Study abroad changes life

Dr. Trey Guinn overseasMy oldest daughter, Joy, got a bicycle for her sixth birthday.

In her first days as a bike owner, she would look at it with a bit of wonder and a lot of trepidation. She wanted to ride it but lacked belief that she could. Though the contraption stood still on the back patio, you could see her mental wheels spinning: How will this work? And what if I get hurt?

Recruiting my students to study abroad with me was much the same. I heard, “I think I want to. But how will it work and are you sure it’s safe? I’ve never even been on a plane or left Texas. There is no way I am ready to spend a month on a different continent.’ ”

Whether child or adult, fear of unknown can cause us to miss out on the incredible. Like turning down a study abroad trip, saying no to the bike would have been easy for my daughter. After all, walking was working just fine and learning to ride posed a risk. But beyond her fears, she saw the potential of the bike. Nowadays her face lights up as she owns the roads and expands her world on two wheels. Oh, the joys of riding a bike.

And, oh, the joys of studying abroad.

Castles and crepes, class in a cafe, waterfall hikes in the Black Forest, impromptu trips and making new friends on overnight train rides are just a few of the unanticipated pleasures we encountered during our month at UIW’s European Study Center in Heidelberg, Germany. As you can imagine, these picture-perfect life experiences are what take your social media accounts from zero to hero. But far more importantly, study abroad makes room for many intangibles that can hardly be snapped or tweeted; experiences that may get no “likes” but give a plethora of life-points. Let me share a few examples, led by quotes from actual students.

“I CAN make it in this world on my own.”

On day one, I asked students what they wanted from this time abroad? A common response pointed to students’ desire to gain independence — the sense that I can survive and thrive on my own in a new place. And what a worthy goal that is. I can attest that each student on the trip gained confidence, learned life skills, and discovered newfound independence. The kind of adulting that happens abroad is like taking a first jump off the high dive and swimming a lap in the deep end. It’s thrilling, invigorating, and the feeling of “I just did that” is incomparable. Friends and family back home see the pictures of you atop the peaks but they don’t see or feel the climb. Those are the invisible life points and personal trophies that are good for your soul, not just your Snapchat.

“How will any other birthday compare?”

Lauren Peterson — a student-athlete majoring in communication arts at UIW — was days away from her birthday as our time abroad was coming to a close. This created the perfect excuse to travel one last time. And we did. For roughly $30 a person, we booked an overnight bus ride to Paris! Escargot, Eiffel Tower and EuroCup were just a few highlights of our perfectly Parisian party. We picnicked in the park, danced on a bridge, and covered nearly 15 miles on foot that day. As the sun set and our day in Paris drew to a close, Lauren, who’s on the swim team, ordered one last crepe and made a birthday wish — likely for another birthday in Paris and soon.

“Y’all are all coming to my wedding.”

Like most of her peers, Micaela Rose, a student at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township, knew not a single student when she arrived at the European Study Center. But within a few days she felt she was living amongst her closest friends. This is what happens when you study abroad. In the absence of typical comforts and routines, people feel vulnerable and uncertain; they try new things and develop close connections with people they never knew existed. And it’s wonderful. At our final supper and hours before boarding planes for home, Mikaela stood and declared that all of us would be invited to her wedding. Given she is not dating anyone, the invitation comes with indefinite timeline and terms. Still, her sentiments were sincere and will not surprise those that have studied abroad, because the relationships you establish abroad are rich and lasting.

Indeed, study abroad is a good that goes beyond enhancing your Instagram account. And this is not just true for students. This faculty member is immensely grateful for the opportunity to do life in Heidelberg with UIW colleagues and students. With each adventure and meal shared together, Drs. Glenn Ambrose and Hector Perez became like big brothers to me. I’ll never forget my own birthday abroad — a weekend in London, including a long run along the Thames and my students surprising me with cakes, candles and balloons in Hyde Park.

Now, what about you? Studying abroad is within your reach, just like my daughter’s bike sitting on the back porch. At UIW we say the universe is yours. And it can be. Embrace the unknown and expand your world. It’s time to grip the handlebars and go.

E-mail Guinn at

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