Hunter Sharpless, originally from Dallas, TX, graduated from the University of Iowa in 2012 with a degree in English Literature. While at the UI, Hunter studied abroad on the USAC program in Turin, Italy, in 2011. Currently, he is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing as well as a teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota. Read on to learn how Hunter's time abroad enhanced his calling as a writer, as well as how students can make the most of their experiences in a new country.
Hunter with two proprietors of his favorite cafe in Turin.
What lessons did you learn from your study abroad experience?
I think I might have had a different experience than many students, not because of where I went or who I went with but because of who I am. Many of the students abroad took a Las Vegas mentality (i.e., "what happens abroad stays abroad"), but I kind of launched in the opposite direction: I took many trips alone and wandered like a vagrant all over the continent of Europe. There were certainly highs and lows, but the whole thing was thick enough to provide the base for material for what will be my second book, a collection of linked essays called Sodom and Madonna.
How did study abroad help you in your major at the UI?
I always loved the expat American writers: Hemingway, as cliche as it sounds, was my first big stylistic influence as far as my own writing goes. But Henry James too. Daisy Miller was one of my favorite books growing up, and still is. It's about a young American named Winterbourne wandering about and finding himself, or something like that. He found other things. But to get more to the question: Many of the books I read and loved in high school and at Iowa as an English major played a part in my decision both to study abroad and how to study abroad.
What do you do now?
I went straight from Iowa to Minnesota, where I'm studying for an MFA in nonfiction writing. My first book is forthcoming this fall from a little publisher in Oregon called Wipf and Stock. The book's called Song of the Fool, and it's about my time on the road with roots-rock band Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. The DI did a piece on the story in 2009 and one again last summer. Like I said, that will be coming out sometime in the fall, but I'm already at work on a second book. I'm also a contributing sports writer for the website FanRag.com.
How has your international experience benefited you in your current career?
Well, "job" is a bit of a loose term for me, since I'm in grad school. But I'll substitute "job" for "calling," and I feel like I'm a writer, and if that counts as a "job" then my time abroad gave me, like I said, the material for this new book, but I also think I've eventually learned something else about my time abroad (and this is largely what the book is about). There are many, many stories and books and movies about Americans going to Europe and finding themselves, or whatever. Discovering who they truly are. You know, the Hemingway expat story. But I think what I really learned over in Europe was that who I am is largely (but not entirely) defined by my being an American. So the book is about coming back home. The first eight cities I write about are in Europe and the last four are in America. That probably doesn't answer the question, but I gave it a shot.
Any advice for future students?
My first piece of advice would be to stay local. A lot of my peers in Turin chose the city because it's an easy point of departure for a number of other countries, but I really would encourage getting to know your own town before you leave it. Also: ride lots of trains. Learn the local language as best you can. Don't congregate only with your fellow Americans, but also don't ignore them.