I’m not sure what led to my desire to see the world. Perhaps it was because I was fascinated with my paternal grandparents’ stories of where they grew up (Ukraine and Poland). Maybe it was because my hometown was very diverse with many of my friends being first- or second-generation Canadians.
Regardless, although my family traveled extensively throughout North America, I wanted to see what else was out there in the world. So, in 1996, at 17, I hopped on a plane to spend a summer in New Zealand.
When it came time for university, I chose a school that, as part of my academic scholarship, I would get to study abroad. For that venture, I headed to the Czech Republic (more on my first study abroad programs to come).
Tuition Covered to Travel
Then, at 21, based on my already extensive study abroad history, I was offered the opportunity to be a graduate assistant for the International Communications Studies program (ICS) at the revered Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Talk about the opportunity of a lifetime! My graduate degree would not only be paid for as I helped organize a traveling summer class through Europe, but my expenses for the trip would be covered as well.
Becoming a Travel Planner and Guide
As a graduate assistant, my job was to recruit and help select students and plan the trip, which was a six-week course consisting of one to two meetings a day, class assignments and extracurricular activities.
I was responsible for all of the travel arrangements for 18 students to get from Los Angeles to London, then Paris, Prague, Geneva (Montreux) and back again–so, flights, trains, hotel reservations, intercity travel PLUS scheduling and confirming five to 10 meetings with executives in each city. Phew! Talk about a crazy amount of work, but it’s probably why I absolutely LOVE travel planning now and am so detail-oriented.
A Summer to Remember
During the ICS program, we met with executives such as the vice president of communications for Nestle, the director of media relations for the International Olympic Committee, the editor-in-chief at The Mirror Group, the director of communications and events at Disney Europe, the head of the Americas region at the BBC and the public relations manager at the European Broadcasting Union, among many others.
The days were intense, exciting and fun, both in and out of meetings and “classrooms.” From a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe to the mad dash of getting everyone’s already-overweight luggage on the high-speed train from London to Paris in under three minutes (we actually practiced the hand-off line at the hotel) to meeting a celebrity’s wife in a laundromat in Prague to some of our students touching snow for the first time in the Alps, we crammed a lot into six weeks.
A few of us went to the French Open and sat court-side, 20 feet away from tennis great Martina Navratilova. We saw AC/DC play live to tens of thousands of people in an outdoor stadium in Prague. We met early in the morning to run alongside Lake Geneva with the breathtaking Alps in the background. We stood atop Dover Castle on a windy day, marveling at the incredible views. Almost 20 years later, I still remember everything we learned, the people we met and the fun we had.
It truly was the trip of a lifetime, and it paved the way to my career success.
Career Experience to Last a Lifetime
Through my graduate assistantship, I learned how to recruit top students (which came in handy for my time as an admissions director), promote the program (PR skills), set up business meetings in Europe (relationship-building), plan extensive travel for a large group and manage the days of 18 students when I was barely older than they were (and during a time that not everyone had cell phones). That’s on top of the knowledge I gained from meeting dozens of European executives—some of whom I am still in touch with today.
I also learned quite a bit about intercultural communications and learned how to respect different traditions and how business is conducted in various countries. Learning this, early in my career, helped me become more conscientious in developing messaging and campaigns for diverse audiences.
What Else Did I Learn? Blogging!
Keeping in mind that this was 2001, social media had yet to exist, websites were still somewhat in their infancy and email inboxes had limits to the size of files they could accept and store. I had to figure out some way to communicate with 40 parents in an easy manner, so, I started a blog.
Hosted on GeoCities–I don’t think we called it a blog back then, just a personal website–I used it prior to departure to host forms and to post information parents needed to have on hand.
During the trip, I made sure to find an internet cafe close to our hotel in each city, and every weekday night, I would trudge to the cafe, purchase an access card, connect my camera to a computer to upload pictures and post updates and photos from our daily meetings. On Sundays, I would head to the cafe to post our schedule for the week.
Parents were thrilled to be able to access the site at any time they wanted and raved about actually getting frequent updates since many of their children didn’t bother to email or call (again, remember this was the age before smartphones). By having the blog, I was able to mitigate parents’ concerns and questions, while making them feel like they were a part of the trip.
What Does the Future Hold for Study Abroad Programs?
My heart breaks for current and future students whose study abroad dreams have been shattered or put on hold. I know what that’s like–to an extent. I was able to take this trip with USC in 2001, right before 9/11, but the following summer, I couldn’t go because of traveler visa issues with some of the countries we planned to visit. I was devastated, but grateful I was able to have the experience the prior year.
I hope that the current coronavirus pandemic doesn’t permanently alter study abroad programs, as I truly believe there is no experience like being a student in a foreign country, learning the culture and language first-hand.
Have you ever studied abroad? If so, where? Leave me a comment below!