Studying abroad: three reasons the un-typical trip is best

My time abroad with The School for Field Studies (SFS) in Kenya and Tanzania will forever be one of the most memorable times of my life. Not a single week goes by where I don’t reminisce about that semester, and I have yet to find a single person not at least a little bit jealous about my experiences abroad. Everything about my study abroad program was different and unique: the locations, the cultures, the people, the coursework, the animals and even the analyzing of dung maidens (seriously, we did this). I couldn’t have been happier with my decision, and the obvious next step is to share all my insightful wisdom with the world.


Now, I’m not here to bash anyone’s own abroad experiences, I have lots of friends who studied abroad in and/or backpacked through Europe, but I am here to convince people that maybe (just maybe) going about your study abroad experience or even post-graduate travel a little differently can be more fulfilling than chasing after the typical destinations and programs. And so, because obviously I’m super enlightened on the subject, here are my top three reasons (not really ranked in any sort of particular order) the un-typical trip is best.

Traveling somewhere totally crazy.


Bargaining hard from some tire shoes in Kiswahili at a local market

And by crazy, I mean far (far) away, unique and totally unfamiliar. Step out of your comfort zone. Travel somewhere your friends and family would never expect you to go. Spend a semester (or hell why not a year), in a place that might make you a little uncomfortable at times. Embrace the language barrier(s) and the struggles of learning a new language. Try new foods, attempt new arts and master your bargaining skills. In summary, find somewhere to travel that can teach you more about the world than a daily jaunt to the bars ever could.

I initially singled out my study abroad program for this exact reason. I felt (and still feel) that I have my entire life to explore Europe; I don’t need to be young and rambunctious to enjoy the pubs (and beer) and the beautiful ancient sites. I wanted to travel somewhere I’d likely never have the chance to visit again (or more accurately to one that I would be less likely to visit later in life). East Africa was a place I didn’t know much about, but I wanted to know more. I was drawn to images of its beautiful scenery, unique animals and extraordinary cultures (and people!). While I love beer and bars as much as any typical college student (and still am totally jealous of everyone who got to experience Oktoberfest and real Guinness), I wanted to be challenged in a way I had never been challenged before. And East Africa was the perfect place for me to go.

Stepping away from the western lens.

As I feel very strongly about this point, I have to step away from my usual joking manner and get a little more serious. All of us in the “western world” are guilty of taking things for granted. We’re so far removed from so many of the world’s problems (extreme poverty, water security, food security, war) that we tend to push them out of our minds. We tend to scold other countries or cultures for “doing it wrong” or for “being the enemy” without knowing or even understanding the bigger story. Immersing yourself in a country or culture different from your own is one of the most effective ways to remove your western bias, and to view worldly issues from the lens of someone faced with those issues every single day. And because she says all this so much better and more poetically than me, please watch Chimamanda Adiche’s “The danger of a single story.”

"We are all children of the earth." --Dr. Moses Okello

I left for East Africa with a lot of pre-conceived notions, particularly the “they’re doing it all wrong” attitude. Almost immediately though, all those notions were turned upside-down. Interacting with local communities and people on a day-to-day basis and working with local professors and staff opened my eyes to things I never ever would have considered before. This is something I never could have truly appreciated from a seat in a 300-person lecture at UW-Madison or even from another country and college similar to my own. I could write an entire book about all the things my time in East Africa taught me, especially about all the wonderful lessons the people of East Africa knowingly or unknowingly bestowed upon me, but instead I’ll leave you with a video of our Kenya Center Director, Dr. Okello, throwing down some serious wisdom and sharing a beautiful story about an encounter he had with a little girl during his time in Idaho as a graduate student.

Getting a little dirty.

I’m not talking about the going shower-less for days (or weeks) on end or rolling around in the dirt or even getting some bad-ass dreads kind of dirty (although talk to anyone in my study abroad group and they would probably assert that these things happened A LOT); I’m talking about the getting out in the field and doing hands on research kind of dirty. Choose a program that throws you in the thick of things every day. Seriously, GO PLAY OUTSIDE!

While my initial interest in my study abroad program was because of the location itself, the aspect that solidified my interest was the field study focus of the program. I’m a geologist. Geologists like science and LOVE being in the field. I couldn’t imagine spending a semester abroad in a glorious, new place sitting in a classroom everyday, that’s what not-study abroad college is for, so I knew I needed something a little different. SFS is one of a handful of study abroad programs that centers all of their programs around being in the field and doing hands-on student-involved research. With SFS, I knew I would never, ever bored. I definitely could have selected another SFS program better suited to my major, but honestly, I just wanted to try something new.

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(left) a rare photo with a Maasai. and a dung maiden.
(right) vegetation surveying near Lake Manyara National Park

For those of you who are interested in reading more about my time abroad, feel free to check out all my archived posts from my study abroad blog ( There’s a ton more photos and lots of commentaries on all the hilarious things I got myself into and wonderful things I learned while in East Africa–so go be entertained (or not… whatever you feel).