Go Europe: A better (and cheaper) way for the brave

Edgar Walters

Last Wednesday, hundreds of students gathered on Gregory Plaza for the Study Abroad Fair. There they learned about the life-changing nature of study abroad programs and listened to inspiring catch phrases such as, “Develop a global perspective!” and “Enjoy a once- in-a-lifetime experience!” These selling points are not disingenuous. Pursuing study overseas offers many benefits, which are thoroughly documented on the Study Abroad Office’s web site.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone should partake in these programs. Particularly to those students drawn to the idea of a summer study abroad program in Western Europe, I offer an alternative: solo travel.

Despite originally considering UT’s faculty-led program in Würzburg, Germany, I opted for a solo adventure instead. I spent eight weeks this summer gallivanting throughout Deutschland, falling in love with its language and developing a fascination for its cultural history. They were the best, most informative eight weeks of my entire life, and I returned to the U.S. with a renewed passion for life and the gratification of having made the right choice not to enroll in the Würzburg program. Here are my top reasons.

First, I learned a heck of a lot of German. The Study Abroad Office touts on its website that studying abroad is “the most effective way to learn a language,” but I contest that claim. Sure, going abroad and immersing oneself in a language is almost certainly the best way to learn it, but that doesn’t suggest that the “studying” component is necessary. In fact, many study abroad programs provide unintended hindrances to language learning. I was shocked to discover that at least one of the German classes offered through the Würzburg program was taught in English. If I wanted that experience, I could find it at home.

There are also subtler disincentives in many study abroad environments that detract from the language immersion process. Picture your first class day at a foreign university: you find yourself in the cafeteria for lunch, where you’re met by a waving group of Americans with whom you share classes, a dorm and a Facebook group that won’t stop sending you notifications. Even the most adamant language learner might fail to turn these people down in favor of venturing off into the foreign masses and hoping an established lunch group of native speakers will adopt you. By comparison, when traveling solo and staying in a hostel, it’s much easier to avoid the English-speaking tourists (mostly Australians). Instead, you’ll find yourself conversing with the solo-traveling native speaker across the room. He or she is likely to be impressed by your willingness to converse in his or her own tongue, I promise!

My second reason for preferring solo over Wurzburg: I saved a ton of money. The Study Abroad Office’s estimated cost for the Würzburg program is $9,983, and most Western European summer programs offered range in cost from $8,000 to $13,000. I spent less than $1,600 during my eight weeks and $990 on airfare. Obviously, I didn’t have to pay tuition during my travels, which accounted for a significant portion of the difference, and therefore I didn’t receive any class credit. I think the idea of a summer one can’t include on a resume terrifies a lot of overachieving UT students, but it shouldn’t. I’m on track to graduate in four years, I’m not pursuing a German major, and even without being in school, I learned more than I’d ever thought possible.

Unfortunately, I also didn’t qualify for any scholarship money. For many students, the Study Abroad Office can help in that regard. Of its many laudable objectives, most commendable is to “reduce the disparities in study abroad participation.” But for students who don’t qualify for Pell grants or who aren’t in special programs with specific study abroad scholarships, avenues of funding can be competitive and difficult to find.

Finally, I made a number of “risky” decisions — that is to say, decisions the Study Abroad Office would explicitly discourage — but which taught me the most. I had to get over myself and accept help from those who were happy to provide it. I learned to find my voice in a language I hadn’t mastered, not to mention German words like “obdachlos” (homeless) and phrases like “Do I seriously have to pay to use the toilet?” Of course, as a tall male in a highly developed country, I was less preoccupied with personal safety than others might be. But even so, few of my adventures were actually dangerous. I merely took advantage of situations that might have seemed radical back home: striking up conversations with strangers, often befriending them after spending an afternoon together and occasionally taking those friends up on offers of transportation or hospitality.

Not everyone stands to gain more from solo travel than a study abroad program. Solo travel requires a specific kind of student with enough diligence to actually speak a foreign language and self-confidence to befriend strangers. Even more, it requires a departure from the generational obsession with doing something “productive” during every waking moment of one’s life. For the remaining students, however, solo travel offers a perfect opportunity for total immersion and language learning, a cheaper alternative to study abroad and a guaranteed personal transformation.  

Walters is a plan II major from Houston.