikers and tourists, and they went to their own car. We hung out there for a while, waiting for them to drive off first.
There’s a lesson here, and it isn’t about us being paranoid, or about how women shouldn’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you are a male, and you are interested in a female in any setting, be aware that while you may think behavior you exhibit is harmless, it can still seem threatening. This is not an attack. I’m telling you this because if you are actually interested in someone, you should respect them enough to not want them to feel threatened and behave accordingly.
As a general rule, talking to someone is 100% less threatening and creepy than following them.
The time I let the 15-year-old drive
On our way up to camp at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, my brother reminded me that I promised he could practice driving once we got off the highway. He had had his learner’s permit for a while, and was objectively already a pretty good driver.
I handed him the wheel, and started going through our trail plans for later in the day.
“Hey when do I turn?” Joe asked.
“Um, it should be a right at the next intersection.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, totally,” I lied.
So while I was deep in a trail guide, Joe made a right onto some small, flooded seasonal road. We hit a pothole and I looked up.
“Are you sure this is right?” he asked.
“Let me see the map.” It sure looked like this road got us where we wanted to go, and I was fairly confident my car could handle it.
We drove down the sketchy seasonal road for about five more minutes before it narrowed and I had Joe turn around and head back to the highway. After that, we abandoned iPhone directions and stuck to the Michigan road map.
The time I almost got frostbite
The original misadventure, and the first post I wrote, was probably the dumbest thing I did all year.
Rather than drive to the shoreline at the Headlands Dark Sky Park, Estee and I opted to walk a mile in. We had been out in the cold hiking all day, and weren’t too worried about the temperature. Nevertheless, we piled on a few blankets and extra layers.
Lake Michigan was frozen and beautiful, and the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen. My mistake was forgetting that once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quite a bit. That, and letting snow melt into my boots, soaking my socks. (I had a spare pair. Soaked those too.)
I didn’t realize I couldn’t feel my feet until I stood up and we started to pack up for the walk back. Then my feet started to burn—not just tingle, and not even feel cold. My feet felt burnt, like I had accidently stepped in the campfire. Burnt and bruised—It hurt to walk, and we had a good mile to walk back to the car.
Lucky for me and very lucky for my toes, we ran into a nice couple who offered to drive us back to my car. I was in pretty bad shape; Estee had taken both my bag and hers, and was helping me walk; we were happy for the ride.
In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story, though at the time I was mostly just embarrassed that I hadn’t planned better.
Since then, I’ve been more careful about the cold, but even more so about the wet; it’s one thing to be cold, but being wet can lead to hypothermia and frostbite a whole lot faster.
Got any misadventures, or just adventures from this year? I’d love to hear them! Write in the comments below or shoot me a message. Wishing everyone a safe end to 2017, and a great start to 2018! May you avoid all frostbite.
This past August, I visited Western Montana with my family. We stayed in Whitefish, Montana, driving into Glacier National Park and stopping at the National Bison Range, as well as playing in Whitefish Lake. From day tours to hikes and paddling, we had a blast in Montana!
Paddle a Mountain Lake
Our very first night in Whitefish, my sister and I grabbed a canoe to watch the sunset. Usually I prefer kayaks, but we had just as good a time exploring the lake in a canoe. It ended up being pretty windy, so we counted it as our workout for the day.
We paddled on Whitefish Lake, but the lakes in Glacier National Park are also great to paddle on, as well as Flathead Lake to the South.
Drive the Going-to-the-Sun-Road
We did Glacier’s Going-To-the-Sun Road twice—first through the Red Bus Tour, and then a portion of it on our own the following day. The Red Bus Tour was awesome—it took nine hours, but we saw a large portion of the park. While a part of the tour was spent sitting, we stopped regularly to explore scenic pullouts and hear about the park’s history and geology.
The Going-To-the-Sun Road takes you from West Glacier’s Pacific-Northwest-like forest, up to the alpine region near Logan Pass, then back down through the St. Mary Region. We followed the road up to the Many Glacier Region as well, where we saw three bears (one black, two grizzly, in the span of a half hour).
Swim in a Lake
It wouldn’t be summer in the mountains if you didn’t jump into a lake so cold that you couldn’t breathe! One of the best days of this trip was taking a moment to relax and swim in Whitefish Lake.
Go for a Hike
Glacier National Park offers some of the best hiking in the world—in Many Glacier the trails to Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier let you hike out to real glaciers, and the Hidden Lake and Highline Trail are almost always listed as some of the best hikes offered in the country.
We opted for the Avalanche Lake Trail, which was about a 6-mile hike through the old growth forest, past Avalanche Gorge, out to Avalanche Lake. (We saw a grizzly here but it’s fine).
Visit the National Bison Range
Often passed over for Glacier, the National Bison Range was actually one of our favorite stops! As a wildlife refuge, it offers a 19 mile a scenic drive. We saw pronghorn antelope, coyote, mule deer, and bison!
