College-led travel forges friendships

As the midpoint of the semester passes, the deadline for the declaration of intent for studying abroad in 2014-2015 is quickly approaching. By Nov. 1, many St. Olaf students will have to make tough decisions concerning the location of their education in the coming year.

The decision to study abroad is a very important one. In order to get the most out of the experience, students need to ask themselves many questions.

The study abroad trip that is right for your best friends might not be the same experience that is right for you. Do you want to go away for a whole semester or for a year? Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Do you want to enroll in another university or travel with a St. Olaf program? There are so many different aspects to consider.

Last Interim, I had the opportunity to visit Tanzania. It was a program led by St. Olaf, and I traveled with a professor and a group of Oles for the month of January. It’s cliché, but I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When else would I get the chance to travel to Tanzania and experience the culture firsthand? For me, the cultural experience was priceless.

While I haven’t done a semesterlong program, I feel that my Interim abroad gave me a taste of what a semester would be like. I am sure there are pros and cons to each program, but I find St. Olaf trips to be a unique and invaluable experience.

Through traveling with a St. Olaf-led program, you are instantly surrounded by a small group of Oles. It’s a great opportunity to meet people you might not run into on the Hill and to share unique experiences with them. You might even maintain many of these relationships when you return to campus. You also move around more than students enrolled in a single university, giving you the opportunity to visit a variety of places.

The mode of travel within a group of Oles is also different than what comes with spending time at a university abroad. The social environment is more that of a long St. Olaf field trip rather than an experience at another college.

Many students worry about getting sick of the people they are traveling with, especially when the group is rather small. This is an important consideration. If you are easygoing, flexible and enjoy working with others, you will be able to handle the social situations well. Even if you aren’t, studying with a St. Olaf group might be a unique opportunity to grow.

While my Interim trip was only a month long, I was glad to be surrounded by a large group of Oles. Most of them were strangers to me at first, but we bonded over the fact that we were all Oles and we were all thrust into this foreign environment together. As time went on, we got to know each other and formed friendships.

Many St. Olaf students decide to enroll in a university instead of traveling with a group from campus. This option integrates you into your host culture more directly. In essence, you become a part of that culture. You are on your own, which gives you the ability to go out and see the places you want to see.

In contrast, while I enjoyed visiting different towns in Tanzania and seeing how the residents lived, there was never consistency in my days. I never knew where we were going or what we were doing. I didn’t have a familiar environment to go back to at the end of each day.

For me, I just saw this as part of the experience and enjoyed it. I was trying to experience another culture, even though I knew I wasn’t part of it. Some people need the consistency in their day-to-day life: they need a place that feels like home, where they can unpack their suitcase for an extended period of time.

Now is the time to travel and see the world. Personally, I would love to go on another St. Olaf-led program. I want to see as much as possible in the amount of time I have. I also love the group atmosphere of Oles experiencing the world together.

However, you will have an amazing experience no matter what trip you choose, so pick a program that best suits you, personally.

Kathryn Haggstrom ’14 is from Omaha, Neb. She majors in English with an Africa and the Americas concentration.