Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Study Abroad Experience

I flew back into JFK about 5 weeks ago, ending roughly a year and half abroad. It was an amazing experience that went by way too quickly. At the time, I tried to live entirely in the moment and try to appreciate every minute of my experience. However, over the last month of being back in my home town of Meriden, Connecticut, I have had plenty of time to think over what I've been lucky enough to do. Some of the high lights include:

Exploring the temples from the movie Tomb Raider in Cambodia. 
Taking a short-cut to work by biking through an island with a castle on it in Schwerin, Germany.
Being part of 35,000 strangers who act like brothers in support of their local football team in London, England.
Parting with the locals in Oviedo, Spain.
Spending my birthday weekend in the "Miami" of South America, the city of Ponte Del Este, Uruguay.

Renting a car with a couple of Europeans I met in a hostel and exploring northern Patagonia.

Memories I will have forever.

A Quick Synopsis of The Last 18 Months

It all started in Fall 2012 when I agreed to go to Cambodia as part of Dr. Primm's international relations class. We left for Penom Pehn on New Years Eve, and spent 3 weeks moving around the country. I arrived back in Honolulu the day before the spring semester started, and finished up my last semester on campus at HPU. From there, I flew to my summer job in northern Germany. I spent spent two months teaching English and bouncing around between, Schwerin, Berlin and Hamburg. After leaving Germany, I ended up going to another part of Europe to study for a semester at Richmond The American University in London. I had a blast becoming immersed  in the football (soccer) culture of central London. I was also lucky enough to take a weekend to visit one of my best friends and explore his home town of Oviedo, Spain. After finishing up my finals in London, I returned to the USA for Christmas before flying into Buenos Aires, Argentina, to finish my Spanish minor. I spent the semester completely enveloped in the culture of Argentina, as I made tons of new friends and watched my Spanish competency reach new levels. I made a few trips in Argentina to explore Patagonia, as well as a few of the major cities throughout Argentina and Uruguay. I finished school on June 18th and flew back to the USA on the 20th. I am now a college graduate and already missing it. 

The Benefits of Study Abroad

Obviously, study abroad lets you go to awesome new places and see incredible new things. But you gain so much more than that:

The Value of Time
Studying abroad makes you value time differently. For the last 18 months, I always knew exactly how much time I had in each place. Before I arrived everywhere, I already had my flight to the next place booked. When you look at the calendar and see that you have only 20 days left somewhere, you make sure to make the most out of all 20 of those days. After my first couple of experiences abroad flew by, I started to think about the whole semester in the same light. "I only have 120 days in this country, I better make the most of every minute." After living this way for the last year and a half, this ideal has turned into the way I live my life on a daily basis. I learned to go out, and try to make the most out of every day that I have.

New language
This is something that I'm sure everyone thinks about before studying abroad, but one they won't fully appreciate until after they have been in a new country for a week or so. It is true that I loved my time studying in London. I also have plenty friends that live in Ireland, Australia, Canada, and South Africa who make these destinations seem like incredible places to visit. However, if you ask me, studying abroad in an English speaking country is kind of like the junior varsity version of study abroad. Yeah, you are in a different country, but the experience is not the same as if there is a different language to learn. The study abroad experience I got the most out of was definitely Argentina. This is because I wanted to learn Spanish, and in most parts of Argentina, there was no one around that could speak any English. You are left with no other option but to practice and get better at your second language. The first week can be scary or frustrating, as you'll almost certainly get the wrong food at a restaurant once or twice, but after a few months, when you're having full conversations with locals in your second language, you'll realize it was all worth it.

All of my experiences abroad were through AIFS, which partners with HPU except for my summer job in Germany. The reason I was able to get this job is because my boss was looking for people who had experience abroad (which I had through Cambodia) or were eager to get more experience abroad (which I could show her through my plans to live in London and Buenos Aires). Studying abroad helps you get jobs abroad. Also, even if you want to live in the USA, it shows employers that you are capable to interacting with different people and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. 

No More Comfort Zone
New countries mean new experiences. A lot of times, these new experiences can stress you out, or push you to the limit, but they also show you what you are capable of and help you see what you are interested in. The first big event I remember that took me way out of my comfort zone was when I landed in Berlin, Germany for the first time. I got out of the airport with just vague instructions on how to get to my housing which was another 100 miles or so away. I had to take bus to the train station, take a train to the main train station, then take that train 45 stops or so to the city of Schwerin. When I got there, I realized that Schwerin is a huge city with 4 different train stops, and had no idea which one. I spent the whole day traveling, getting lost, trying to figure out how to use pay phones, and exchanging money, while having absolutely no idea what any of the signs meant in German. Obviously it was frustrating at the time, but making it through experiences like those help you gain confidence. Because I made it through that trip, I know I can get to pretty much anywhere in the world without too much of a problem. At the same time, I can't look back at that experience without smiling and it was definitely something I will always remember. 

New Food
You get to try completely new food abroad. Studying abroad opened my eyes to tons of amazing kinds of food I have no idea how I ever lived without. It'll be tough to find comfort foods like peanut butter and jelly abroad, and although there undoubtedly will be a McDonalds, the menu will be a lot different. So you have to live and die with the local cuisine, and you will learn to love it. After a year and a half abroad, I no longer want to watch a soccer game without fish and chips, make a sandwich without chimichurri or have a night out that does not end in a Schwarma. Some of the best food in the world is out there waiting for you.

The last thing I have to mention is dating abroad. It's a lot different. If you thought a first date in the USA could be awkward, try it while relying totally on your second language. Definitely an experience worth having. 

I know this post is a little long but these are some of the most important things I learned will studying abroad. I could go on for hours and if you have any questions feel free to shoot me an email. I want to thank Melissa and Kri for helping me every step of the way with this crazy last year and a half.

The last thing I want to say is this: If you graduate without study abroad, you did something wrong. It's a must have experience. 

I'll leave you with a few pictures of my favorite places from the last year.

Good luck and travel safe-
Sam Cooke

The group in Cambodia.
Statue in Seoul, South Korea
Los Dedos, en Punta Del Este, Uruguay
The Berlin Gate, Berlin, Germany
View from the London Eye, London, England
When I was teaching English in Germany, my friend Alejandro was teaching Spanish. He invited me to hang out in Spain with him while I was studying in London, so I flew over. This is the group of us that went out on a Friday night in Spain.

A section of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany.

El Obelisco, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Looking over the city of Oviedo, Espana.

Perfect seats for penalty kicks at the Tottenham Hotspur game in London, England.

The widest waterfall in the world, Iguazu Falls, Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.

A castle on its own island, Schwerin, Germany.

Big Ben, London, England

Jumping into the water in Patagonia. San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina


  1. I loved loved loved reading this, Sam! I'm so pleased you had such excellent experiences- studying abroad completely changed my life in the best way imaginable. I wish you the best in the future, and I hope you find many more opportunities to go abroad!


  2. Reading this really helped me understand how significant studying abroad is. I am in London now and missing home so I keep reminding my self to go out and explore and make the most of it. Your section on Time and No More Comfort Zone really woke me up. Glad to hear you enjoyed studying abroad. Thanks!