When and where did you study abroad?
I studied in Rabat, Morocco.
What made you want to study abroad?
I wanted to study abroad because my older sister, Rachel, had studied abroad in college. Neither of us had ever traveled internationally before because we weren't very well-off growing up. Rachel spent a semester in Istanbul when I was 15 years old. The thought of my sister existing, learning, and thriving on a completely different continent was a very influential thought on my 15-year-old self, and it got me thinking that maybe the world's borders extended a little bit past my hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin. When I came to Drake, I knew that one college experience I absolutely had to have was to study abroad.
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
I think I was surprised mostly by how incredible my host family was in welcoming me into their home and life. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I do know that I thought that I would offend my hosts at some point and that there would be some sort of rift. There wasn't in the least, as my family loved me like a son. They introduced me to all of the friends and family that entered the house or that we encountered on the street, we watched movies and TV shows together every night, and in typical Moroccan fashion, they fed me far more food than I could handle for every meal. To be fair, I was very lucky because my hosts were a young couple who hadn't had children yet, and I was their first American student, so they were very attentive towards me. I realize that this is not always the case. However, the thought of navigating a different country and culture every day without their guidance (and couscous) makes me shudder!
What made your study abroad experience a success?
My ability to adapt and be flexible to changing situations was definitely a plus during my semester in Morocco. You can't study abroad with the mindset that it will be a certain way; there are always surprises lurking. The support system I had when I was over there was incredible and indispensable. My program was great, always offering me someone to talk to within the administration. My professors also invited students to email them with any questions or concerns. It's important to reach out to your fellow students as well, because they are experiencing the same upheavals and concerns that you are. Being able to talk about my problems with my new friends was a huge asset in my study abroad experience.
What did you notice about the cultural divide?
The concept of time is so much looser in Morocco. America is so scheduled and being late is a grave insult to a host, but Moroccans will show up whenever they feel like it, regardless of timelines or deadlines. It's just a slower pace of life. As well, most Moroccan families live very close to each other and are not nearly as geographically dispersed as Americans, so family gatherings are much more frequent. That slower pace of life was easily my favorite aspect of Morocco. The tradition (which is an understatement, because every Muslim in the country does so) of eating couscous on Friday afternoon was a treat for my stomach.
What was your return like?
My return felt very anticlimactic. Everything I had been craving so badly while I was gone was the same as when I had left ; there was no big celebration behind eating peanut butter, drinking American coffee, or using a electric hand dryer again. I eased back into my world pretty easily. What struck me the most, seeing my home in a different light, was just how much stuff Americans had, and how much space they had for all that stuff. When that thought hit, it was quite jarring.
What is your number one tip to anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
You absolutely have to be flexible, especially in such a laissez-faire country as Morocco. Things will come up that you have no control over: a bus may be delayed for hours, your host family may cook you a giant dinner when you said that you had plans, or maybe you forgot that it was Friday and the prayer service is affecting your attempt to go shopping in the market. Adapting and going with the flow of events, rather than trying to control things will make you much less stressed and you'll have a better experience. In Morocco, your taxi driver may speak one of any four languages -- and you have to be ready that French might not be one of them. To me, the fun lies within this unpredictability!
What did you miss most about home?
Seeing the Moroccan palm trees continue in their shade of green rather than seeing the deciduous trees change color in the autumn was shocking. I really was yearning for my favorite parts of fall in the Upper Midwest: American football, raking, pumpkins, Sunday drives, and the perfect weather for sweaters. I had always taken autumn for granted while I was at home; I had never even thought that it simply didn't exist elsewhere in the world. When it was gone I had a surprising time adjusting to it. Also, it's incredibly clichéd, but I truly missed bacon and pork products during my four months in a Muslim country.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I do plan to go abroad again because spending an extended period of time in only one country did not satisfy me. The rest of the world is still out there and waiting for me to explore it. I feel like not taking advantage of that opportunity is to do a disservice to myself and my expectations of what I can do. My career is completely open-ended at the moment. I've considered working with a non-profit, at a museum, teaching English abroad, or as an adviser in the field of international education. I'd love to get back abroad again, if I can find the money. That's my problem at the moment. I dipped my toes into the international scene with my semester in Morocco, and I'd like to dive in a little more in future.
Financial concerns are top of mind for many graduating students. Simply going abroad to travel, or to participate in an unpaid internship is sometimes not a possibility. But it is possible to arrange a working vacation, where you take on casual jobs in a variety of locations, networking professionally in your industry on the side, or soaking up local culture without going into debt. Sean also mentions teaching English abroad. TEFL certification can sometimes be a minor investment up front, but once certified you are almost guaranteed to find work abroad, especially if you're willing to travel off the beaten path. Some teachers even report that by staying money-conscious, they were able to save significant funds while teaching and having the cross-cultural experience of a lifetime. Depending on your skill set upon graduation, it's also possible to find paid or expenses-paid opportunities with NGOs in developing nations.
- Teach English Abroad contains a set of articles that will introduce you to one of the most popular and financially viable ways to travel abroad for an extended period of time.
- And for those who are in the process of saving money for future travels, stay connected to world issues and foreign cultures online, The World Online will give you some good places to start.