Leave So That You May Return

Shenandoah Valley sunset

A few weeks ago, before leaving the villa in Riva San Vitale, I wrote a post about what I thought I had learned during my semester abroad. I came up with the post after looking at my list of goals for the semester that I had written back in October, and thinking about which of them had been most fulfilled. After getting back into the normal routine of life, however, I have a slightly different perspective and a number of things have continued to stick with me that I’d like to share.

When I was driving down to Blacksburg, Virginia two weeks ago to move into my townhouse, I was reminded of something I heard this spring: we leave so that we may return. I don’t remember the exact words, nor do I remember who spoke them (I think it was Nikki Giovanni when she came to visit), but it hit me what that really meant. Traveling Europe and meeting interesting people is a great experience, but if all it becomes is a fond memory that has no effect on us once we get home, it’s hardly worth the thousands of dollars and delayed graduation that it cost to do it. We leave our surroundings so we can get a fresh perspective to bring back with us to our normal environment.

I started wondering what it was that I was bringing back with me to my life in Blacksburg, so I turned off the music, rolled up the windows, closed the sunroof, and reflected (something that I never would have done before last semester – so that’s one thing already.) Thankfully, my phone has voice transcription, so for the next couple hours I spoke my thoughts out loud to my phone so they would not be lost as life grew more hectic after I moved in and started working full-time. The rest of this blog post is made up of those thoughts and some explanations; you could say, as one friend of mine would put it, that this post is a series of epiphanies.

The first thing that struck me while driving was the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. Having grown up in Winchester, Virginia and having been up and down I-81 more times than I can count, when I drive I am always most attentive to trucks, any other traffic, my speed (no cruise control…), and my music. In the past month I’ve driven down to Blacksburg four times (to visit friends, for new employee orientation at Kollmorgen, to move in, and after visiting home on Memorial Day weekend) and each time I have been increasingly thankful to live in such a gorgeous area.

Wondering why I had just now become so aware of my natural surroundings, it hit me that I had learned the value of stepping out of routine. There was absolutely nothing “routine” about my semester in Switzerland besides the occasional browsing of Facebook and Reddit. I was in a different country almost every week, traveling with different groups of people, and even had different professors and classes every two weeks. The inability to get comfortable with a routine gave me a greater appreciation for the present moment, and kept me from wishing away any of my time. When classes start in August, I pray that I will continue to find ways to step out of routine to keep life interesting and full of the people and activities that I love. I want to excel in my classes to the greatest of my ability, but I will not allow classwork to define my college experience. Stepping out of the routine also gave me the fresh perspective that this post is flowing from, so everything else I am writing about is, in part, credited to the fact that I did something different.

Roommates in Athens

The Roommates on the Acropolis with Athens in the background.

I need to appreciate the people I’m with, here and now. Knowing that the 30 of us only had four months where we would all be living and traveling together helped me value our time. Instead of thinking about the people I missed most or about the fact that I wouldn’t see my family or other friends for four months, I used the time to grow as close as possible with the people who I was lucky enough to be surrounded by. And I’m still doing that; instead of just wishing more people were here with me this summer (or dwelling on that, at least), I see the next few months as an opportunity to spend extra time with the awesome people who are here.

I also have a new appreciation for diversity. And not just in terms of having certain percentages of certain people groups present in an organization. There’s value in that for sure, but I mean learning about other people’s backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. I met so many people in Europe whose stories impressed me in many ways because I never would have heard that same sort of story in the States. For instance, getting to know someone from Eastern Europe looking for work in Italy made me thankful for the fact that there are relatively few hoops to jump through to work in a different state; that gives Americans millions of square miles where we can work without having to move to a new country and culture (and no, a regional accent and different slang is not what I mean by “culture.”) This also has given me a greater respect for people living in a foreign country, because I realized the associated difficulties greatly exceed a potential language barrier.

I’ve gained new perspectives on social issues. I don’t remember what “social issues” I had in mind when I spoke this to my phone, but there have been times when discussing hot topics in the States brings to mind things I have seen or heard while in Europe. I am also more curious about how ideas will affect other countries, and whether shared views make sense only in our culture or whether they are universal.

I desire deeper conversations. Living in an engaging environment that encouraged meaningful conversations among some brilliant professors and students – both in and outside of class – was truly one of the most rewarding aspects of the semester. Since I have returned, I have found myself less content with pleasantries and repetitive, surface-level conversations. So much can be learned about people just by digging a little deeper and showing some interest, and I have been trying to do just that as often as possible.

The volcano is called Solfatara, and that yellow stuff is sulfur.

Standing in the crater of an active volcano… no big deal.

I realized that (almost) nothing is out of reach. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that more is within reach that you might realize. I know that I run the risk of sounding like a parent saying “you can be anything you want!” but I’m okay with that. I’ve just learned that some things that sound ridiculous (to someone who hasn’t done them) might just be possibilities after all. Perfect example: “Let’s go to Morocco for spring break!” Instead of laughing off or dismissing the idea, a couple of friends and I looked into it (as well as Russia, Latvia, Israel, and just about everywhere else in the world) and it ended up happening. And it was fantastic! While this hasn’t necessarily manifested itself in my life stateside yet, I know I will be less likely to dismiss ideas and much more likely to try to make things happen.

