Traveling via an array of packages boast unique, powerful experiences

As someone who has been abroad via a Learning Abroad Center program, I can say that it was absolutely fabulous. I don’t discredit Leah Lancaster in her column “Oh, the places you’ll go!” from the Sept. 4 issue of the Minnesota Daily and her experience in traveling on your own — and, in fact, I have traveled with and without the “pre-packaged” trips.

I’ve been to Europe and Mexico with my family on vacations before, and they were amazing. I had a great time, but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to my study abroad experiences.

My experience going to South Africa would have been difficult without a program to highlight things for me. Studying or traveling abroad with an itinerary or on a program doesn’t make you any less adventurous. I don’t think there was any way I could have learned as much if I went on my own.

I’m speaking only for myself, but as for my program in Durban, South Africa, I was able to hear stories of Apartheid from people who were exiled for their political views during the time; I would have never met them on my own.

I lived with a host family and worked at a high school for the summer. I think that going to South Africa without speaking Zulu, a language spoken in Durban and other parts of South Africa, would have been difficult in some areas of the city, and so I was very glad to have three full-time, Zulu-speaking staff members with me and the group. I got to see markets and restaurants only real locals would know of that could never be found in a tourist guide. I took the incredibly cheap and favorite local transportation “tro-tro” with my host sisters and had homemade cooking of putu and curry. I learned about the school system and its corruption from actual students and teachers living and working in the system. I went to Apartheid museums with people who lived through it. These aren’t just things  I did while I was in South Africa; these are things that made up my summer program, and they were only possible because of the “package.”

There are a ton of scholarships, fellowships and grants that send students abroad every year, and the Learning Abroad Center gives out quite a few of them, requiring only a one-page essay. Besides the scholarships, there are opportunities galore.

As far as cost is concerned, I have also been able to go abroad to Berlin, Germany for a month, once again on a “pre-packaged” program, this time through the Center for German and European Studies. My trip was a fellowship to assist in an English classroom and live with a host family. Because I applied for this fellowship, I only ended up paying $400 — half the cost of my plane ticket — to spend a month in the beautiful city of Berlin.

Once I learned more about the LAC, I found another great opportunity to go abroad, and this time it was absolutely free, in fact, I was getting paid to go. I was hired as the Assistant Program Leader for a freshman seminar last year that was about Arts and Culture in Ghana. I was a kind of teaching assistant for the class, as it met one day a week throughout the spring semester. Then during spring break, our whole class, the professor and I boarded our planes and spent a week in the most welcoming place I’ve ever been, the warm coastal city of Accra, Ghana in West Africa.

There are so many other ways to study abroad, too. You can go abroad and do research through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program now, which pays students a stipend to do work alongside professors. You can even volunteer in different countries over winter break if you don’t have enough time for a whole semester.

As for spontaneous problem solving abroad, lessons learned getting lost and making friends, there is still plenty of that to be had whether or not you are on a planned program.

All I know is that I tried new food, met people with stories I couldn’t believe and made some life-long friends in the coolest places that I have ever been in the world, and I wouldn’t trade anything for my experiences.