Dear prospective study abroad student,
Congrats! If you’re reading this, it means you’ve been thinking about going abroad with the University of Iowa. I know the decision is sometimes a difficult one, especially when you fall into an under represented group in study abroad, such as identifying as LGBTQ+. I urge you to explore your options, however. Taking your academic experience abroad can be a great way to learn more about yourself, another culture and country, and widen your perspective on the world.
During the past five months, I have been a Diversity Ambassador participating in the USAC Study Abroad program in Pau, France, a town similar in size to Iowa City right near the boarder with Spain and Atlantic coast. Though I have lived abroad before, this was my first experience studying abroad and being directly involved with an academic program like USAC.
My LGBTQ+ identity was not an issue among the friends I made while in Pau, which included people from all over the world, not only France. My French professors talked about LGBTQ+ issues openly in classes; and, while I know they happen, I was grateful that I did not encounter bigoted comments during my stay. The only issue I ran into was an anti-LGBT protest over some signs the city had displayed advocating the use of PrEP, an anti-HIV medication used to keep people from getting infected with HIV. The anti-LGBT protest was met by a counter protest from a local LGBTQ+ group and ultimately the city decided to leave the signs and did not remove them prematurely. Unfortunately I was never able to make it to any of the monthly LGBTQ+ advocacy meetings due to our USAC trips to Spain and other parts of France. I did keep track of them on Facebook and emailed back and forth with a few people involved, however. Overall, my experience in Pau with people who knew my sexual orientation was great and people were very welcoming and friendly. If you’re looking to learn French, definitely check this place out!
Here are a few of the things that I’ve used as guiding points in my travels in other countries and within the USA: get out of your comfort zone, respect your host country & culture, and be aware of your surroundings. Traveling abroad shouldn’t be just hanging around with people from your own country and language. It should involve getting out of your comfort zone, making new friends, and being a 5-year-old again in your language and social abilities. It should be exhilarating, scary, breathtaking, and awesome all at the same time. I know that’s dramatic, but it’s what I’ve found to be true in my own experiences. There’s a quote by Anothony Bourdain that I have carried with me since my first solo trip abroad in early 2013. I always found it inspiring and true to my experiences:
“Travel isn’t always pretty, it isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that is okay. Travel changes you-it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, your consciousness, your heart, and on your body. You take something with you from the experience and hopefully you leave something good behind.”
Here is something else I’ve realized. You don’t have to be overly extroverted to go on a study abroad. Seriously, if you are a little shy, or if parties and huge get-togethers aren’t your thing, then explore the culture in a way you understand, just don’t forget that it is important to get out of your comfort zone at the same time.
Lastly, let your feet carry you to places of genius & knowledge, places of love & compassion, places of fear & sadness-- places of people. Go wander and get lost. You may just find some insight into yourself and how you fit in with the rest of the world if you do. Just live everyday taking in the learning experiences and being thankful for the opportunities you have. Trust yourself. Respect yourself. You can do this.
I wish you all the best in your travels and may your sense of wonder never leave you.
P.S. Here are a couple of other travel quotes I love:
“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, and how much more I have yet to learn.” –Anthony Bourdain
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” –Maya Angelou