[Edit: This did influence my summer after all – I ended up organizing and taking a road trip to Colorado when I had a week off of work for July 4th. This was largely because I realized how easy it is to travel in the U.S., so if I managed to visit 13 countries in Europe, I had no excuse for staying in one place for 10 days straight when I could be traveling.]

There is more value in the liberal arts side of education than I realized. I have always been interested in the practicality of education, so I am drawn toward that which I can easily apply, or at least see how it can be applied. I’m used to the hard sciences, so figuring out how to understand and apply what I learned in Europe has been a learning experience in and of itself. Not that I didn’t think there was value in the liberal arts (if that was the case I never would have participated in PGS), but I was never exactly sure how it would apply to me. I’m still figuring this one out and I don’t know how to articulate it, but I think attempting to do so is part of the challenge (thanks Paul.)


NOTE: I should mention that there are specific memories or stories that are behind each of these thoughts, but I will spare you all the details because no one would read the post if it included each of them. Some are great stories and some might not have a lot of meaning to anyone besides me. Most of the good ones are better told in person, anyway. If you’re wondering about any of them, though, feel free to ask!


Never underestimate one person’s influence through day-to-day interactions.

Paul and J.J. taught me that writing (or essaying) doesn’t have to be a miserable experience; gathering your thoughts on paper is a great way to organize your thoughts (as I am doing now.)

Chocolate Day at D2

Chocolate Day at D2 – a glorious occasion

I developed a greater appreciation for all that campus has to offer, including its food.

I learned the importance of language in connecting people. I can’t quite explain this without the stories that make it important to me, but for now I’ll just say it made me want to perfect my Spanish and, although it’s unlikely to really happen, pick up a third language.

Find out what you’re passionate about – what can you not stay quiet about?

Make memories every day. Write them down so they won’t fade.

OneNote PGS Journal clipping

I tried to write something about each day to solidify memories


It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. (Although it’s always easier to learn from other people’s…)

If you’re willing to listen to and get to know people, you’ll find that everybody has something to offer, no matter how different they are from you.

Show appreciation for those who help you out and be sure to pass it on. I hope to write a post on this at a later time, as it was a fairly prevalent theme.

A church body is critically important for spiritual growth. I had some awesome fellowship with my friends, but not having a church body made me appreciate my church home all the more once I returned.

It can be extremely beneficial to spend time with people who are older and wiser than myself. I don’t know it all and new perspectives are immensely valuable.

Public transportation is a beautiful thing. (when it works…)

Smartphones are helpful but push notifications are not. A virtual interaction should (almost) never take precedence over face-to-face interactions with the people around you.

Start conversations with the people around you (yes, I’m saying talk to strangers.) You might be surprised by what you have in common, and you never know if your paths may cross in the future.

And lastly…

A drive down to Blacksburg can be a peaceful chance to collect your thoughts instead of jamming out to music with the windows and sunroof open.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to share any thoughts or ask any question in the comments!

Leave a comment


  1. Kim Carlson

     /  June 18, 2012

    Michael, I enjoyed reading this post and all the intangible things that you “learned” while away. These are exactly the types of things that the PGS faculty hoped for you and everyone else who were fortunate to have this opportunity. I hope that you will continue to process and learn from our 4 months abroad, but better yet learn how to apply it to your life back here in the U.S. And when you do, please share it with us!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! The trip was everything I could have asked for (and then some) and I know it will stick with me for a long, long time.

      Thanks again for your time and effort you put into the program!

  2. Craig Wainner

     /  June 25, 2012

    Thanks for putting this all into words Michael! I can’t agree more with every single point. Even having lived there with you, it’s such a benefit to see it all written down – a friendly, helpful reminder.

    Keep sharing the ponderings!

    • Thanks, Craig! It’s definitely beneficial to see it written down, but it’s even more beneficial to write it down yourself! 🙂

      Some of my thoughts are based on preconceived ideas or habits of my own, so I’m sure reading what I wrote must spawn different thoughts for you than it does for me – so if you end up writing one as well, let me know ’cause I’d love to see it!

  3. A truly wonderful post. I am grateful.

    I’m especially touched to see J.J.’s name in there as one of your teachers–and of course a colleague and friend, too. J.J.’s writing was a vivid demonstration of the value of musing aloud, of sharing one’s ponderings, of the essay as what it really means: an attempt.

    I hope to shake your hand someday.

    Gardner Campbell

    • Thanks for reading, Dr. Campbell, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I am learning that writings like this really are worth the effort personally, but it’s great that they can mean something to other people as well.

      At risk of sounding like I’m putting him on a pedestal (although anyone who knew can testify that nothing said about him is undeserved), J.J. impacted me in a shorter amount of time than most anyone I know. Even before his passing, he had got me thinking and talking about things I normally didn’t touch on because they were intangible or seemingly inapplicable to my life at the moment. Plus, he didn’t have to assign projects or readings to do it (well… except for challenging me to write in very much the same way that Dr. Heilker did.) He was undoubtedly one of the best and most natural teachers I’ve ever had.

      I’m living in Blacksburg currently but working full time – I’ll have to meet you once school starts and I have some free time during office hours!

      Take care!

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