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The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. A pilgrimage site for many Catholics, it is believed the first crosses were placed there after the 1831 Uprising.
Julia Wallace/the Gauntlet

Beyond the lectures and deadlines

Gaining more than a piece of paper in your university years

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In 2009, I was 19 and not particularly happy with my undergraduate experience. I was still living at home, I hadn't really made any new friends in my two years of university and I wasn't as in love with academia as I thought I was supposed to be. In short, I was pretty bored. I had to do something to make the next few years better, to make them memorable. So I started thinking about traveling and throughout the fall I came up with approximately a million different travel plans: I was going to Ireland, England, France; I was going to study in Japan, then hike in Nepal, and go sky-diving in Australia. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing quite worked out. By April, I had resigned myself to staying home and hoping the next year would be better.

Before the end of the semester, however, I was walking down the hall around 4 p.m. and noticed a poster promoting a four-week group-study program to Baltic Europe. It mentioned there was an information meeting at 6 p.m. that night. After staring at the poster for around 10 minutes, I decided I would at least check out the meeting. When I got there, it became clear that this was not an introduction meeting; it was a meeting for people who had signed up and paid their fees six months ago. The geology instructor, Aaron Williams, immediately launched into a talk about what to expect, what sorts of things to bring, and various other details of the program.

I felt like an idiot. I was not supposed to be there and I began thinking to myself, "Please don't notice me, please don't notice me." Before I had gotten a chance to repeat this mantra, the instructor looked up, saw me and brought my presence to the attention of the group. At the time I felt pretty embarrassed, but today I am thankful for that moment because looking back, it was that moment that completely changed my undergraduate experience.

Instead of going home and feeling like an idiot for showing up to the wrong meeting, I was given a quick overview of the program and of field schools in general. As it turned out, although the trip was set to take place in a month, the group was much smaller than anticipated and Williams was still recruiting participants. That night, I went home thinking about the possibility of leaving for Europe in four weeks and, by the next morning, I emailed the instructor to sign up. As it turned out, that uncomfortable and awkward meeting turned me on to other group-study programs, and two years later I have had the opportunity to participate in three separate programs lasting 12 weeks cumulatively, passing through 18 different countries. I have had some of the most incredible experiences that anyone could ask for and I've gotten to have those experiences while meeting new people and completing my degree. I don't think I could have asked for better luck.

The luck didn't only extend to good timing -- being able to participate in so many field schools was the result of the University of Calgary's Centre for International Students and Study Abroad, also known as CISSA, scholarships, being very lucky in having a good paying job and having an RESP account. I know students often have to use their student loans 99 per cent of the time, so that is probably the most common route I know of, having spoken to a lot of participants. Cost is one reason why a group travel study program works more efficiently than spending a whole semester in another country. Travel studies are usually during the spring or summer, and the cost reasonably covers tuition, travel and hotel accommodations. It also allows you enough time to come home and earn money before beginning the regular school semester. Because they are offered during certain semesters, it's easier to plan ahead and start saving earlier -- as long as you allow enough time to browse through the multitude of travel studies available through CISSA.

I have never found traveling particularly easy. It's hard leaving everything you know and are familiar with, even for a short period of time, and beyond that it can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Traveling has been a mix of intense learning and fun, with a bit of misery mixed in, which occasionally makes me wonder why I still pursue travel. In fact, even now, as I continue to pursue different travel opportunities, I am frequently met by skepticism in my family and have been told on several occasions, "But you don't even like traveling!"

Admittedly, while I have been away experiencing the world, my family has received more than a few despondent emails and hysterical phone calls. I have sometimes felt like I was crazy to put myself through the trials of travel and I have let my personal issues bog down my enjoyment of things, but to say I do not like traveling is completely false. I have never found traveling easy, but I have always loved the experience.

There are a few reasons I have participated in so many group-study programs as opposed to other types of travel. For one, I hate to waste time, so to work towards my degree while traveling the world was a great way to accomplish two things at once. Will Bui, a then-third-year geology major and current friend who I met on my second group-study program, describes the difference between travel study and regular tourist travel quite effectively, claiming that group-study is like "being invited to dinner at a new friend's house" while tourist travel is more like "visiting a McDonald's." There is certainly some truth to this. In my experience traveling as a tourist and as a part of a group-study program, the group-study experience has certainly been much more authentic.

