Studying abroad: Learning beyond the classroom

I had a nagging feeling throughout my senior year that I had missed a vital experience as a St. Thomas student. It wasn’t until I was flying back home at the end of June after my Management 480 class in London and Ireland that I realized studying abroad was the experience I’d been lacking.

I learned irreplaceable lessons on everything from working in groups to interacting with people from different cultures. I’d recommend that every student study abroad, and I regret I didn’t go sooner.


Professors at St. Thomas spend lots of time teaching students to work in groups. They claim it’s an important skill, but in the past I would internally cringe whenever I was assigned group work. I always ended up doing most of the work.

Well, studying abroad is a crash course on teamwork. Forget the group projects I had done in previous classes; while abroad I was with 23 students 12 hours or more every day, for 28 days. It was a never-ending group project.

One of the many instances abroad where group work was required is also a big part of the typical “study abroad experience”: the party scene.

It was one of our first nights as a class in London, and it was also one of our first nights partying together. We all took the tube to an area of London filled with popular pubs and clubs. Once we got to the club, I asked how we were going to get back because the tube would be closed. No one was sure, but they didn’t seem to be worried as they paid their entrance fees and hurried to join in the dancing and drinking.

I felt that sinking feeling in my stomach – the identical feeling I get when I know I’ll be stuck doing all the work. Irritated, I resigned myself to figuring out the complex bus system to make sure everyone got home safely.

But luckily, three people in my group helped me decipher the bus system and we worked together to get everyone home. I wasn’t as stressed as I had thought I would be, thanks to their assistance.

Throughout the trip, everyone in my class got to know each other well. Some students were irritated by other students, as I was the first night when we went out. But being thrown into new situations taught us to work together and have fun as a group. Studying abroad reinforced everything my professors had taught me about the importance of working in a group.

Cultural differences

One of the main incentives to study abroad is the opportunity to learn about other cultures. I saw Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles Palace, Blarney Castle…the list goes on. I thought after seeing these places and reading histories of the cities and countries, I understood the cultures.

But it wasn’t until I visited an Irish pharmacy that I fully understood what experiencing another culture means. I had been sick off and on during the trip, and the Saturday a week before we went home I woke up with red eyes, a fever and no voice.

I walked to the pharmacy across the street and asked the pharmacist what she recommended I take for my symptoms. She told me I needed to see the doctor, but still gave me medicine. As I was reaching for my credit card, she told me the credit card machine was broken. I didn’t have 25 euro with me, so I started putting the medicine back on the shelves.

But she stopped me and told me to take the medicine and come back to pay for it Monday. I was shocked. She didn’t want to know where I was staying and didn’t even want my credit card number. We were in Cork, a city of about 400,000 people. How could she trust me?

I rushed back to the pharmacy Monday, still without 25 euro because the bank hadn’t opened. She told me to come and pay for it whenever – maybe Friday or the next week? I’m still surprised she trusted me to return and pay for the medicine, which I eventually did. When I asked my professor if it was normal for Irish people to be so trusting, he said it was.

Developing friendships

Studying abroad allows students to meet new people they otherwise wouldn’t associate with. I don’t think I would have made friends with all the individuals on my trip if we had met in a regular classroom and I know I wouldn’t have made as much of an effort to get to know them on a deep level.

But because we were all part of this trip and shared in this unique experience, we formed friendships.

Now I’m confident I’ve experienced everything I wanted to as an undergraduate. I wish I had dared to study abroad as a sophomore or even a freshman, but I’m happy I learned everything I did on my trip, even if it had to wait until my last class. It was the perfect finale to my time at St. Thomas.

Rebekah Frank can be reached at