The woman I rented a room from in France told me she had two goals in life: to live in Paris, and to travel a lot. Her apartment in the 13th arrondissement was filled with trinkets she had picked up in the multiple continents she had visited over the years. While I was there, she took her three weeks’ vacation to travel to Namibia, returning with hundreds of photos and many stories to tell.
I’m pretty confident in my belief that, in terms of primary ambitions, those two goals aren’t very “Penn.” I doubt I would have encountered someone with a similar approach to life if I hadn’t skipped campus for a semester during my junior year. But they’re emblematic of why it was so important that I did. They represent, I think, the real value of study abroad.
As a Penn Abroad ambassador, I talk to a lot of sophomores who are anxious about credit transfers and college requirements. More fundamental, though, is the fear that going abroad for a semester is kind of a frivolous thing to do. “Travel broadens the mind” seems like a bit of a shaky cliche when held up against something so evidently valuable as a semester of Ivy League education. I think this doubt is reasonable.
Travel doesn’t necessarily broaden the mind. It’s possible to live in another country for a few months without learning much of anything. A group of American friends and a “EuroTrip” mentality is all it takes to extend the “Penn bubble” to a different continent.
But if you manage to avoid this attitude, and I think most of us do, your semester away from Penn can be a key part of your Penn experience. For me, the opportunity to travel was secondary to the perspective that came from removing myself from Penn for a semester, not just physically, but also mentally.
In fact, the impact of my semester away came just as much from where I wasn’t as from where I was. I wasn’t walking down Locust Walk every morning. I wasn’t filling out When2meets. I wasn’t running for any club boards. A lot of the things I had built the structure of my life around were, outside of Penn, optional or nonexistent.
Spending a semester outside of our campus’s value system is uncomfortable at first.
You’re plunged into an environment in which people hold an entirely different set of values. The ties you think you need in order to feel secure about your identity are cut off for a period of time, and that’s disorienting.
But finding out that you can live without them is a priceless realization. It frees you from the kind of tunnel vision that can start to prevail if you’re immersed in the same atmosphere for four years. Things that are considered important at Penn temporarily disappear, and all that’s left to consider is what’s important to you.