I have had the exceptional opportunity of visiting 15 countries over the past four months, and I have become infinitely more comfortable exploring foreign cultures, practicing nonverbal communication, and constantly converting currencies in my head. As I reflect on what I've gained from this semester, I have realized that the most important lessons I have learned have come from various travel experiences, although even those experiences would not be what they were if they were not augmented by fantastic teaching modules led by faculty.
Last semester, we all had to draw up a list of goals for PGS, and most of mine have been met and greatly surpassed. Here are few of my biggest takeaways from the semester - particularly those that were gained by traveling all over Europe.
Learn to be more adaptable
Traveling requires flexibility, and there were countless times this semester when everything did not go according to plan. Whether a luggage locker was closed (pictured) or there were strikes preventing Italian trains from operating, there was always something that had to be reacted to. Operating quickly and effectively under high-stress environments is never easy, but by the end of the semester I had become more comfortable changing my plans often and doing whatever is necessary to get where I need to go.
Living, eating, sleeping, working, traveling, and hanging out with the same 30 people for four months straight is also a great exercise in patience and flexibility; if no one would compromise or watch out for one another, no one would get along. Luckily, our group has been full of awesome people who I've loved getting to know, so there have not been any significant issues. Nonetheless, civility requires adaptability, and having to work with one another to accomplish anything has had its lessons as well.
Learn more about myself than would be possible at Virginia Tech
I'm not sure exactly how to articulate this, but I truly believe that this semester has been an opportunity to learn about myself. I have had deeper discussions with friends on a more regular basis than ever before, and I have been challenged in many ways by both peers and professors alike. I have had to reflect about my hometown, my greatest influences, and other aspects of identity. I have also, unfortunately, had to experience grief, as our friend J.J. Stinson passed away just a few weeks ago here in Riva San Vitale.
As one of my friends put it, we have had a lifetime of experience packed into an experience of a lifetime. It has been full of joy, sadness, excitement, and fear. Throughout it I have made friends who I hold very dear to my heart and memories that I will always cherish, along with thousands of photos to remember them by. I may not yet realize all that I have learned from the experience or how I have been changed by it, but I know that I have.
[Edit 6/11/12: Here's a post about what's stuck with me a few weeks later.]
Explore the issue of human sex trafficking
We have had group projects that we've worked on all semester, culminating in the presentations that were held at the end of last week. While I haven't blogged about it, my group has been researching sex trafficking and the project has become a huge part of what this semester has been to me. I traveled to Amsterdam and Stockholm and discussed the topic with a representative from Not For Sale as well as Sweden's National Coordinator Against Prostitution/Trafficking, and a couple of our group members met with the International Organization for Migration in Prague. I have learned a tremendous amount about the issue, and anti-trafficking efforts are something that I plan to stay involved with. There will be a paper about our experience online soon for those who want to learn more about what our project has consisted of.
Make friends from all over the world
Whether it was in line for the Roman Colosseum or in the Mini Bar below my apartment, I have made an effort to meet and get to know the people around me all semester. Just by introducing myself to people at the bar here in Riva, I have met and visited with a local banker, a Mercedes salesman, and even my landlord. I have also had countless conversations with interesting people on trains, planes, and even in a family run instrument store in Marrakech, Morocco.
When I went to Rome, I also found a "Roma" group on the social networking site CouchSurfing, and I met up to go on a hike/picnic with them. It took the full day, and afterwards we explored a small town outside Rome and stopped in a cafe before heading back to the city. Throughout the day I visited with people from Italy, the UK, Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic. When I went to Hungary two days later, I even met up with one of the hikers who had returned home to Budapest the night of the picnic.
Although I have made more acquaintances than I can keep in touch with regularly, I still do keep in touch with several of them. Meeting people and hearing stories from all over the world has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling, and I hope that if I return to Rome, Budapest, or Dublin that I will be able to reconnect with some of my new friends.
These are just a few of the things that come to mind when I reflect on the past four months, but I know there is much, much more. I have some ideas floating around in my head, but I also know that there will be many things that I take away that I will only fully appreciate in months, and even years, to come.
For those of you reading, what have you found most beneficial about a study abroad experience, or about traveling in general?