Study abroad opens new vistas

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I had been living with confidence in London for almost three weeks when I suddenly became poor and vulnerable, with nothing to eat but peanut butter sandwiches for a week.

Welcome to London, where debit cards primarily use microchips and not magnetized strips, as in America. No one in England believed me when I told them that my card had gotten demagnetized, and I was waiting for a new one to come in the mail.

"Doesn't it have a chip?" they'd ask. Um, I don't think so.

Studying abroad is one of those college experiences that can show you about how the world actually works, instead of lessons conducted in a classroom bubble.

Though this story ends with me brimming in tears at the local Western Union office, waiting for my dad to wire money to me, it's an example of how much I learned while studying abroad the summer before my last year at the University of Pittsburgh.

I don't think studying abroad is right for everybody. Some people can't handle the responsibility of planning and preparing for travel abroad. Getting a visa, booking a flight and not losing your passport are stressful.

But if you can handle all that stress, you'll find studying abroad will show you what you're capable of -- maybe you can survive for a week in a foreign country without access to money.

Luckily, your study abroad office likely will guide you through this responsibility in baby steps. Mine did.

Still, if you want to prepare yourself for future traveling, you must always be in control when planning study abroad.

At the start of my seven weeks in London, I wanted my picture taken in front of those red telephone booths. I made it my Facebook profile picture. By the end of the trip, I viewed the people who did so as tourists -- something I was not.

I'll never forget when I first realized I'd truly become acclimated to the city. I was on the Tube (London's subway system) after a couple of weeks in London. It's polite to stay quiet and to not start conversations, even with the people you're traveling with, while riding the Tube.

I was riding with a couple friends when a huge group of American high school kids got on the subway. A group leader shouted at them -- "Move! Move! Move!" -- trying to get them all on the car before the doors slid shut. You would have thought he was directing an emergency evacuation. There was constant, loud chatter for the next 10 minutes, then relief throughout the car when they got off the train.

My friends and I couldn't believe how annoying this was -- how, when viewed from Londoners' eyes, this would be stereotypically American. We knew then that we'd acclimated to life in London.

Research where you want to go by talking to your friends, using Facebook to contact people who have gone on the programs you're considering and reading advice on websites such as transitionsabroad.com, abroadview.org and glimpse.org before making a decision.

You should also keep a journal or blog while you're abroad. I kept a travel blog but didn't update it nearly enough, and now I remember only fragments from my trip.

Finally, my biggest regret about studying abroad is not meeting more Londoners.

Friends abroad mean a more in-depth experience. When you understand the people of a country, you can begin to understand that country.

My program was one where I lived and studied with other American students. The result? It was easy to make plenty of friends with other people in my program, but more difficult to make friends with Londoners.

Some of my favorite memories involve meeting people at pubs and bars. We talked about everything from soccer to the U.K.'s National Health Service to American music.

I'll leave you with some parting advice.

Touring major attractions is an important part of studying abroad. I wanted to see the Tower of London, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey when I was there. I loved all those things.

But looking back, my favorite thing about London wasn't being close to all the sites. As my friend and fellow Pitt student, Rich Winkler, whom I met in London, told me: "Don't assume that culture is found in a museum."

For me, experiencing British culture was riding the Tube every day to my internship, sitting at the football bar in Islington drinking cocktails and shopping at Sainsbury's grocery store.

I liked how lines became queues, cookies became biscuits and tuna salad became tuna mayonnaise.

The routines I had while living in London make me want to go back.


Lindsay Carroll, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, graduated this year from the University of Pittsburgh where she majored in political science and English writing with journalism and comparative politics concentrations. She's now studying Arabic in Cairo. She can be reached at localnews@post-gazette.com .


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