Maybe you’re thinking about studying abroad next semester…or next year. Maybe you’re already in another country, still figuring out how to juggle schoolwork and weekend trips and watching television in a different language. Or maybe you’ve never considered spending time abroad. This interview is for all of you.
Meet Brooke Roberts, the creator of InsideStudyAbroad.com and, in her words, an international renaissance woman of mystery. Currently, she spends her days balancing her love of all things yoga as the Founder of YogaTravelTree.com and her passion for meaningful experiences abroad at InsideStudyAbroad.com.
1. Let’s jump right in to the good stuff: where have you studied abroad?
I like to joke that I majored in study abroad in college and grad school. I did a semester in Geneva, Switzerland; a summer in Orleans, France; a semester in London, UK, all during undergrad. During grad school, I did two short-term programs in England studying the British higher education system and did an academic internship for a summer at a British university. Of course, even after grad school, I just couldn’t stop. So I went to Beijing, China, for a month to earn my TEFL certification and study Mandarin before teaching in China for seven months.
2. When did you decide you wanted to study abroad? Was travel always something you were interested in?
I don’t come from a world-traveling family. We’re a loving and simple agrarian, provincial family. So for me, the travel addiction started in high school and was serendipitous. My Spanish teacher handed out a flyer one day saying she was taking a group of students to France and Spain for two weeks during the summer. I had always been an avid reader, burying myself in different worlds and distant places through books. But for the first time — from walking through the streets of Paris, seeing the culture and life of Barcelona, hearing the mysterious languages everyone around me was speaking — the words of those books finally came alive in a way that was really overwhelming and emotional at first. And for a 16 year old, it just freaked me out! But when I came home from those two weeks, the first thing I said to my mom was “I have to go back.” A globetrotting Kansas girl was born.
3. There are so many options for places to go; it can be hard to narrow it down. How did you decide where you wanted to spend your study abroad time?
I always advise students to start with the “what” instead of the “where.” It’s important to really consider what you want to get out of an experience before deciding where you want to go or what type of program you want to pursue. Spoiler alert: I absolutely did not follow my own advice! I ended up in Switzerland because I saw a flyer in my dorm that said “Study Abroad in Switzerland!” and I thought “Okay.” I wish I’d had advisors to help me think about what I wanted to get out of my time abroad instead of just the logistics of getting there. You make your own experience, yes, but today any good university study abroad advisor should be well versed in the various program models, how onsite programs are administered, what the academic programs in the classroom emphasize, and what the educational programming outside the classroom offers to students. They’ll be able to help you figure out the “what.”
But at the end of the day, I also believe that sometimes the biggest hurdle is getting a student to go abroad, let alone getting them to think about the outcomes they hope to achieve through the experience. When a student with little to no international experience (like me!) wants to “play it safe” with a short-term program to England, I say rock on and go have an interesting and eye-opening experience. Whatever gets more people to explore the world is a good idea to me.
4. What are the best (and worst) study abroad experiences you’ve had?
It’s hard to talk about study abroad in the terms of “best” and “worst.” Study abroad is not supposed to be a vacation, tourist, or consumerist experience. It’s supposed to be educational, it’s supposed to be challenging, and if you’re doing it right, it’s supposed to really suck at some moments. That’s the nature of meaningful cultural encounters and integrations. If you’re not being challenged, if it’s not uncomfortable at times, if you aren’t questioning what you’re seeing/hearing/smelling/tasting, if you’re not questioning your own thoughts and ideas about the world…well, it’s a little harsh to say, but that’s study abroad gone wrong.
So I’ll say my “best” study abroad experience was the semester I spent in Geneva, Switzerland. Logistically, it was disappointing as the French courses I wanted to take were canceled for the semester. Emotionally, intellectually, intrapersonally, etc…it was the “best” experience because it was so hard. I cried. I cried a lot. I missed home. It was the longest and farthest I’d ever been away from my family and sleepy hometown in rural Kansas. People were speaking languages I’d never heard of, it was expensive, I was cooking for myself, I was yelled at for being an American, and I was a freshman. It was a hard five months. So hard that I almost quit. But I made it through…and now, it’s a time in my life that has defined me and who I’ve become. So on paper it doesn’t sound so great, but as for a study abroad, it was a huge success.
