I studied abroad with the American Institute of Foreign Study (AIFS), as a junior in college. I chose Granada, Spain as my destination and left the country on New Years Day, 2004.
A question I was often asked: “so do you know anyone you’re going with?” The answer here is no. I knew that I was joining a group of approximately 80 other Americans that had chosen the same program, but hadn’t met any fellow students beforehand. There was no online group to connect us a la Facebook, and no email address exchange beforehand. My undergraduate institution was a small private college and the number of students going abroad was small enough that it was highly unlikely anyone else was going to Granada at the same time I was.
I first met Anderson in the John F. Kennedy airport, six years ago. The blue luggage tags provided to us by AIFS both distinguished us as students traveling abroad, and acted as a magnet for those with matching tags. This meet and greet continued into London, our first port of call. Students arriving from Texas and New York and Wisconsin piled into a hotel many miles away from home and were immediately bonded by a similar experience.
Over the six months abroad, I would make many other friends – travel companions, classmates to study with, people to share bocadillos with. Anderson and I traveled through the south of Spain over Spring Break, and detoured to Morocco for several days. Three of us went to Paris on the cheap and spent Valentine’s Day weekend in the City of Lights. A group of girls spent a long weekend before exams together in Mallorca.
But the important part comes afterward. After you’ve said goodbye to your host mom and cried your eyes out about leaving Spain, after you’ve deplaned in the States into the arms of your own mother (crying some more), and even after you’ve been absorbed back into the hustle and bustle of American life.
In November I would fly to Austin, Texas and visit a core group of Texans in their homes. In January I would host several of those Texans in Pennsylvania and take them to New York City (some for the first time). These past six years have been full of trips — Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, even Costa Rica.
Most rewarding is the fact that you can meet with these people after months or even years and feel like no time has passed. The impact of this shared experience will leave us talking about “that one time in Spain” for the rest of our lives.
I just saw Anderson by an incredible stroke of luck a week ago. He was driving across Pennsylvania en route to New York and called me to see if I was free to meet up. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in six years .. SIX YEARS! We met up in a rainy parking lot in the middle of PA and caught up on our latest travels and next steps. My mom laughed at us both as we relived some of the more questionable Morocco moments (“did you tell your Mom about …”) and I left with what I can only describe as a very full heart.
Now I’m getting ready to depart for the country where it all started and am thrilled about opening my door to these old friends to create some new memories. It might sound hokey, but it is a life altering experience. Study abroad, friends. It’s not just for six months – it’s for life.