For international relations graduate Erik Henningsmoen, the advantages of group-study have more to do with the educational value: "The fact I am in a location for a purpose . . . makes the travel much more satisfying. Traveling with a group of like-minded, intelligent individuals is . . . a major bonus," he said.

It's not just the students who are enthusiastic about these programs. In fact, no one is more enthusiastic than geography professor Peter Slezak, who has been involved in more than half a dozen group-study programs as both a professor and a student. In his opinion, field schools are "the best way of learning about different countries and different parts of the world . . . students gain a thorough understanding of a region or a country . . . a much better understanding of the world . . . [especially] compared to going and lying on a beach somewhere."

More significantly, Slezak speaks to the student experience and what the students get out of these types of programs. Students, he says, "get more in a couple of weeks of being there than you get in . . . three months of instruction." I can testify to that -- not only are you in the place you are learning about and seeing different issues first hand, but you are also learning about other people, about the world in general and certainly about yourself.

My own experience with group-study began when I saw that poster in April, and a month and a half later I found myself in Helsinki with a group of 11 other students and professor Aaron Williams. At 19, I was by far the youngest person in the group, so I did what any teenager fearing social alienation would have done: I lied about my age. I suppose it paid off in a sense -- we traveled through Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, and by the time we arrived in Poland we were all fast friends -- so much so that I began to dread the end of the trip while we were only halfway through. It was the right group of people in the right place at exactly the right time and I knew we would never be able to capture the magic of that trip ever again. At the time, I had no idea just how right I was.

The first club I ever went to was a Polish club in Gdansk. The first time I ever played a drinking game was in Krakow (this is a bit of a humorous concept for me, since I did not, and still do not, drink alcohol). I made my first real friends in university throughout the trip, which is something that will always stay with me. On the whole, it was an amazing emotional whirlwind of a trip that took my breath away for the duration of it, and left me somewhat depressed for a few weeks afterward. The entire group spent the last night together and I ended up staying up all night. By the time I arrived in Calgary after a solid day of travel, I hadn't slept for 44 hours and I cried the whole way home as though my heart was breaking.

Once I arrived home, I was half depressed for the better part of two weeks. I didn't do anything but sleep, eat and watch Planet Earth for hours on end. When some of my group members made it back to Calgary and I was able to see some of them, I felt as though I forged, at the very least, some lifelong friendships. Looking back, I was wrong, but two of those friends did see me through some very difficult times and I will always be grateful for that temporary support that led to many changes in my life. The entire group got together a handful of times, but at best it was never the same, and at worst it was pretty awkward. I was so grateful just for having had the opportunity and ability to travel, to meet such interesting people and to experience that somewhat manic side of my personality that makes traveling both fun and challenging.

It was around the end of my first travel study when it became clear to my family, if not to myself, that travel was not easy for me. Leaving can be hard and coming home can be even harder. My fellow student Will Bui pointed out that sometimes the most negative aspect about group travel is "coming back home [because] normal must always be a bit monotonous." There were moments of that first trip that were not so enjoyable, largely because no matter how well a group gets along, there will always be friction with at least one or two members. Any difficulties I may have had, however, were far outweighed by the number of incredible experiences and I was determined to do another study program as soon as humanly possible.

I managed to arrange for a group travel study the next summer to south-eastern Europe. This time it was with a bigger group of 25 students and geology professors Aaron Williams and Peter Slezak. In some ways this was a tough trip for me, as it was six weeks long, in the dead of summer and fell while I was halfway in and out of a relationship resulting from my last travel study. I was confused where I stood, even with myself. There is a sense in which the timing of the group-study could not have been worse, but it also could not have been better. We started the trip off in the Ukraine and I was excited to be there. For the first two weeks I didn't spend a moment alone -- I wanted to recreate the close-knit community that I had had in my previous group-study. At some point though, you do need to be alone, and spending all my time around people was only a temporary distraction from the fact that I couldn't stand to be alone. Throughout those two weeks we had a few memorable experiences, to say the least, including a 10-hour train ride with a funny smelling man drinking water out of a pickle jar and a 21-hour non-stop bus ride from the Ukraine to Romania.

