Andrea (Montrone) Levine ’09 studied abroad in Vienna during 2007 – 2008.
I’m seated across the desk from the executive director of a local community foundation. I’ve come to her office to learn more about the community I live in to get ideas on how to improve the city blog that I manage.
It is five years after graduation from Central College, and I find myself living in a town similar to Pella. It is a small community in the Midwest, with cornfields just outside of town. The liberal arts college there draws students from across the country and around the world, and downtown is full of local businesses and landscaped flowers (but there are no fines for picking tulips).
I’m active downtown, working at a local cafe and cheese shop and managing 10 community volunteers from high school to retirement, who are blogging about the positive stories in a city that is transforming after
years of economic struggle. I see the college students; I see the community leaders and I see the local business people. I also see the retirees, the old men who trickle into the coffee shop in the late morning for their daily social hour, congregating on the comfy chairs that, like the couch on “Friends,” always seem to be free when they walk in.
It’s this last group that I think of as the executive director describes the makeup of the community from her years of experience. “Many people have never lived anywhere else,” she says. “My niece got a great job opportunity but turned it down—she lives with her mom and doesn’t need the money. She is attached to what is familiar to her.” She leans across her desk to emphasize her point. “I’m encouraging her to study abroad, to get her outside her bubble.”
I sympathize with this. For 20 years, my bubble was the size of a small town in Iowa. Then I left to spend a year on Central College’s study abroad program in Vienna, Austria—living in a country the size of Iowa, speaking a foreign language and exploring a city of 1.7 million. Now I am back to small-town Midwestern living, but something has changed.
For starters, I eat differently. A simple flour dumpling cooked in chicken broth and I feel like I’m in food heaven, floating on clouds that are made out of dumpling. I discovered my favorite mealtime while studying abroad: brotzeit (literally: Bread Time), a snack where bread and rolls take a starring role. And the only cake I routinely make from scratch is the Austrian cake called Sachertorte (chocolate cake layered with apricot jam).
Now, I speak differently—not just that I can now speak fluent German. When learning a new language, I practiced asking what words meant. I became aware of how often I’d nod along when I didn’t understand words. Then I noticed that, in English, there were vocabulary and cultural references I did not understand. Now, I ask. I’m a better conversationalist in two languages.
I even travel differently. I now know what it is like to live a year without car payments, without stops at gas stations, without surprise trips to the mechanic. All that, and to get everywhere I want to go, quickly,
for just 50 Euros a semester. Back in the States I am living out of my car again—because the public transportation in my area is expensive and inconvenient—but I take trains whenever I can and have since found excursions into Chicago to be much less stressful. In nice weather, I park several blocks from my destination to enjoy a walk.
Most importantly, my abroad experience helped me see new possibilities, everywhere. During my senior year at Central I funneled my excitement about international studies into an internship in the study abroad office. That experience gave me the confidence to commit to a year of AmeriCorps VISTA, working full time in a small nonprofit in Des Moines. As a VISTA, I met my future husband, and we decided to move to Madison, Wisconsin, together. There, I made a living in international foods, sharing recipes and trying a variety of multiethnic fare as a crew member at Trader Joe’s.
In the present, our conversation is wrapping up. The executive director shows me to the door and sends me on my way with a friendly goodbye. I head out into the parking lot. I may live in a small town, but I know that somewhere, it’s 7 p.m. and Viennese are boarding subway cars on their way to a dinner of roast pork and bread dumplings.
It gets harder and harder to tell what parts of my life were impacted by my study abroad experience. Like the proverbial pebble in the pond, the rings of influence get larger and dissolve into the whole. It has influenced every part of my life now, and it will continue to cause unseen ripples throughout the rest of my life. Unlike a piece of Sachertorte, however delicious, investing in a study abroad experience is something that will continue to pay dividends the rest of my life.