The Uncommon Traveler: How I Made My Own Study Abroad in the Summer

Claire Dwyer PO ’20
Staff Writer

There has always been a part of me which loves travel and adventure. I love the moment when the plane takes off from the ground and the city below becomes smaller and smaller until I feel as if I am suspended in the clouds. When I was a little child, my father would identify the different types of clouds for me, since less than a decade ago, he’d been a small plane pilot himself.

Growing up, I was enormously privileged with the means and ability to travel. I had been to several countries plus all around the United States before I went to college. I wouldn’t be the same without those experiences, but I won’t say in a cliché or patronizing way that these experiences ‘opened my eyes to the world.’ They did, however, change my perspective and my mind about what I wanted to do with my life. They moved me from a deep level near my soul. I wasn’t fully “me” without these adventures. I was more at home living out of a suitcase in Europe than I was as a high school student.

While abroad, I had the sense that I could live, study, and think. I didn’t yet know why I fit in so well as a traveler. It could’ve been because I never “belonged” during middle school or high school. In middle school, the other students ostracized me, and in high school, I felt so different from my peers that I spent half of the time dreaming about college and the ability to pursue more advanced study. I was, for the most part, content to sit inside the technology lab at recess even as a ten or eleven-year-old kid, doing research on academic databases. In retrospect, I definitely understand why the other students saw me as different, but at the time, all I wanted was to be invited to their birthday parties.

I lost myself in the adventure which books, and real world travel, provided me. And I became, from a very young age, a future academic. I struggled with living and growing up in Orange County. I struggled with the anti-intellectualism which at times surrounded me. It was enough to make my erudite patterns of speech and habit of intense focus on my studies and reading a subject of occasional derision. Those experiences only made me more determined in my future path, and more in love with the books that surrounded me. I didn’t know at the time, but I was already a medievalist, fixated on the period and its history with such a ferocity that now I cannot imagine a career trajectory which would make more sense for me. Not every historian is born to be an academic, but I certainly was. I only wish I’d seen that sooner.

There was one country I’d loved more than the others during my travels in high school — Spain. It wasn’t the politics of the modern country that first interested me, but the intricate power dynamics between Jews, Christians, and Muslims living together in medieval Iberia. Of course, as a medievalist historian, I instinctively looked to the past as opposed to the present. I read my first book on the subject in my freshman year of high school, and then never stopped reading about it.

When I went to college, I assumed I’d study abroad there, but as time went on, it became clear to me that I didn’t want to give up even one semester of college classes. As I mentioned before, academics are what really make me tick, and I’d been waiting eagerly my whole life to study at a place like Pomona. I loved being in the environment of the school more than anything, but I especially loved being a Late-Antique Medieval Studies major, and the thrill which reading and studying medieval history brought me. But I still wanted an adventure somehow, so I applied for Pomona’s summer grant funding (SURP) and used the money to travel to Spain last summer for research.

I worked in the archives in Barcelona and Madrid, studying the Cantigas de Santa Maria and thirteenth century medieval Spanish history. For an undergraduate, what I was doing was kind of uncharted territory, and that made the adventure even better. I felt like a kind of intellectual daredevil, and it actually cemented my desire to do study abroad in a way which wasn’t the traditional “semester in a country” way.

This coming summer I will return to Spain, alone, and travel around the country for more than a month in the service of my thesis research which will again focus on thirteenth century medieval legal code. I will meet with scholars, work in archives, and learn about the study of a history to which ultimately I will devote my life. I’m sure most of my friends might argue that I have already done this.

I love solo traveling and learning to navigate a place which is unfamiliar to me without the safety net of a program below me. For me, this is the freest way to inquire about the world, and to study Spain, its people, its culture, and the medieval history of the region. I fully recognize that the way I’ve structured my “study abroad” isn’t for everyone, but for people who might enjoy doing something like this, I encourage you wholeheartedly to try it. You don’t have to devote an entire semester to international study if you don’t want to. Apply for grant funding and scholarships, develop a vision for how you might spend your summers, and then, to be cliché yet again, “follow your dreams.”

Others have found alternatives to formal study abroad options too. Blake Plante PO ’19 also structured his own overseas adventure. “I never expected I would be traveling alone through Israel and the West Bank, and the head of security at the Ben Gurion airport seemed to gather that much,” Plante said “I was seated across in his office after having apparently failed several entry interviews. No, I didn’t know anyone in the area, I wasn’t religious, I didn’t bring much cash, and I didn’t know where I would be staying, but I fully intended to figure it out.”

Plante, an English major, was taking part in a class offered by the University of Minnesota Masters of Human Rights program called Social Change in Israel-Palestine in the fall of 2017. According to Plante, the class alternated each week between books by Palestinian and Israeli historians. In the winter, the cohort would fly to Israel-Palestine together. However, the university cancelled the trip once U.S. administration moved the US-Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem due to travel warnings.

“I still had a plane ticket and a bold friend convinced me to go alone, so I went,” Plante said. “I stayed briefly in a hostel in Tel Aviv, then in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, and later in a hostel in the center of old city Jerusalem where I volunteered, cleaning bathrooms and making beds in the mornings in exchange for a roof and a place to sleep. With the hostel as my base for the next few weeks, I made trips throughout the West Bank and Israel, meeting and speaking with people, going on tours, visiting museums and sites, and wandering. My intention was to learn as much as I could about the political situation with my limited time there. Being there alone, I still met and spoke with artists and political activists all by chance. Only, because my schedule was flexible, I could spend several days with them and become immersed, albeit briefly, in their worlds.”

Plante’s experiences, while unique, show that we as students do not have to be restricted to one way of doing things. There are alternative ways of “adventuring” out there — they are not possible for everyone, but for those interested and able, planning your own adventure can really change the way you look at your own education. The world doesn’t often encourage us as students to take steps into the unknown. In fact, we are most often pushed toward the easiest or most secure path. However, my whole life ought to be an example that a dive into the unknown and uncharted is not only possible, but unbelievably rewarding. The feeling of loving what you study more than anything in the world, and watching the clouds replace the city as your plane soars above the earth, is all so worth it.

Photo Courtesy of Shbarcelona