By Robert Cavazos
Special to the LOGOS
You hear that phrase quite often on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word.
You hear of these far-off lands with unique names like Heidelberg. Yet while initially intrigued, you soon begin to allow other thoughts to flood your mind: “I can’t afford a trip like that. I’ve never traveled outside the country before. I don’t know how to say: ‘No onions’ in German.”
Allow me to put your mind at ease: all those hindrances need not deter you from studying in another country and enriching your cultural, historical and political understanding of this increasingly interconnected world. During the month of July I studied abroad in Heidelberg, Germany, and was forever changed by the experience.
Prior to going, I simply knew I could never afford a study-abroad trip. When I attended the study abroad meetings discussing the upcoming July trip to Heidelberg, I immediately told myself no. Then an interesting thing happened. Many mentors, including a trusted professor, my mom, and even my financially prudent dad, encouraged me to go. I thought it over and decided I would make it work. God can be both subtle and obvious when it comes to leading you in the right direction, and in this case it was the latter.
I paid my deposit, bought my passport, and began saving up for a roundtrip plane ticket. Through the always helpful generosity of UIW, I applied for and received the first-come, first-serve Global Experience Travel award. Next, as made known to me by UIW, I applied for the U.S. State Department’s Gilman International Scholarship, a highly competitive national award. Everything was working much smoother financially than I had initially imagined.
Then disaster struck. Towards the end of the spring semester, days before the last day to cancel my trip and not have to pay the full amount, I was informed I had been placed on the “alternate list” for the Gilman scholarship. I would be given the award only if the recipient before me turned the award down.
Before the final cancellation date arrived, I determined I would go regardless of whether or not I received the scholarship. I scrambled to scrape together more funds. I worked two jobs and began pulling double shifts every day for the month leading up to the trip. My parents graciously loaned me the money for my plane ticket. I pulled a portion of the loans from my fall semester to cover the study-abroad tuition cost.
Then, the week before I was to leave, as I was delivering a pizza, I discovered I had received the award, to the tune of a cool $4,500. I was elated. I now had more than enough money to have a fantastic time in Europe and pay back my parents for the plane ticket. While everything did not go perfectly as planned in my financing of the trip, it all worked itself out right before I left and even managed to remind me of a couple of important lessons: one, that having a backup plan is always a good idea; and two, that working hard for what you want makes the end result even more satisfying. It was once again God showing me His plan for me required me to step back and not worry about planning it exactly the way I wanted to.
So it’s clear financing a study-abroad trip is certainly doable with a little faith and the excellent scholarship opportunities made available by UIW. What about the daunting idea of traveling abroad for the first time?
Well, not only was this my first time travelling overseas, but this was my first time away from my family for longer than a week. As a commuter, I am able to enjoy the company of my family a bit longer than most college students, so I was worried I might miss them.
My roundtrip flight reaffirmed this fear in a vivid way. Every one of my international flights to and from Germany was either delayed and/or cancelled. I did not have my dad to bargain for a discount for our troubles. I did not have my mom to ask around for assistance. I did not have my brothers to keep my spirits up. A strange thing happened, however. I survived. I found my lost luggage, I engaged in civil dialogue with customer service (multiple times), and unexpectedly made many new friends. I learned how to be a bit more independent, and that ultimately strengthened my confidence in interacting with strangers.
While in Europe, I experienced a multiplicity of new things in just one month. I visited more than 12 cities, with some highlights including the beautiful and lively cities of Rome, London, Berlin and Salzburg. I made friends who I now greet ecstatically in the halls of UIW, and some friends that I greet online from Colorado, California, Mexico and Russia. I learned it’s OK to get lost in Amsterdam for five hours and to try new foods like the absolutely effervescent experience that is the German Doner Kebap.
I learned to be gleefully spontaneous, like when I explored London’s vibrant SoHo district and walked into a record store to discover the street I was staying at and the street the record store was on just happened to be the same street featured on the cover of the vinyl album I had just bought. I was able to communicate and connect with people who had amazing stories, like the college-aged girl I met in Frankfurt who had biked across Europe while making a crowd-funded documentary about fab-labs.
The most important thing I learned while studying abroad is the United States is one country –albeit a great one — out of many on this planet, so we cannot focus exclusively on it. While in Europe I had the incredible privilege of visiting many important historical and governmental sites, including the Natzweiler-Stuthoff concentration camp and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. I also saw many sites significant to music history, such as Abbey Road, and Salzburg, where the “Sound of Music” was filmed. While abroad, I did not mind being away from home; there was too much to do and take in!
I took two classes at UIW’s European Study Center in Heidelberg with professors from the main campus here that I know and love. Each week the things we learned in class came alive in the locations we visited, and each week I learned a little more about how to be conscious of European history and culture, human rights, and issues facing the European Union and the Middle East.
I would encourage each and every one of you to not let little hindrances stop you from embarking on one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. If I had given up before going, I would not have the same knowledge; the same level of confidence; the same propensity to lead; and the sensitivity to this world’s cultural and political differences, that I do now. Loosen your grip on life’s reins a little, let God guide you, and study abroad!
E-mail Cavazos at firstname.lastname@example.org