The Experience of a Born Adventurer

This post is courtesy of Alex Slaymaker, ASU Study Abroad alumni. Alex studied in Denmark and the United Kingdom on the faculty-directed program ASU: Sustainable Food Systems, Community Development, & Happiness in Denmark during the summer 2016 months. Alex was also a recipient of the SAO Travel Grant.

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What inspired you to study abroad?

I’ve had a taste for adventure since before I can remember – strapped to my mother’s back while she hiked National Parks. My father’s military career required my family to move multiple times during my childhood exposing me to diverse sub-cultures and experiences. Some of my favorite memories as a child include sneaking into the abandoned air force base across the street in New Jersey, playing in a hurricane in Texas with my brother, and throwing myself into huge waves in the Gulf of Mexico. Adventure is in my blood! Although I have wanted to go abroad since I was young, I couldn’t afford the experience without Arizona State’s generous funding opportunities.

Tell us about the program you went on.

For 6 weeks I traveled with 20 other ASU students from a range of backgrounds and 2 talented professors researching how urban agriculture in the UK and Denmark impacts community happiness and resilience. I picked the UK/Denmark program because I’m passionate about creating more equitable and sustainable urban systems. Also, I knew the faculty whom led the trip were open-minded, passionate, and thoughtful people I’d like to learn from. We traveled to 5 different cities and a few quaint rural towns- starting in Copenhagen and ending in London. Since our trip was the first UK/Denmark study abroad we were able to help shape and evolve the experience for ourselves and future cohorts. I appreciated the culture of innovation on our trip and openness of faculty advisors to student input. The trip was worth every Dollar, Krone, and Pound!

How did you pay for your study abroad experience?

I was awarded two scholarships: one through the Walton Study Abroad program and another with the Study Abroad Office. I also taught an online class while I was abroad and used some money from my savings. The university I attended for undergrad didn’t have such generous funding options for study abroad and I’ve always wanted to do it so I’m very grateful Arizona State’s financial assistance programs helped enable this experience.

What was your biggest concern regarding study abroad? How did you overcome it?

I was concerned about living in close quarters with people I didn’t know for 6 weeks because I had never had roommates before for an extended period of time. This concern turned out to be totally unwarranted because the people on my trip were so amazing I was more than willing to be around them for 6 weeks. In fact, it was hard to say goodbye despite (or because of?) our close living situation. The experience also helped me realize I really enjoy living with people and I now want roommates in my next living situation.

How has your international educational experience impacted your life, academically, professionally, and personally, since returning?

My experience abroad reminded me that work-life balance is essential to personal well-being and I have to always remember to do the things I love, like cooking dinner with friends, even when ‘duty calls’. Working on a sustainability project increased my capacity to effectively collaborate with a large team, navigate cultural differences, and dive deep into understanding a new system within a small timeframe. Also, conducting research in an international quasi-consulting context further emphasized the importance of understanding others’ culture, needs, and pressures. These lessons are just as important in the States as they are across the pond due to our nation’s diverse collection of subcultures and perspectives. I’m eager to bring my refined skills, expanded perspective, and knowledge back to America so I can help increase the sustainability and resilience of my community.

Describe your favorite memory abroad.

In the charming city of Aarhus, Denmark, residents attend an annual cultural celebration where residents create giant bonfires on the beach and hang out. However, while we were visiting the large celebration downtown was rained out so we decided to go back to our apartment. A few hours later we smelled bonfire smoke and decided to go find the fire. We walked through a foggy forest with tall mossy trees towering over us, using our phones as flashlights. Once we came out of the forest the smoke was stronger and we saw a small gathering and a bonfire on the beach below our cliff side position. About 40 or so adults of all ages were gathered around the fire in small clusters talking quietly among themselves. The gathering was very peaceful and felt far calmer than large bonfires in America.  We sat down on large rocks on the beach hillside and watched the large fire burn red, orange, white, purple, and green. The fire danced in the wind and its warmth made the brisk night feel snug. Behind the fire, fog floated over a perfectly still bay of dark, seemingly endless water. Without thinking twice, a friend and I decided to walk away from the glowing comfort of fire and into the dark water we knew was freezing cold. We went up to our thighs and stood there for a while looking into the ocean and feeling blessed. Everything was so perfect, calm, and beautiful in that moment and I felt totally happy.

Describe your future career and how you think your experience abroad has prepared you for that career. 

In 10 years I would like to be in an influential position where I am helping revitalize cities in the Great Lakes area into more equitable and sustainable places. My experience abroad expanded my knowledge about how urban agriculture impacts community well-being, qualitative research methods in practice, and embracing cultural differences. These are very important skills for my career in the field of urban sustainability. Also, in cities like Bristol in the UK I saw interesting strategies used for revitalizing the city that I can adapt for use in post-industrial cities back home. Lastly, the experience of being detached from my ‘typical’ daily life created space for me to reflect on what I need and want in my career and life. This reflection time couldn’t have come at a better time since the study abroad program was my last educational experience before completing my Masters degree in Sustainable Solutions.

What is one thing you wish you would have known before studying abroad?

I wish I had a better understanding of the exchange rate and how to navigate without data. I didn’t do enough research on logistics like this before going abroad and it would have come in handy!

What advice would you give to future study abroad participants?

You are going to have an amazing time and learn a lot about yourself. Enjoy every minute and try to get to know as many people on your trip as possible.

If you are a future study abroad participant interested in hearing more about Alex’s experience abroad feel free to contact her at aslaymak@asu.edu.

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