Studying Abroad:  Cohort? Solo? Or Both?

By Kiana Duncan

The writer is a senior journalism student who has had the benefit of the CCI Semester in Florence (fall 2016) and is now studying abroad on her own in Prague as part of the CCI-Anglo American University partnership. She will blog periodically from Prague for CCI Global.

The longer I stay in Prague by myself, the less I can compare this study-abroad experience to my Kent State cohort experience in Florence, Italy.

Everything from my day-to-day experiences to the food I eat differs incredibly from where I was a year ago. I believe this is because I’ve grown significantly since my semester in Florence in a number of ways. I trust myself more. I’m more confident in who I am and what I want from my life and how it should make me feel. I’m more willing to get off the beaten path, even if I’m on my own. Most importantly, I’m more willing to experience my feelings.

In a cohort, my feelings were often based on what my group was feeling. As much as I’d like to think I’m a completely independent thinker, being surrounded by 200 people experiencing a whirlwind of emotions and posting them to social media, as well as all the research I’d done on others’ experiences and what I learned in orientation, was downright overwhelming at times. Knowing that my friend hated a certain city changed my perception of it, and knowing a coworker had the best experience of her life going to Germany changed my expectations for Oktoberfest.

Understanding the experiences of others certainly has its benefits, like having an inside scoop on the best restaurants and knowing exactly what to pack (right down to the number of T-shirts). It’s a cool experience to help others in the way that I was helped and to provide a shoulder to lean on when it’s the middle of the semester and you’d all kill for some Chipotle. Florence is almost like a big brother/big sister program, like a rite of passage many Kent State students go through when finding their independence outside of the United States.

There were definitely perks to a cohort. I felt relatively safe at all times. There was little guesswork involved when withdrawing money, grocery shopping and taking classes. I avoided a lot of tourist traps and managed not to be pickpocketed.Yet with these benefits came an established social hierarchy. It was easy to take for granted people I already knew. It was also easier to get annoyed within my already small cohort. I think this is what contributed to students sometimes feeling isolated. What do you do when the people you relied on most don’t feel the same things you do?

For some people, having helpful suggestions and prompts from others can be the difference between a good and bad study abroad trip. For others like me, having a clear and unbiased mind going into an experience is the best thing I can do to make it my own. Independence was certainly a running theme of my current semester in Prague, even before my plane left the runway in August. Visa applications, housing arrangements, a taxi from the airport, wiring fees, and figuring out classes were all responsibilities I needed to handle on my own before I even left.

Living Authentically

Life in Prague feels authentic in a way that Florence did not. Although every study abroad problem is relative, the safety net of professors, friends, and Kent State’s 50 years of experience in sending students to Italy took care of most major issues, like health insurance and accidentally falling into the Arno River. The issues our cohort experienced in Florence were valid, but they were also usually easy to fix:   “I can’t find my favorite shampoo brand.” “I miss American food.” “Street signs here are hard.”

Issues when traveling solo need a bit more critical thought, especially when Fabio (Corsini) isn’t a Facebook message away because you locked yourself out of the school building...again. The problems of studying abroad solo definitely require a different part of your brain.

In under a week, I’ve Googled everything from “How do you say Peace Square in Czech?” to “Does this need stitches?” Issues that left me foundering for a hand to grab a year ago in Italy seem like minor missteps to me now. It does take some time to truly be comfortable, but I feel less stationary here than I did in Florence. I feel as though I’m developing in new ways every day, and I allow myself time to appreciate it. I’ll congratulate myself for figuring out a new way home, or for realizing things at the gym are in kilometers and kilograms, and downloading an app to figure out how much I need to lift.

Plain and simple, if there is no one in your room to let you back in.. you will remember your keys. If you don’t have service to map your way home, you’ll find the confidence to ask someone. And most importantly, if you don’t have the comfort of your American friends, you will make new friends, learn different things, and be far more trusting. You will let go of instincts you’ve long held onto, which is both incredibly hard and wonderfully rewarding.

I’ve found it much easier to feel connected to a city if I arrive on my own. There’s a certain camaraderie between Prague and me. Taking the tram or metro successfully gives me a rush of confidence and pride; empowerment in knowing that I figured it out by myself. The friendships I already have feel deeper to me because they were made out of affection, not out of necessity. The people who have helped me here did so out of the kindness of their hearts, not because they had to as members of my cohort.

A really cool part of this is that the friends I’ve made in Prague were a result of my own decisions and choices. I decided on my own that I would like to take a French class, and as a result of that, I made friends who spoke French and were eager to help me learn. The experience defined the friendships, whereas in Florence, often times the friendships would dictate my experiences. I would take classes because my friends were in them, go somewhere new because my roommate was, or choose a certain restaurant because someone in the group was tired of pasta. Going solo, I am open to exploring my own preferences-- even if none of the friends I’ve already made are interested in those same things. I’ll make different friends, and I know this because I’ve done it before.

The people and experiences here are authentic in ways I’ve never experienced before. I’ve met people here from over 50 countries, each bringing their experiences, music, food, language, and culture with them. This not only makes for interesting conversation and hilarious intercultural jokes, but also forges friendships that force me to see the world a different way and take a better look at my place in it. It was a huge revelation to discover I was the only person in the room who spoke only one language, or who had insight into American politics. I embraced the discomfort at first, and I’m glad I did, because now I’m thriving and spend every day surrounded by people from all around the world.

Most important, I have learned new things about myself. I’ve discovered that I like spending time by myself. In fact, I love it. Taking a few hours alone at one of Prague’s vast array of coffee shops, finding new bakeries, and going on runs are my favorite things to do here. It’s taught me that even though I’m extroverted, I don’t really need to depend on anyone, which is so empowering and makes the moments you choose to be with someone so much more special. In less than a month, I have learned how to make a life here. I didn’t realize how valuable this skill was until I needed to develop it, but it’s the one I’m most proud of. In a cohort, so much time is taken in what I call “the big study abroad things,” like partying, eating out, and traveling. All of these things are really fun, but  they constrain our time, energy, and money if we do them too much. Traveling solo allowed me time to figure out for myself and by myself what makes me happiest, and how to incorporate my life back home into my new life here. Even though I’m here for new experiences, my life should have the same stability as it did back home. For everyone this looks different, but for me it’s about working out, reading, writing and cooking. It gives me something familiar and comforting to hold onto when I get a bad grade or forget to pay my rent on time, and most importantly, it gives me a bond to this city.

Both cohort-based and individual-immersion study abroad experiences have their pros and cons. Cohorts can lead to dependence just as traveling solo can lead to isolation. Cohorts can strengthen friendships and traveling solo can strengthen our independence. Both experiences can challenge me and make me a better person.