How Study Abroad Changed My Life

They call it growing up for a reason, of course. And when you add “safe” first-hand exposure to the wide world beyond your own country's borders - as a (relatively) independent young person, still curious, full of energy, and trying to figure it all out, yet at the same time supported and protected by parents (from afar) and teachers (nearer at hand) - all this inevitably has a powerful effect on your personality, and in many cases your future course in life. Everyone's story is completely different, of course, but this is mine, in Spain and Russia, where I spent, respectively, my senior year in high school and a summer in college. I had become increasingly restless in my small, pleasant town in New York's Hudson Valley, with its unchallenging high school and its nonexistent cultural scene. I applied to be an exchange student but wasn't accepted. So when I saw a notice for a study-abroad program on our guidance-counsel office bulletin board, my eyes widened...


And so it was that my first study-abroad experience took place in Barcelona, Catalonia, during the fall semester of 1979 and spring semester 1980. It was a program called School Year Abroad, supported by a consortium of prep schools including Andover and Philips Academy, that allowed high school seniors to get credit toward graduation back home in subjects such as English and math, while studying history, art, and other subjects in Spanish. Maybe three dozen of us lived with local families and attended classes in an old-fashioned building at the corner of Gran Via and Rambla de Catalunya (a block north of the Plaza de Catalunya and the beginning of the Ramblas -- in other words, very central; picture at right). Barcelona was still a bit grubby and gritty and pretty far from the slick, fashionable, cosmopolitan urb it morphed into after the 1992 Olympics.

Spain as a whole was at this time in the throes of a heady transition from decades of rightwing dictatorship under Francisco Franco to a full-fledged democracy, but the transition was still incomplete, with some figures of the old regime still in positions of power and grip of the centralized state somewhat 9296545461?profile=originalloosened but not like it became in subsequent years. I remember witnessing passionate demonstrations by groups including Catalan nationalists and Comisiones Obreras, the recently legalized, communist-influenced union movement. It was all moving, inspiring, and extremely educational (I had traveled a bit, and even already spent a non-studying summer living with a family in Madrid, but seeing history in the making, up close and personal, was indescribably exciting).

9008608652?profile=originalOne small hitch: At the time, my host family was a somewhat unusual one in the region of Catalonia -- a mother, grandmother, son, and daughter living in a somewhat upscale neighborhood who were Catalans but inexplicably pro-Franco; the son was an early twentysomething member of a fascist group called Fuerza Nueva. Suffice it to say they were horrified by my activities, and our relationship was generally civil but increasingly tense.  The tension built over that first semester to the point where I went to my SYA school adviser and started complaining.  This man was even a left-winger, but thought I was being a spoiled wimp and I should suck it up and ride it out.  But the situation continued to deteriorate, and finally I insisted so much that the school gave in and transferred me to another family, two brothers and a mom living in a blue-collar area near Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia church (one of them's in the center in the shot at left; that's me to his left). These folks took a far more live-and-let-live attitude, aided by the fact that they weren't particularly political but were in favor of the increasing democratization and decentralization underway at that time; in fact, I stayed in touch with all of them for many years after coming back to the US; I later found out that that fascist family had similar problems with all their other American students, and were eventually dropped from the program (so I guess maybe I wasn't such a spoiled wimp after all).

9008608673?profile=originalOther of my fellow students of course had different experiences, good and bad, with their own host families (I remember one friend whose host mother turned out to be a Señora Robinson, initiating a sexual relationship with him; he was very conflicted about it, and I never was able to find out whether that might conceivably have played any small role in his suicide several years later).

During that same year, I also studied Italian at a private language school, and spent the holidays with my older American cousin and his Italian wife in Italy's Emilia Romagna, as well as skiing with them in the Alps -- another marvelous and horizon-expanding experience that led to many visits to Italy and acquiring Italian friends in subsequent years.  Our school also took us on two trips throughout Spain, to places like the Basque country and Castile, allowing us to more fully experience the diversity of that country.  All of this very much felt like a growing-up-and-spreading-my-wings year, adding not just to my knowledge of the world and life but also boosting my confidence enormously going into college several months later. I still consider Barcelona in particular and Spain in general my second home and have gone back regularly.

A couple of years later, studying Russian at Georgetown University, I spent the summer of 1982 at the University of Leningrad, with side trips to Moscow, Ukraine, and Estonia.  This too was a huge eye-opener, as it was really the dying days of the Soviet Union, not long before Mikhail Gorbachev took over and paved the way for glasnost, perestroika, and ultimately the end of the USSR.  I found out what it was like to live in a country which was essentially my own country's greatest enemy; some of us were shadowed by secret police, and at least one student got pressure from them to into spying on the rest of us (that one was whisked back to the U.S. by the program administrators). Another issue we had to deal with was giardia, an intestinal parasite that had been part of the city's water supply ever since the brutal siege and bombing during World War II.  A couple of us had to be hospitalized as a result -- and again, at least one young man had to be sent back to the U.S.  A memorable lesson in both politics and public health.

9008608686?profile=originalAs for the Russians themselves, a few were suspicious of us, but others were incredibly welcoming, probably thanks at least in part to the fact that Leningrad (later St. Petersburg) was one of the USSR's most cosmopolitan and sophisticated cities -- arguably even more so than Moscow. And I managed not just to have great friendships with some of my fellow students but also local Russians. I remember two in particular -- Sergei, who was a Soviet soldier from the Urals (left). Very nice fellow; we hung out semi-regularly, and he even showed me the military barracks where he lived, which was so shabby and rundown it made me wonder what the US was afraid of from the Red Army. At another point he freaked me out by taking my hand as we walked down a Leningrad street; it was then I first learned that in some countries, men holding hands was seen not as gay (indeed, Russia was and in many ways remains a pretty anti-gay society) but as a sign of camaraderie and friendship. If you'd told me a year earlier I'd find myself holding hands with a macho Soviet soldier, I'd have thought you s uma sashla (were out of your mind). Also, while browsing in a bookstore I met Volodya, a Jewish dissident who proceeded to introduce me to his girlfriend and other friends; I would go over to their apartment and drink kvass and vodka, listen to music, and talk politics. It was also my first experience of the summertime "White Nights," a period when the sun never completely set; one night, disoriented by the lack of expected nighttime darkness, I stayed out too late and had to sprint back to my student dorm -- sprinting because if I didn't make it over the bridges (this city of waterways is known as the Venice of the North) before I think it was 1AM, they would be raised and I would have to spend the night on some park bench. Incidentally, I fell out of touch with my Jewish dissident buddy but saw him several years later on the NBC Today show after he finally emigrated to the U.S. Same with Sergei after several years, but coincidentally, only a month ago he tracked me down on LinkedIn; he's now a human resources executive in Ukraine.

9008608699?profile=originalLeningrad also became a professional turning point for me, because it was also during my time here that I decided against pursuing a career in the Foreign Service, after hanging around the U.S. consulate and learning more up close what that life really entailed. Both the Russia and Spain experiences cemented my fascination with the larger world, and I decided to pursue that through journalism instead, going to Columbia J-School, then pursuing a magazine career that took me largely down the road of travel journalism, with some political and other kind of writing mixed in. Interviewers were always fascinated and impressed by my experiences, and I think I am a far better and more interesting person and journalist because of these experiences.

Incidentally, I lived abroad again in the 1990s, in Prague (though by that point I was already a working writer rather than a student), and if I had the opportunity I'd move abroad again. In the meantime, I travel as much as I'm able.  It's a bug that I suspect will never truly get cured.