By Halley Rose Meslin
I always knew I wanted to study abroad. After spending my junior year of high school in Toulouse, France, I became so enamored with going overseas that I did it twice during my university career: a semester in Copenhagen, Denmark and semester in Cannes, France. To remain engaged with international education, I became a Peer Counselor at my university’s study abroad office. Here are the most important lessons I learned there.
“Asking why you want to study abroad required reflection, but it would ultimately provide needed clarity.”
Lesson 1 — Study abroad means something different for everyone
In simple terms, study abroad means you travel somewhere to learn something. This exceedingly general template means that a study abroad experience looks different for everyone. Programs differ by location, language, length, academic content, housing, and cultural aspects. As a Peer Counselor, I learned to meet each student where they were. Whether it was their first trip out of the country or if they were a seasoned traveler, the most important part was helping them to identity their goals.
The overseas office had a wall of multi-colored flyers announcing destinations and programs opposite a world map. Students would spend the morning leafing through pamphlets and binders only to come away with more questions than they had when they walked in. “Where should I go?” “What language should I study?” “Where should I live?” My best advice was to do some soul-searching. Asking why you want to study abroad required reflection, but it would ultimately provide needed clarity. Usually, the answers were already there, hidden behind other peoples’ expectations and opinions.
“It is amazing how a place can come alive in your mind just after hearing someone say, ‘I’ve been there, I’m sure you will love it too.’ ”
Lesson 2 — Storytelling can make all the difference
The research, application, and pre-departure steps required for studying abroad can take the wind out of a student’s sails. These tasks are necessary parts of the process, but they can be overwhelming for a first-time traveler or stressed-out undergraduate. I came to recognize the pivotal moment when a student decides to continue the process or call it quits. It was during this moment of uncertainty that I learned to share my stories with the hesitant student. I didn’t launch into full-fledged nostalgia (not unless prompted that is), but I would sprinkle in little snapshots of my life abroad as a way to ease the nerves.
It is amazing how a place can come alive in your mind just after hearing someone say, “I’ve been there, I’m sure you will love it too.” I told would-be travelers about the time I encountered a herd of goats while hiking in the Norwegian fjords, the time I missed a flight in Portugal and got to spend another day in Porto, my bike route to school in Copenhagen, and about the beach walks and long talks with friends in Cannes. I shared my experience as gesture of goodwill and encouragement for other students to create their own memories.
“Just because I was back in the US didn’t mean that I couldn’t go on adventures.”
Lesson 3 — Be an explorer wherever you are
Talking about studying abroad was difficult at times. I couldn’t help but be slightly jealous of the journey these new students were about to embark on. I had just been in their shoes. I’d made some of my best friends in places oceans away that I learned to call home. Stateside, whenever something particularly fun happened on campus I’d say, “This feels like I’m abroad!” I had started to relate good times and adventure with being overseas. I’d created a mindset of “being abroad”.
Instead of wallowing, I began to use this mindset to my advantage. Just because I was back in the U.S. didn’t mean that I couldn’t go on adventures and be a in tourist in my college town. I started taking more weekend excursions, I went backpacking for the first time, and I started frequenting a café in town with a French conversation group. Learning to explore local culture and trying things outside of my comfort zone became a personal challenge for my post-abroad life.
Halley Rose Meslin received the IB diploma from Fishers High School, USA after completing the first year of the DP at the International School of Toulouse, France. She is beginning her career as the executive assistant to the owner of SHED, a farm-to-table restaurant and events hub in Healdsburg, California. She is a recent graduate of Indiana University, with degrees in French and environmental & sustainability studies.
To learn about the IB alumni network, visit ibo.org/alumni and read about our 50th anniversary featured graduates to see where other students have taken their studies and careers.