The next two weeks were a struggle for me. Besides seeing some incredible and amazing things, I was trying to figure out where I fit in the group and I wasn't taking very good care of myself. It was on this trip I learned that you need to take care of yourself more than anything. None of my ailments were particularly severe, but the combination of a cold, heat stroke and exhaustion is not a lot of fun, and it took me a while to recover. I also had not been eating very well and I have since learned that healthy eating should not be sacrificed, even while traveling on a small budget. By the time that fourth week was over, I had hit my stride and was doing all right.

At that point I gained a lot more independence. I stopped worrying about my semi-disrespectful, not-quite-boyfriend back home; I learned to read a map, though I still have the worst sense of direction in the world; and I learned to do things alone. It started with walking from our hotel in Dubrovnik to the medieval city centre on my own and it ended with taking a day trip to Verona from Venice on my own. Because I rarely do things in halves, I somehow went from spending every waking moment of the day with people, to only seeing people in our morning lectures. On days without class, an entire day would often go by in which I ate three meals alone and did not run into a single classmate throughout the day. I found a healthier balance between these two extremes was to do my own thing throughout the day and meet up with people for dinner. It was in this way I enjoyed my last two weeks in Europe.

If we had not been doing and seeing so many amazing things, those middle two weeks might have killed my love for travel, but even when you're ill and miserable and homesick, there's something about hiking in Plitvice National Park or walking around the Acropolis in Athens that makes it impossible to feel too sorry for yourself. I was in no way prepared for the trip I undertook, but I learned very quickly that, given my personality and somewhat unbalanced approach to life, I would never find travel easy. It will always be a mix of enjoyment and misery, of wonder mixed with regret. In both trips there were some moments of desolation and tears, but mostly there were moments of surprise and amazement. Despite the difficulty of the trip, I loved it and I would not give up the experience for the world. That trip led me to seek out one last trip during my undergraduate degree: to Ireland.

This past May when I headed to Ireland, I was perhaps a bit more balanced and prepared for the trip and, as a result, it ended up being one of the healthiest trips I have ever taken. I loved Ireland and, while I felt comfortable in the group, I didn't need to be a part of it like I had in years prior -- part of this was I had grown into myself more. I had already realized the workload would be too heavy for me to do while traveling, especially if I got sick, so I did the majority of it before leaving. I took care of myself, jogging at least once a week, ordering vegetables with dinner even when they were awful, and going to bed early just about every night. By the time the three weeks were up, I am sure that every time I went to bed before 11 p.m. my roommate was tempted to strangle me. I had fun, I did well in my courses, and did things both alone and with other students.

Perhaps because this trip was so much easier and so much calmer for me, it is the least interesting of the three to write about. All I can say is that I enjoyed just about every minute. The entire way, I was making mental notes of places I needed to come back to one day to explore further. I think the point to press about this trip is that it was the culmination of the learning and experiences I had on the other trips, and in that way also represents how possible and important it is to know yourself and to travel accordingly. However, it is also about learning to appreciate what you are doing whether you are traveling or home in Canada.

One of the things my friend Will Bui says he learned in the two travel studies he participated in is that "Canada is the greatest country in the world and that there is a lot of work to be done to maintain all we have in Canada that other places do not."

This is one of the most important lessons I have learned in the group-study programs: not to take anything for granted.

Throughout these trips I have learned so much about other people and so much about myself, I cannot express how grateful I am to have had those opportunities. When I asked professor Slezak to sum up why students should participate in group-study programs, he responded without hesitating, "It will change their lives." I can testify to the truth of his statement: travel study has certainly changed my life.

Would I recommend group-study programs to other students? Absolutely, yes. If you can find the time and money to do it, I hope you will. For me, it has been a chance to test my boundaries and then to redefine them. I hope it will be for you as well.

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