While life goes on after studying abroad, the memories, friends, and experiences truly stay with you for a lifetime. And it’s rare that we get to hear how study abroad affects someone years later.
We recently spoke with Joseph Powell, an alumnus of Pau, France, from 1995-1996. Although he studied abroad more than 20 years ago, he’s managed to stay close with his classmates. Here’s his advice for students considering studying abroad.
Why did you decide to study abroad in France?
A few of my friends thought we should go to Europe, and one of them suggested studying abroad as a way to stay longer. So we looked into it and I signed up thinking that I was going to be part of an entire group. I was the only one who actually went.
I had no idea of what I was doing or how I was going to do it. Language study at my high school was limited and I knew absolutely no French at all. Had I thought it out properly, I probably wouldn’t have gone.
How has your study abroad experience affected your life over the last 22 years?
It opened my brain to the fact that people, though they may look and do things differently than we do, are doing the same thing all over the world. They are taking care of their families, paying their bills, and trying to live as well as they can. I know that seems remarkably simple, but it had never occurred to me.
I am able to remind myself that when I don’t understand a person’s situation or their methods, I can assume that they’re probably doing the best that they can.
It has helped me to judge less and learn more, and has significantly contributed to my life.
How do you keep in touch with classmates that you met when you studied abroad?
Various ways —social media, primarily, but we send Christmas cards and baby announcements, etc., through the mail and keep in touch by texting or writing.
What advice do you have for young students who are considering going abroad?
If you can, go. Don’t worry about the language. Don’t worry about being by yourself. I knew absolutely no French at all and I was right in the mix of everyone else.
Learn about the culture, and realize that people will help you if you ask them.
I used to go to the grocery store and the clerk would yell at me and point to the money in my hand (this was pre-Euro). I was so embarrassed and afraid of what I was doing wrong. It took me several trips to realize that she wasn’t yelling at me—she was trying to tell me that I shouldn’t just hold out money for her to take because people would take advantage of me. She was trying to help me learn about money and how to pay for things. This happened repeatedly.
Do you have alumni reunions? If so, what has been your favorite memory?
We do! We had a big one in 2011 where most of us attended. We had T-shirts and everything! There have been several smaller ones here and there. We always call or text when we’re going to be in each others’ cities, and let other people know if they have a chance to meet up.
I think my favorite reunion memory was cooking together. This was something we all did daily in the USAC apartment in Pau, and it felt so great to do it again. We also spoke with Robina Mueller, our coordinator, on the telephone when we were all together and she was so sweet and remembered us all.
What is one memory from your time abroad that still stands out to you?
My host father. He was this gruff, older man who spoke almost no English. We didn’t hit it off very well. I ignored him for about a month out of pure fear until one night they had people over to dinner and I was supposed to eat with them. I just sat there looking at everyone, and I had tears in my eyes. I was so homesick and frightened.
He noticed this and asked if I had brought pictures of my family (remember, no cell phones or digital photos and limited computer access, so we were asked to bring pictures of our family and life at home), and I had brought a small album. He told me to go and get it and bring my English-French dictionary with me. He sat there and went through every picture with me and taught me the words for “brother” and “mother” and “friend” and “home,” and many more.
He slowly explained in Frenglish that they were there to help me and that I could ask them if I needed to. He said that if I’d just let them help me, they would.
They became a solid foundation for me. They were my family for the first four months, and even after I moved into the dorm, I came back every Sunday for dinner.
I became the unofficial go-between for my family and new students that came after I left. This man would help me with my homework every night if I asked. I wrote an entire essay about this.
Any additional tips/stories you’d like to share with students?
My host mother was a very quiet woman. One time I was frustrated with learning the language and she raised her voice and almost scared me out of my chair. She said “Joseph! You will never learn French until you start to think in French!” She meant that chickens don’t say “Cock a doodle do” in France. That I needed to see it in French and not try to translate it. She taught me that you can translate words, but you can’t translate life or experiences. They have to be earned.