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How Studying Abroad Changed My Life

How Studying Abroad Changed My Life | CosmosMariners.com


In early June 2005, I clutched my passport in my sweaty hand and waved goodbye to my parents and my sister in the Atlanta airport. I wanted to cry because I was terrified, but I was even more worried about putting on a brave face for my family. I'd thought about this moment for months, and I didn't want to spoil it by sobbing into the shirt of a TSA agent. Plus, I'd juggled four part-time jobs over the preceding year to afford the tuition and room and board, and I wanted to at least pretend I was getting my money's worth.

I was almost 20 and embarking on what would be become one of the most pivotal moments in my life: studying abroad in London for a summer through the IES London program.

At the time, leaving my parents, my sister, and my boyfriend (who'd eventually become my husband many years later) to explore one of the world's greatest cities seemed like a great way to spend a summer.

It seemed like a great way to get some of those once-in-a-lifetime college experiences--you know, those that you keep rehashing for years to come.

It seemed like a great way to cram a few more credit hours into my already packed college schedule. (And yes, this was a particular goal of mine, as I was--at the time--heading to law school in a few years and wanted to create the most stellar academic C.V. possible).

Yet, if I'd known at the moment of sheer terror and excitement what I know now about my study abroad experience, I would have plowed over everyone waiting in that TSA line in the hopes of starting it sooner. (To my parents--don't worry, I still would have missed you the same amount!)

It was only 6 weeks, but it changed everything.

With my roommate Nicole in front of the Abbey Road Studios
I learned that people are the same, even halfway across the world. Before living in London, I'd been on many, many trips with my parents, several of which were outside the country. But, since I'd never been completely on my own before, I'd never fully realized how much people are alike even when culture and distance divides us.

I had bus drivers kindly help me find my stop when I was confused (which was pretty much every time I took the bus for the first two weeks).

I had Tube workers patiently (oh, so patiently) help me figure out how much was on my Oyster card. Again. (This was back in the dark ages when no one had a smartphone to check these things.)

At the bookstore, at the grocery store, at the open air markets, I would bumble my way through things. I was just one person in this big city, and it would've been so easy to push me to the side or be annoyed with me. But, 99% of the time, I was met with friendliness and patience, something for which I will always be grateful.

Brighton Pier on a day trip. Don't laugh at the pink sunglasses--they were really popular in London that year!


I learned that it was okay be alone sometimes. In a city of 11 million people, it's easy to get lost in the faceless crowds of residents, commuters, and visitors in London on any given day. You could be anyone--or no one. While I made some great friends through the program, I enjoyed taking my school books to a nearby park to read alone, or sit on the Tube with a hundred other nameless people all going our own ways. Up until that point in my life, I'd always felt that I needed someone with me--my parents, my sister, my boyfriend, my friends. But I didn't. I managed just fine on my own.

Stonehenge (not the time I got to go into the circle!). And again, more bad sunglasses. Apparently, this was the summer of poor eyewear choices.

I learned what it was like to fall completely in love with another culture. That summer was the time when I realized what it meant to be an Anglophile.

I studied Shakespeare's plays before taking my position with all of the other groundlings to see a performance of Macbeth in the Globe.

I poured over new foods with strange names in the grocery store: Hob Nobs ("nobbly oaty bits"), digestives (which are nowhere near as disgusting as they sound), mustard mayonnaise (a strange concoction of condiments that tastes neither like mayo or mustard or the combo of the two), and spotted dick (which is TOTALLY not what you're thinking of, you perv. It's a type of canned pudding. Duh.).

I learned the variances in British accents, and, by the end of the session, could more or less tell you from where a person hailed in the British Isles.

I was obsessed with the minutiae of Britain and all of the big stuff and everything in between. And, nearly ten years later, I'm still going strong.


I learned that, even in the face of great loss, what people want most is each other. I happened to be on a bus on the way to a field trip in Trafalgar Square when the news began to break about the 7/7/2005 terrorist bombings. A Tube car and a double decker bus had been hit and over 50 people died that day: cell phone communication was impossible for hours, planes were grounded, and there was so much confusion everywhere. London as a whole reeled from the news in the hours after the attacks, but in the days afterwards, I saw how strong London was.

That week was supposed to be a joyous one--London had just found out that it had won the 2012 Olympics bid, and there was a huge celebration planned in Trafalgar Square to official announce the good news. Instead, that celebration was converted into a public rally to remember those who'd died and to call for peace. I stood shoulder to shoulder with people from all over the globe, people who, for that one day, were united in our desire to be one with London.

The night that my friends and I stood in line to get the newest Harry Potter book fresh off the press. I had to put down a 5 pound retainer and then wait in line at midnight to get the book, that bag, and that sweet raincoat!

I learned that it's more important to follow your heart than your pocketbook. As I mentioned earlier, I was still planning on going to law school at this point in my academic career.

And go to law school I did...for a year. I was so miserable by my second semester that I dropped out, the first time in my life that I'd actually failed something. When I tell you that I loved school, I'm telling the truth. I. LOVED. IT. I'd never not been good at school before, and I was floundering in law school.

I didn't like school anymore. I stopped going to classes. I stopped doing my homework. I stopped enjoying the thing that, heretofore, had been the reason I got up in the morning.

So, I took some time off after law school, got a job at a little stationery shop, and thought. And thought. And thought.

All that I could remember for those months was how happy I'd been back in undergrad, taking classes, writing and researching for my English major. I keep coming back to one class in particular: Modern British Novels. It was taught by Julie Charalambides, who, aside from having one of the coolest names ever, was one of the greatest teachers I'd ever had. We read seven novels that summer--I can still tell you the titles of all seven--and I poured over every single one. 

I thought about those novels while I worked long hours in that stationery shop. I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. And then, one day, it dawned on me: I'd go to grad school to study more of those modern British novels. 

Two years later, I walked across the stage at the University of South Carolina to get my M.A. in (you guessed it!) British literature. And not just any British literature--modern British literature. It took five years after I came home from London to learn that final lesson.

But that's what a study abroad session does: it sneaks up on you in the best way possible, and before you know it, you see life completely differently.

In the Cotswolds


Did you study abroad? If so, where did you go?

Note: if you're interested in a London summer study abroad program, I cannot recommend IES enough. I'm not getting paid in any way to say that--I just loved my time there that much.