I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.
This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.
This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.
“Do what makes you happy”
People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.
I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.
My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.
A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.
A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.
“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.
Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.
I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.
5 am wake up calls always seem to hurt—I hate leaving a warm bed, I hate the feeling of my feet hitting a cold floor. But if I have my alarm set for 5, it’s usually for a good reason.
My good reason this particular time was trailhead parking in Glacier National Park—parking you won’t find much later than 10 am. Our goal was to be inside the park by 7.
I made myself a cup of tea, and eased myself into hiking boots before waking up my dad and sister. We made it inside the park around 7:30, with another half hour drive from the West Glacier Park entrance to the Avalanche Lake trailhead.
It was drizzling for the first time in a while, and smoke from the recent wildfires lingered in the Lake McDonald Valley while we tooled along the lowlands of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The entirety of Glacier National Park seems exceptional compared to the surrounding mountains—the creeks are bluer, the flowers bloom longer, the cliffs are more dramatic. Glacier seems a place apart. A little under 6 miles roundtrip, the Avalanche Lake out and back hike is no exception.
We started walking on the Trail of the Cedars, an old growth forest. From here, we split off alongside Avalanche Creek toward the lake.
Walking alongside the creek gives you the first view of Avalanche Gorge—where Avalanche Creek and its electric blue water have cut through red stone. Between the soft drizzle and the bright colors, it didn’t feel like the dry and very yellow Montana we drove through to get here.
After playing near the gorge for a few minutes, we moved up the trail, running into a couple. They told us that an earlier hiker had seen a black bear about a half mile up the trail.
In general, you won’t see bear on the Avalanche Lake trail if you hike in large groups around midday (11am- 3pm), when the trail is heavily trafficked. On the other hand, it’s hard to find parking at this time. Bear sightings and encounters are far more common in the mornings and evenings. Between easy parking and bear risk, we went for easy parking.
We didn’t see the black bear hiking up the trail, but we did meet up with a larger group from Chicago, as well as the hiker who did see the black bear.
By the time we reached Avalanche Lake it had started to rain for real, but it felt good. It was the kind of rain that feels clean, the kind of rain that you would play in as a kid. I snapped a few photos and we watched the clouds move in and out of the mountains across the lake.
It was after the rain let up that we noticed the bear. Only about 100 yards from us across the lake—too close—a large, dark bear was rustling around in the bushes.
At first we thought it was a black bear, and weren’t too worried. Don’t get me wrong—black bear can be dangerous too, but a black bear is a lot more afraid of you and seemingly predictable than a grizzly.
Then we noticed the hump—the difference between a black bear and a grizzly is not coloring. It’s the hump on the back.
And grizzlies are a lot scarier than black bear.
“One way to tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear is to climb a tree,” a tour guide had joked with us earlier that week. “If the bear follows you up and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it tears the tree down, then eats you, it’s a grizzly.”
I thought about that while we talked in low voices and made our way back to the trees.
We walked back a little nervous at first—because if that grizzly got curious it could easily follow us up the trail before we knew what happened. But it didn’t (obviously, we’re all alive and well and un-mauled).
On the way back, we ran into a family of mule deer, probably looking for food from us. As cool as it was to get that close to the deer, it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that the animals were too close to us for their own safety, and that baiting wildlife with food led to these animals being too trusting.
It started to rain for real when we hopped back on the Trail of the Cedars, thick warm drops that rolled off of leaves and made everything look very green. People complain about rainy hikes, about how they are cold and muddy, but I honestly think I prefer the rain.
About a year ago, I left for a study abroad that would take me to Ireland, England and Wales. And I had a good time, I really did. But was it life changing? Eye-opening? Am I suddenly cultured? No. Studying abroad for three weeks in countries that spoke my language did not drastically change my world view, but it was still a growing experience.
I traveled with a group of 11 girls I had never met before, so my experience was more interpersonal than it was cultural, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing.
So if I wouldn’t describe it as “eye-opening” or “life changing”, what all did I learn?
There is no one right way to travel
I personally like to travel quickly, efficiently, and always be early.Some people would rather soak up the experience of everything. Neither way is necessarily wrong, but travel with people who travel like you. If you don’t, you will end up either waiting around for people or feeling rushed.
Not everyone is going to like you
On one level, I knew before this study abroad that people aren’t always going to like you. On another level, I didn’t really expect people to dislike me when I was trying so hard to be liked.
The thing about traveling with a group of 19-21-year-old females, is someone is going to be the mean girl. Sometimes, more than one person is going to be the mean girl. And when you’re travelling in close quarters for three weeks, it’s going to be even harder to get along.
So while at first it bothered me when one girl decided that I was the B-word for being chronically early (no, that is not an exaggeration), and it bothered me when another girl didn’t like the way I asked her to clean the dishes that she had left in the sink for three days because we were literally out of dishes (also not an exaggeration), I eventually shrugged it off. I would rather have clean dishes than be liked by mean people anyway (this is an exaggeration. I would rather be liked).
