Study Abroad: The Anti-Scam

The world is bigger than you know, but smaller than you think. I learned this my sophomore year of college when I decided to study abroad. Traditionally students study abroad their junior year with one or two semesters, but I had to be different. I thought I knew everything there was to know about traveling, living, and studying abroad so I decided one full academic year was not enough. One exotic location was not enough. I needed to go further, see more! I convinced my small liberal arts college that three semesters–my sophomore spring semester and all of junior year–was the right amount to study abroad.

“Study abroad” is one of those golden phrases that bring a plethora of possibilities to mind. As a high school student touring colleges I was absolutely devastated when my dad asked admissions reps– loudly!– if study abroad was really just a “scam.” (Seriously. He used the word “scam.” I’ll never live it down!) The good news, for parents and students alike, is that study abroad is anything but a scam. Allow me to demonstrate…

In January of my sophomore year, I boarded a plane bound for Paris. It was bumpy, and crowded, and a long flight but I was on my way to Paris so nothing could burst my bubble of happiness and anticipation. After six years of French, I was absolutely convinced I could handle being immersed in the foreign language and was thrilled to find that I could communicate easily with my host family upon my arrival.

My first evening in Paris I decided to explore the neighborhood. It was about six in the evening, but already fairly dark outside because of winter. I explored the streets, conveniently arranged in ladder-like formation so I didn’t get lost, and came across a grocery store that looked particularly interesting. I observed the comings and goings for a few minutes since it didn’t look like any grocery store I had ever seen before. There was a turnstile to the left with small hand baskets for shopping, and three narrow check-out lines to the right.

I pushed through the turnstile and began to explore the fruits, vegetables, and chocolate aisles. (Let’s be honest, I was only really interested in the chocolate.) Having seen what there was and getting an idea of the store’s layout, I decided it was time to leave. I looked towards the massive check-out line and to the street beyond the registers and decided that my heavy winter coat was too puffy, and my French too mediocre, to squeeze through without an incident. Feeling silly for not investigating the way out sooner, I headed back to where I came in and froze. It was a turnstile, duh. People were entering, but not exiting. Trying to be brave as I felt panic begin to swell, I went up to an older, knowledgeable-looking woman and asked, Excuse me, Madam, but how can one leave without buying anything?

And what did she say you ask? Why she said:

Leaving? Without buying anything? No, no, no, no! Take a look around, here, look at the fruits!

I admit, tears came to my eyes and my life flashed before my eyes. I was going to die in a French supermarket. Escaping from the woman, I paced the drinks aisle in despair. But ah! I could buy something and slowly progress through the rush-hour packed checkout line. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money for a whole something or other. My eye fell upon a single can of Coke that had been removed from its package. I greedily grabbed my ticket to freedom and stood in line. The Parisians scowled at me with my one tiny item but eventually I made it to the cashier. Just before I handed him my money, I wondered if it was legal to buy a single can of Coke. Sixty centimes later, I had my freedom and my answer. (Apparently, yes.)

In retrospect the story is amusing but I can honestly say that I was panicked at the time. But what, you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with why I should study abroad? Well in addition to learning new things while in a foreign classroom, meeting wonderful people from all walks of life, and learning how to live responsibly and conscientiously on your own, you will come away with amazing stories.

There is a study abroad program for everyone. You can study abroad for a week, a month, a summer, a semester, a year, or even – if you’re brave – longer ! There is a country and a culture for everyone! Perhaps my story has scared you off a little, but don’t worry! Australia, Canada, and the UK have supermarkets like we’re used to. And they speak English! (More or less…)

One last, brief word about study abroad: it’s not just an opportunity for students, it’s also an opportunity for parents. Study abroad brings out a student’s ability to become self-reliant, resourceful, and worldly. My dad still beams when he tells friends and co-workers about my travels. I guess he finally believes it wasn’t a scam…

– Mai M.

  • Guest

    I really enjoyed reading part of your experience studying abroad!

  • Kristen

    Your story is too funny– definitely something I could see myself freaking out about. I only wish I had studied abroad when I had the chance! Great post, Mai!