Studying abroad in college is an enriching, unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… or so I’ve heard. I personally wouldn’t know anything about that though, as I spent all eight university semesters working while studying and every summer in between, also, working. My institution of higher learning wasn’t exactly exotic either, situated in a modest college town in central Pennsylvania. Livestock could be seen freely roaming the fields on the outskirts of the community confines during long scenic drives through the remote mountainscape. In Happy Valley football reins supreme and the Saturday afternoon games are predominantly spectated by your typical corn fed all-American boys, girls and child predators next door.
The closest I got to cultural immersion while in university was a four-day trip to Miami for the 2006 Orange Bowl my freshman year. Because, again, college football was of utmost importance. It was imperative that I attended the Bowl Championship Series over Winter break after winning two tickets in a lottery. It figures that the only lottery I’d ever win was one that ended up costing me money since I still had to pay for the tickets, just at a discounted student price. I suppose someone’s gotta pay for the pensions of convicted felons.
I had also never been on a plane before and so my inaugural flight was spent being transported to South Florida in order to get drunk in an asphalt parking lot. As the plane soared closer to the airport and I saw all the boats boating about the glistening sea from my window seat view, I was absolutely amazed. Having only previously been to the brown beaches of the Northern Atlantic before, the beautiful blue coastline of Southern Florida was the closest I had ever come to paradise. I remember wanting to just park myself in the sand beneath the unseasonably hot December sun and simply enjoy looking at the water.
Unfortunately my moment of awe was short-lived as my travel partner was anxiously awaiting the big event, a crowded sports complex where we’d all revel in watching teenagers chase each other around for four hours. While I don’t recall making an attempt to carry on conversations in Spanish or engaging in anything particularly cultivated, I know that mucho tequila shots and grande fiestas happened. These momentos were usually followed by lengthy siestas in our comfortably air-conditioned, generic hotel room.
The world-renowned Mayan ruins probably pale in comparison to the Miami Dolphins Stadium. I’m sure this arena will be listed any day now on Fodor’s travel guide of must-see attractions in America, proudly featuring watery beer, burgers and overpriced licensed team apparel. Fascinating, mind expanding stuff we’ve got going on here. Even though nothing enlightening occurred during this excursion, I was thankful to at least venture out of the Northeast region of the United States for the first time. It wasn’t until then, at the age 18, that I was finally able to witness another way of life outside my familiar bubble.
Colleges like to pretend that study abroad programs are equally affordable for all students and those lucky enough to participate act as if they’re shouldering the payment themselves. Realistically, if you’re financially independent while in school, it’s not feasible to gallivant through Greece over the course of a semester or two. Since I was responsible for covering tuition, rent and all of my other expenses, Europe by rail was not part of my academic itinerary.
I guess fortunately for my own solace, I wasn’t culturally curious at the time, which was probably from lack of education, experience and knowledge in foreign affairs. In any event, I try to reconcile with myself that I most likely would’ve just squandered the opportunity out of youthful ignorance. While I may always harbor a bit of bitterness for my stunted growth towards international matters, I realize that ten years ago I was not nearly mature enough to survive and/or appreciate such a valuable adventure.
Instead I settled for a few vacations with good friends in Florida and an impromptu trip to Pasadena to celebrate another bowl game and an old roommate’s belated birthday during my Senior year. But at least I can take comfort in knowing that I was “traveling” and binge drinking on my own tab. I think my overseas opportunity came in due time, when I was slightly, not entirely, but somewhat, more responsible. By then I was old enough to understand that while it is essential to engage in foreign nightlife to gain the full experience, it could easily wait until after an effort has been made to partake in the daytime activities specific to the location.
As always, there were crucial lessons to be learned from all this, like that shamefully losing the 2009 Rose Bowl early in the second quarter was far from the worst thing that would ever happen to disgrace my alma mater (in retrospect). I also learned that I’d never be able to afford anything on Rodeo Drive and that trying to conserve money by taking public transportation in L.A. after midnight is not the greatest idea. I had never before wanted to kiss the ground so badly once returning to safety, at least not until I visited Vietnam a decade later.
Lastly, I learned that I didn’t actually even need to go to college to frequent bowl games and dive bars. I could’ve done all that just the same while saving on tuition money and using it to traverse the globe. If I was only going to wind up unemployed in the end, I may as well have just continued to work in restaurants and use my savings to treat myself to a solo self-taught study abroad program. I probably would’ve learned more than what I did throughout a four-year Bachelors degree, which in summary is, “Hindsight is 20/20.”