Sometimes people are just mean
On a similar note, some people are just mean. Sometimes, you meet someone who you really can’t get along with, who really will yell at you for getting in her way, and who will say nasty things about you just for the sport of it. And sometimes you will have to sit next to them on a 7-hour flight and be nice even when they elbow you all 7 hours. Some people are like that.
A three-week study abroad might not be the best way to experience culture
I was really hoping to leave the British Isles with some deep understanding of how things work there, and some wild experience that made me feel cultured. Instead, I got interpersonal experience that I wasn’t expecting. I lived and traveled with a girl who was messy and rude, and did not care what her roommates thought. I lived and traveled with a girl so far removed from the world I understood that I could not possibly relate, and another girl who insisted that she tell us all how to travel, and even how to walk down a street. I lived and traveled with another girl who became one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t trade the bonding experience we had for the world.
My original goal of learning about a culture that wasn’t my own wasn’t necessarily accomplished, but I got a different sort of cultural experience that I would argue is just as valuable.
Reading will enhance your experience
It just will. Researching a place before visiting sounds like a lot of work, but you will get so much more out of seeing a place of significance if you understand its significance and know its stories.
For example, when we visited the Sherlock Holmes museum, I didn’t really get much out of it, because I don’t read Sherlock Holmes. But the historical places, Newgrange passage tomb, the Tower of London, Ireland’s Museum of Archeology, meant a lot more to me, because I had read both the history of the places and countries I was in, and a lot of the folklore. Because I had done this research, I wanted to see these places, not just because they were pretty or interesting, but because I understood what they meant.
Travel isn’t scary
I remember getting up at 7am to catch a 3pm flight at the beginning of this trip, and being insanely nervous about navigating the airport. By the end of the trip, I took a ferry and two planes in the course of 36 hours, and then had a 27-hour flight delay in JFK. Sure, I was stressed and sleep deprived, but not scared. Because whether you’ve missed a train or been stuck on the Atlanta tarmac for 3 hours in June, the situation can almost always be resolved.
You accommodate the culture you are visiting; not the other way around
This is something that I wouldn’t have thought really needed iteration, but one of the things I saw repeatedly from a few of my peers was an expectation that things would be done the way they are in America because it is the “best way”.
First of all, never say that the way things are done in your home country are better than they are in the country you are in. That is obscenely rude. Second, especially don’t do it if you are an American. Especially an American in London. Like, holy shit.
Moreover, the way things are done in your home country are not, without exception, the best way. I listened to two of my peers complain about not being able to use business’s trash cans in Europe despite having not bought anything from the business. While these two idiots complained loudly, as Americans do, we got the evil eye from like forty people before I quietly explained to them that trash bags here are more expensive to encourage recycling, so businesses can’t afford to just take their trash.
Which shut them up for about half a second before they loudly began discussing how the Euro is stronger than the Pound. Which is wrong.
You don’t have to always tag along
One of the things about living with a group of people somewhere new is that there will always be something fun and new going on, and you will want to be involved. I learned pretty quickly that sometimes it is better to get some rest and alone time than to rush out to the third or fourth sight of the day, and people won’t hate you for passing every now and then.
Your dream experience is not that important
Everyone has this vision of what their study abroad, or even vacation, should be, but achieving this vision is not more important than being courteous.
I cannot count how many times, on this trip alone, I heard someone say “well it’s a once in a lifetime chance,” before doing something inconsiderate or downright mean.
When a group I was traveling with left me alone for a half an hour somewhere in the middle of the Tower of London I was told by one girl upon their return that she couldn’t pass up a once in a lifetime chance to see the crown jewels by waiting 20 seconds for me to return from the bathroom (not exaggerating).
When the girl who made our entire tour bus late at the Cliffs of Moher finally boarded a full bus she shrugged and told us how buying that Guinness pint glass was a once in a lifetime experience (it wasn’t). Meanwhile, someone across the aisle of the bus muttered “Americans” under his breath.
So no, you’re “right” to a once in a lifetime experience doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Just don’t do it.
Studying abroad is expensive
Another thing worth mentioning– this kind of program, a faculty led, country hopping, study abroad, can be really expensive, and I personally don’t think I would do this again. Traveling independently and doing your own research will be a lot cheaper, and you aren’t bound to a class itinerary.
On the other hand, there absolutely are scholarships available for this kind of program, and there are a lot of them– several of the girls on my trip were able to cut the program cost down by 75%. Talk to your advisor, talk to your schools Office of Study Abroad, and look and see if your school has a Student Travel Association. All of these people/resources should be able to help you find scholarships and get discounted flights.
So is a study abroad right for you?
I can’t really answer that. I think for me, at that time, this study abroad was probably the right introduction to travel. But for other people, who are looking to have a little more autonomy than travel training wheels, I would recommend direct enrolling in a foreign university for a full semester, or traveling with a small group.