As for “worst” study abroad, I’ll say my summer in France. And this is all on me. I was there to intensively study French, but I slacked off, didn’t push myself, opted out of a home stay option (which I have always regretted!), and focused more on my friendships with the other Americans than really improving my language skills. The program had everything in place for me to learn a lot, but I didn’t make it happen.
5. What do you wish you’d known before you studied abroad for the first time?
Just two things: pack way less and that I make my own experience.
I think sometimes we over-prepare students for their study abroad programs, trying to tell them all the ins and outs of the language differences, the cultural expectations, what it looks like, smells like, nearly everything. And, to me, the discovery of international experiences is the best part. Let the students make some language missteps, let them make some cultural faux pas, let them be uncomfortable…those are the stories and memories they’ll take with them long after the program has ended.
The packing knowledge would have been great, however. And as for making my own experience, I’ve talked to hundreds of students over the years who’ve said things like “the program didn’t offer this, or the program didn’t provide that.” Sometimes the program is the gatekeeper to some experiences, but in the end, if a student wants to have an enriching experience, she has to make it happen, she has to seek it out. And I promise, those opportunities are there; you just have to make it happen.
6. You loved your experiences so much you turned them into a career! What was your favorite part about working in the study abroad field?
Yes, I’m a self-proclaimed study abroad super fan. Working in study abroad is very different than actually studying abroad. The tables are turned and your focus is now all about other people’s international experiences and not your own. I’m a nerd so I liked the administration of programs, working on health, safety, emergency response strategies, defining learning objectives, working with faculty to design courses abroad…that’s all fun to me. BUT the most rewarding moment as a study abroad professional is listening to a student talk about their recent time abroad and seeing and hearing what an impact it has had on them intellectually, emotionally, interpersonally. It makes the modest salaries and long hours worth it.
7. What should be a student’s first steps when they’re thinking about studying abroad?
Like I said above, focus first on the “what” before the “where.” When you come back from your time abroad what do you want to be able to tell people you LEARNED during the experience? I emphasize “learned” because it should be more than just seeing how many countries you can tick off the list. Employers, professors, parents, grad schools are all going to be much more impressed with your advanced language skills, or your volunteer work in your host city, or the research you conducted for a class than being able to say you were in a different city every weekend. Ask your future self what you want to be able to say about your time abroad that’s going to give a good return on your investment. Study abroad isn’t the cheapest way to see the world…so make sure you focus on what you want to learn before you figure out where you want to go. If you want to tick the country boxes, maybe just backpack for a summer during college. It’s something I’ve done, it’s less expensive than study abroad, and it’s a really fun experience, but it’s meant to be different than study abroad.
ALWAYS, talk to your university study abroad office before you decide on a program. Advisors will be able to help you to determine the best program for you based on your goals, your year in school, what course credits you need abroad, what will transfer back to your home university, your plans post graduation, etc. Most study abroad professionals know their stuff. Use them!
8. Any essential packing tips for first-time student travelers?
Create mailing labels for everyone you love in your life and print them out on peel-n-stick labels. This will be handy when sending postcards and letters. And yes, you absolutely should send postcards and letters. And send a few to yourself. They’re interesting to read weeks, months, and years later.
Lay out everything you want to take with you on your bed. And before you even think about putting it in your suitcase, put half of it back in your closet. You won’t need it. Also, if you can’t carry ALL of your own luggage for 50 yards, you’ve packed too much. I still have horrible memories of carrying 80 pounds worth of luggage up out of a metro station in Paris. That metro station, according to my memory, had a least 1,000 steps. Do yourself a favor, pack less.
9. Any words of wisdom for students as they board that plane?
Don’t wait for others to make this experience what you hope it to be. Make it what you want even if it means going it alone sometimes. Say yes to every learning opportunity that’s handed to you. And tell yourself and your mom and dad that you’ll check in once a week. That’s it. Try to limit your Facebook time to once a day. Your future self will thank you. And this is advice coming from a social media junkie. But believe me, you’ll regret all the experiences you missed when your face was stuck on a glowing screen.
10. What spot is next on your must-see list?
I’ve finally hit every continent (sans Antarctica), so now I’m excited to explore South America a lot more. My hope is that Peru is the next step on my sojourn around the world.
Featured Image via Brooke Roberts