What follows is the essay I wrote and submitted to a university competition among people who had studied abroad. For all I know I was the only entrant, but I won £30 ODEON vouchers for it regardless. I think it’s kind of neat. Enjoy, friends.
I keep trying to come up with great reasons why you should study abroad – I’ll try, for your sake, to never mention how my horizons were broadened at any point – but then it finally hit me. There’s one reason that will tempt you more than any other. It’ll make your next year at University so much easier that you’ll wonder why nobody has mentioned it before. I can tell you my secret, and I will, but you can’t put it to good use until you’ve studied abroad. Now, because there’s a word count I need to fill, I must take you on a dizzying tour through alligator-infested swamps, across the sandiest beaches, over a big hole in the ground, into some mountains, and I’m sure there’s an exam hall or two in there as well. I would kindly ask that you not simply skip to the end to find out what I know and what you don’t. Got it? Good.
It all began, as many foreign adventures do, in an airport. Then, because airports are mostly dull places where people sip coffee and read magazines and avoid eye contact with each other, we find ourselves three thousand miles west in Charlotte, North Carolina. There’s no blanket or pillow on the bed. It’s an uncomfortable, lonely night, far away from home in the less-than-impressive university accommodation. Then it’s four days later. There’s snow on the ground, snow in the sky, and we’re playing American football and shivering and suddenly we’re thrown the ball and we’re being charged by a terrifying Hispanic guy and we’re wondering why the hell we ever decided to come here.
Then there’s some lectures and the professors are nice and some of them make us laugh but it’s not much different from home and the assignments are – hang on, did she say she liked our accent? She did? Oh wait a goddamn second here, this rocks! and by eleven-thirty Thursday night we’ve seen the inside of three new dorm rooms and we’re breathless with, uh, excitement at our sudden new attractiveness. We reinvent ourselves and we start answering questions in lectures and as if by magic the contact list in our new phone grows and grows and everyone’s talking about us.
All the parties and the attention and the assignments we’re suddenly doing well in because we’re paying attention in class mean spring break sneaks up on us. Our housemate says he’s taking us to Tennessee and the drive there takes us through the Blue Ridge Mountains that we kind of vaguely know about from that Fleet Foxes song a few years ago and we’re in Tennessee, baby! We spend six nights in a redneck’s RV in his garden and it’s the strangest experience ever and we think we have a new favourite place in the world.
The cultural taste of places outside of North Carolina whets our appetite for more so we schedule sneaky weekends to Washington D.C. and New York City and, on a friend’s recommendation, we forego the standard hostel set-up in favour of this thing called couchsurfing. Two nights sleeping on a stranger’s couch in return for…nothing. No money changes hands. No sexual favours are requested. And, instead of stumbling blindly around two of the world’s best cities like moronic young tourists clutching a Lonely Planet, we’re guided around by locals, and it is for this reason we take a photo of the staircase a priest falls down in The Exorcist. Cool. And in New York City we’re guided blindfolded to Times Square at night and the intensity of the place nearly blinds us.
We do these trips safe in the knowledge that final exams aren’t going to be too stressful: we only need about fifty percent on our final exams to get the top grade overall because we’ve done well on the assignments throughout the semester. No ten thousand word writing sprees at the eleventh hour for us. Instead we research what we want to do post-exams, because flying home ain’t an option.
Getting an internship sounds great – we’d get to spend another three months in the glorious US of A – but it swiftly dawns on us we’ve left it too late. It’s our one regret. Instead, we’re on the phone organising a month-long rail pass that will see us having passed through twenty-something states by the time we see another airport. We’re so incredibly efficient, organised and time-savvy that our first train, to New Orleans, departs just six hours after our final exam finishes.
Now, I know I said I would take you through swamps, across beaches and all the rest of it, but you know what, that’s my story. Mine. You can’t have it. Besides, the awesomeness of it would blow your mind. Like, literally. Think Scanners. And there were some pretty broad horizons involved in that train trip too – not least what happened in Vegas – so I shan’t go back on my word.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the real reason you should study abroad?
Makes essay writing so much easier. Travel is knowledge, my friend. And not the crappy academic knowledge that’ll be worthless in five years’ time either. You can learn that in a book. I’m talking about the extras, the little things. The experiences. Sure, they’re no replacement for facts and figures in writing an essay, but tell me what essay wouldn’t be improved by an anecdote about your time spent in a “Jesus people” commune in Chicago where you shared a room with a guy ten years your senior who had a whole raft of medication on shelves lined with books about the End Times.
I think I’ve made my point.
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