I spent the fall semester of my junior year in Washington, D.C. as a part of the Scripps in D.C. program. Immediately after, I spent my winter break studying in Seville, Spain. Programs such as those may not be for everyone, but despite some hardships, I am truly grateful for the opportunities I experienced.
My Washington trip was my professional experience and Spain was my personal trip. Professionally, I chose to study in Washington to set my resume apart and experience what a potential job in the journalism field would look like. I also wanted to know what it would be like to live in Washington, as I had dreamt of living in a big city since I was little.
My trip to Spain was my soul trip. I knew I would be doing work while I was away, but I was most looking forward to the excursions and cultural opportunities that would be offered. I had never been out of the country before, so I knew I would grow in some way during that trip. I also wanted to learn more about the Spanish language, but I didn’t feel comfortable in my abilities to do a program that required fluency.
Unlike myself, student Corbin Williams knew he wanted to study abroad in Germany because he was fluent in the language. A junior studying sports management, Williams decided to participate in a global consulting program offered by OU in Bayreuth, Germany, during the summer of 2022.
He stayed in Germany for his entire sophomore year and enrolled in the dual-degree program at the local university. After he graduates this year, Williams will have one degree from OU and one degree from the University of Bayreuth.
While Williams may not have experienced as much culture shock as others in his cohort, he said living in Germany was still an adjustment.
“I speak German, but the system of how they do things bureaucratically is completely unfamiliar to me,” Williams said. “So, navigating that process before I left was a little bit tricky.”
For the first few weeks of his trip, Williams worked as a student consultant to Adidas as part of the program. He and other students conducted research and pitched concepts to the brand’s executives. He said the biggest thing he walked away with was the ability to collaborate with people who are culturally different from him.
One problem I personally experienced was feeling isolated from my friends on campus, especially while I was in Washington. I was away for an entire semester, and my biggest fear was knowing that life was moving on without me in Athens. It was my choice to study abroad, yet I felt myself questioning that choice often.
The National Institute of Health defines the fear of missing out, or FOMO, as the “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” It is associated with a range of negative symptoms, such as lack of sleep, anxiety and a lack of emotional control. Many could say they experience this fear by not going abroad or taking other professional opportunities.
I was scared that prioritizing my career and travel would cause me to miss out on my college life, something I knew I would never get back.
After I finished my classes through OU, I started an internship in the press office of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York. It was truly an experience that changed my life forever, and I do not regret taking it on.
However, I did feel isolated many times during my stay in Washington. I worked different hours than the other people in my cohort and frequently worked from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being at home alone often made me feel even more exhausted and anxious about being away.
School and social life structure
For my Washington trip, I took classes Monday through Friday for four weeks from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. My cohort would meet at the National Press Club, where we would sip coffee and listen to industry professionals and OU alumni talk about their experiences.
I was so grateful to have had close conversations with so many journalism greats, but the classes were exhausting. At the end of the day, my cohort and I would take the metro home and crash into bed. For a while, I did not have a healthy balance.
For Williams, he said there was a proper balance between classwork and social life. However, he said the class structure did take some time to adjust to.
“In Germany, it’s normal to take 17 classes at a time and have them a few times a week or only once a week or once every two weeks,” Williams said. “It’s completely different.”
Haley Janoski, a 2023 graduate with a degree in communication studies, also used her study abroad experience as a way to grow both academically and personally.
In the summer of 2022, Janoski traveled to Toledo, Spain, to study the Spanish language and culture. She lived with a host family in Toledo while also taking three classes at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. Janoski was also able to travel on the weekends through planned trips and see more of the country, she said.
She said the program challenged her academically, but she still had the time and energy to explore the city and schoolwork.
“If I have to choose between staying in my room at night to review some information for a test or go out to dinner and see dancing in the plaza, I’m going to go see dancing in the plaza,” Janoski said. “That’s more important to me.”
For fellow student Caroline Rhude, the balance did not come so easily on one particular trip.
Rhude, a senior studying Spanish and social work, has studied abroad three times during college. She has traveled to Florence, Italy, as well as Toledo and Seville, Spain.
Rhude said she struggled with a healthy social and school-life balance on her trip to Toledo, as she was focused on school and studying more than traveling. Despite that, she said the pressure was not from professors or outside influences, but from herself.
“I felt the pressure only because I don’t think I understood what that study abroad was at the time,” Rhude said.
After her trip to Toledo, Rhude said she was able to learn better management skills during her future trips.
All of Rhude’s study abroad trips greatly differed from each other. She said she wanted to study abroad but did not feel comfortable yet with her Spanish language skills. So, she decided to travel to Florence which did not require knowledge of the language.
Her trip to Florence lasted for two weeks, and her classes were more excursion-based than traditional courses.
After traveling to Toledo, Rhude said she wanted to study abroad again in college. She was able to find the screenwriting and documentary storytelling trip to Seville which is through Scripps College.
It was during her trip to Seville that she learned how to better manage the social and schoolwork aspect of a study abroad program, she said.
Preparation is key
Study abroad programs through OU have different preparation requirements. Some require students to take multiple courses before leaving, others do not have any preparation at all.
Prior to leaving for Washington, D.C., my cohort and I had a few meetings with one of our program advisers to discuss internship applications and our living situation. However, we did not need a formal class because we were only traveling to another state.
Before leaving for Spain, our program director met with us multiple times over the course of the semester to discuss our final projects and other aspects of Spain we should know about.
While she enjoyed all of her study abroad trips, Rhude wished that one of her program directors would have educated her group more on the cultural and appropriate behaviors that were expected in the countries she traveled to.
“I’m very vocal about the importance of learning about another country’s culture (and) language or at least just the bare minimum of ‘What should you do? What shouldn’t you do?’” she said.
Student Claire Payuays also traveled to Toledo, Spain, this past summer. Studying political science pre-law and geography environmental pre-law, Payuays chose to go on the Toledo trip to fulfill her Spanish minor.
“I thought that it would be difficult for me to really grasp the language well if I didn’t immerse myself in the language more,” Payuays said.
Payuays, as well as Rhude and Janoski, took a preparation course taught by the Toledo program’s director. In the course, they all discussed cultural rules, safety guidelines and other important information before leaving.
Rhude emphasized that she was grateful for all of her study abroad experience. She said her biggest advice to students who are interested in studying abroad is to educate themselves on the country they’re traveling to and its culture.
“When you do things that are accommodating to other people, they take note of that,” Rhude said.
Thriving in isolation
As much as I think I struggled while studying abroad, I know I grew immensely from it. The biggest difference I felt after I returned was my confidence. Both professionally from Washington and personally from Seville, I had a different perception of myself than I had ever had.
In Washington, I learned to trust my abilities and know that I can think quickly on my feet. In Seville, I learned that I’m carefree when I know I can be, and I’m always down for an adventure. These are things that I had never tested before and probably never would have if I didn’t study abroad.
Janoski said her study abroad experience was one of her favorite experiences ever, and the Toledo trip was “the perfect amount of challenging and comfort.” Her biggest takeaway was learning how to effectively advocate for herself, as she had certain dietary restrictions that she had to communicate during the trip.
Her biggest piece of advice to students looking to study abroad is to not be afraid of the unknown.
“When you’re there, just know that you’re going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Janoski said.
As for me, my biggest piece of advice to anyone looking to travel abroad in college is to not let the experience get away from you. Live in the moment, because soon you will be back in Athens.