Study Abroad – A Real Break from the Farm?

“Go Away!” blared these friendly two words up at me from my screen. Not an e-mail from an angry ex, but rather an invitation from the Bing Overseas Study Program to step out of the Stanford bubble (gasp) and, literally, go away.

Flash forward eight months and there I was, standing in the Berlin airport, somewhat disheveled but ready for whatever came next. I arrived that day because I wanted to, as the e-mail had so cleverly alluded, “get away.” I wanted to spend some time away from the serene chaos that comprises the Farm, to take a break from overextending myself and spreading myself thin. In short, I arrived in Berlin that day because I wanted to take a break from being a Stanford “duck.”

This declaration of breaking free from being “the Stanford duck” quickly came to a halt when I stepped out of the cab, in front of the Stanford Villa. The leaves on the ground, the quiet serenity, the large picturesque houses – was I back in Palo Alto? When I did in fact come to a street sign, I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized I was headed down “Pacelliallee” and not down Emerson towards Fraiche.

Sitting down for orientation, I quickly realized yet another Stanford characteristic that had crossed the Atlantic with me – the Stanford habit of administrative handholding. The financial office doled out some Euros for the first three weeks, set up our police registration forms, and took care of the rest of our finances. Cabs were called to take us to our home stays (we would be reimbursed later) and we were off. Classes were explained to us, and just like we were still at Stanford, we duly signed up for them on Axess, careful to take into account that the deadline would be a (uh-oh) day before it would be if we were in Stanford.

Having just spent two weeks sampling the hostels of several other European cities with my best friend, I felt as though I were back in luxury. My penny-pinching habits I had held on to so tightly while traveling seemed to disappear when I was handed our monthly “allowance.” Back to school never seemed so sweet.

Over the next few weeks, it became apparent that the Stanford hand-holding and the Villa itself weren’t the only things that we had apparently been transplanted abroad. The temptation to over-commit oneself, though not nearly as overwhelming as it is at the Farm, nevertheless existed. During the day, we would receive a multitude of e-mails about activities as varied as a meeting with our German language partner, an art show opening, a concert, or a field trip to a remote location in the city.

Socially as well, Stanford was ever present. Our group of forty, though generally amicable, split pretty quickly and evenly into the Greeks and the non-Greeks. Being in the lounge of the Villa for a while would sometimes have me thinking I was back at SAE. Culturally, one of the favorite eateries (for Greeks and non-Greeks alike) was “the Bird,” known for its American-style burgers and English-speaking staff.

Though these are only a few examples of the “echoes of Stanford” present in the Berlin program, the honest truth is that a large chunk of Stanford is often uprooted and transplanted abroad. You can expect the hand-holding, the plethora of extracurricular activities, the social divisions, even the general atmosphere – to follow you even when you attempt to “get away”. For many, or even most, this sense of continuity across the globe in a foreign location provides great comfort and mental ease.

However, this continuity has the potential to thwart those seeking an experience entirely unlike the rest of their Stanford career. If you’re one of this seeming minority that truly desires a departure from the Farm, it can be done. What I came to learn from studying abroad was that, as cliché as it sounds, being abroad (or any experience, for that matter) is really what you make of it.

Yes, you can choose to hold on to Stanford, to allow it to manifest itself in your abroad experience – or, you can really take the message of the Stanford Overseas email to heart and “go away”. And, if you do decide to “go away,” I challenge you to forget the artificial Stanford-created social boundaries, to forego the comforts of American food, public bathrooms, and free water (this especially applies to Berlin), and to let go of the pressures that exist at Stanford to over involve yourself. Instead, commit yourself to one activity – getting to know the city that Stanford has graciously allowed you to inhabit for three (or more) months.

The next time you see a “go away” message in your inbox – unless it actually is from an angry ex – I encourage you all to open it and to really consider what it may be like to involve yourself in something that has the potential to change your life. Don’t just go abroad, but get away – and I promise that if you let it, it will open up a new world for you.

Mika Wang is a junior who participated in Stanford-in-Berlin during fall 2009*.** She spent much of her childhood in Tokyo, and has travelled throughout Asia and, most recently, Europe.*

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