by Ivy Jane Avanzado
The world is the true classroom, the most rewarding and important type of learning is through experience.” – Jack Hanna
Five years ago, I was a different person. I lived in the Philippines, where I was born, and I had yet to experience much of the world. I remember growing up in a small fishing village with no running water, no electricity, nor skyscrapers. I love my humble village, but it felt self-contained and insular. In 2012, I decided to move to the United States. The choice to immerse myself in a foreign culture broadened my academic and cultural horizons, and I craved more. My eyes were opened to a completely different world of experiential and educational possibilities. While working at Rio Salado College in the fall of 2016, I saw a poster in a café advertising the chance to study abroad in Czech Republic. When I was accepted into the program, I could not believe what an incredible opportunity had landed on my lap. Hopefully, this article will excite other students about the incredible benefits offered by learning in a different country. What better way to absorb other cultures and customs than by experiencing them first-hand?
The earliest challenge came through my choice of study. My major is psychology, but I chose to learn art history while in Europe. I have no background in the arts, and initially, the class was intimidating. Finding myself thrust into a room with so many bright students and critical thinkers made me feel inadequate. What’s more, our class relied on group discussions and peer-interaction while tracing history, or analyzing paintings, sculptures, and digital images. This could be difficult for anyone, but as someone for whom English is a second language, I was especially challenged. My internal translation process takes quite a bit of effort, so I would often choose my words carefully and speak only after a great amount of thought. Later, I realized that by going to Europe and choosing a subject with which I am unfamiliar, I had intentionally pushed myself out of my comfort zone to broaden my horizons and blaze a trail of self-discovery. From then on, I shed my timidity and plunged head first into this amazing opportunity.
The incredible architectural history of Prague opened my eyes to the tactile benefits of studying abroad. During the first week of the trip, my class visited Prague Castle, which houses the President of the Czech Republic. The tour was incredible, but what really astonished me was the building’s 9th century origins. Likewise, we stopped by the Charles Bridge, named after the immensely influential King Charles IV, which was constructed back in 1357. Lednice Castle, my favorite experience in the Czech Republic, had history steeped in each room and dripping off of every elaborate piece of furniture and fixture. In addition, the subject of my final project, Holy Trinity Cathedral in Germany, bore the scars of war across its aged moorings. Each building represented windows into the past and offered breathtaking examples of historical architectural craft. Art history books can be very informative, but they cannot capture the thrill of witnessing history in person. Now that I have seen with my own eyes the complexity and beauty of the architecture, and physically touched the artists' creativity, I realize that the level of understanding and detail is irreplaceable.
Venturing outside of the city limits opened my eyes to the profound beauty and freedom that comes with travel. From the pastoral Czech countryside bordering Prague to the forests, lakes and wheat fields of Moravia, I fell in love with the European countryside. Every new place seemed even more stunning than the last, and I could really picture what it was like to live in each area. The laid back suburban life and the faster-paced big cities each had their own benefits, and I was struck with a newfound sense of freedom that allowed me to experience both. Using only my wits, and some handy map-reading skills, I would venture out alone to sightsee in Paris, Vienna, and Prague, or take a bike ride in Moravia outside of the magnificent Chateau Valice. Sure, I got lost a few times, and the subway systems were extremely confusing, but leveraging my experience into some minor problem-solving invigorated my sense of independence.
Even small detours carried with them meaning and weight. As a psychology major, going to Vienna meant one thing: visiting Sigmund Freud’s house. Although we visited several immense and interesting museums, they did not resonate with me as much as my side trip tracing the life of arguably the most famous psychologist in history. During our "free weekend", I visited Freud’s alma mater, the University of Vienna. Freud is one of a long list of famous scientists, philosophers, physicists, lawyers, and mathematicians, who graduated from the university. I felt privileged to see the birthplace of so many amazing ideas. From there, I took a ten-minute walk to Freud's home, which is now a museum. Standing next to Freud’s famous couch filled me with emotion in a way that only other psychology students could truly understand. No part of this trip failed to exceed my expectations.
Food presented an interesting and rewarding challenge. For an Asian student like me, the idea of surviving without rice every day seemed absurd. Before arriving, this issue felt insurmountable and made me extremely anxious. The worrying was all for naught since from the beginning, the food in Europe was unbelievably delicious. Everything tasted so fresh. In each country I visited, I had a new favorite. The Czech Republic had delicious beef goulash with potato dumplings. Austria mastered the chicken Schnitzel. For Germany, I was partial to the currywurst, France had amazing crepes, and of course, I could not consume enough milk and cheese in Switzerland. To my surprise, much of the processed food from the U.S. is actually banned in Europe due to more stringent standards. The government in most European countries strives to promote organic food and farming. This is yet another example of my expectations being upended for the better.
Just as Jack Hanna expounded in this article’s epigraph, studying abroad offered educational opportunities at every turn. Each landmark, city, and museum, like the enormous Kunst Historic Museum, the Louvre, or the Leopold Museum, acted as hands-on lesson in culture. I learned more on this one trip than I could hope to learn in many years staring at a computer screen or flipping through a book in either the U.S. or the Philippines. The main thing I learned is that experiencing the world and broadening your horizons is the only way to truly gain perspective into the lives and history of other people. If you want to become a better person, and gain some valuable worldly empathy, then I implore you to look for opportunities to study abroad. You will not regret it. Find out more at https://mcli.maricopa.edu/international-intercultural-education/student-programs.