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Get Extra-Curricular While Studying Abroad: How Joining Up Can Enhance Your Experience

By Jen A. Miller

When I left the University of Tampa to study abroad at Oxford University, I wasn't just leaving my home country and school behind. I was leaving my role as editor of The Minaret, our student newspaper, behind, too.

Yes, I'd be studying Shakespeare and modern British drama with top British scholars and, yes I'd learn about a new-to-me culture by immersing myself in British lifestyle. But the newspaper had been part of my collegiate life since my first semester, and I was going to miss it.

So when I got to Oxford, I became a columnist for The Oxford Student. Even though I was threatened by the St. Edmund?s Hall rugby team for writing about their commentary during the 2001 Superbowl, my study abroad experience wouldn't have been complete without some kind of journalistic challenge. Plus, those same columns ran in The Minaret, so when I came back to UT for my senior year, my byline was still fresh and alive.

My story is just one example of what you can do to get connected and involved in your host university. Dropping yourself into a new culture can be scary, and the thought of adding another activity on top of your workload might seem daunting. But there's no better way to take an active part in your own experience, as the following two students prove.

Good Sport: Caitlin McHugh
Caitlin McHugh's always been an athlete, so when she decided to study abroad at the National University of Ireland Galway in 2005, joining a sports team was natural. "Clubs seemed like a better way to work out and stay in shape while meeting new people than paying to use the university gym," says McHugh. So she signed up for the swim and crew clubs.

McHugh was a member of the Ursinus College swim team, and swimming while abroad? helped her to stay in shape. Plus, she had a good time. "It wasn't as intense as my collegiate swim team, so there were a lot more people who were just there to be in the water and enjoy swimming, which actually made for a lot of fun," says McHugh.

She joined the crew team to test herself, and because it was something Ursinus didn't have. "I had no crew experience, but everyone on the team was wonderful, and I learned so much."

Aside from the physical benefits, McHugh credits those club teams with keeping her on track in other areas. "It keeps you busy and tired, so you don't have as much time to be homesick," she says. "It gives you a chance to meet new people, learn new things, and create amazing memories. It makes you feel part of the country or city or university you are at, rather than just a visitor."

If you're thinking about signing up for a sport while abroad, McHugh has one more piece of advice: "Don't be intimidated if you are joining a club or activity that you have never done before, because no one from home will be around to remember that you almost fell out of the crew boat on the first outing, or that you couldn't climb that rock wall. This is a chance to do something for you."

Do Good: Aine McVey
Even before Aine McVey left Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX to study abroad in Athens, she'd heard about the wildfires that had wiped out acres of Greek farmland.

"I wanted to do something that could help those whose lives had been scorched. Those people did not just lose land or houses, they lost their entire livelihoods," says McVey, who will graduate in May 2008. She also wanted to see more than just the tourist-crammed areas of Greece, and volunteering helped her get there. Through an NGO called Ecumencia (, she joined Greek volunteers to provide disaster relief to the Western Peloponnese, with some of the villages most damaged by the fires.

"I did not just want to spend my time in Greece partying and island-hopping and going to clubs, although those were good times, and good ways to meet Greek people," she says. "I also wanted to go to more rural areas and meet the local villagers, and learn about their lives."

McVey suggests talking to your study abroad program director about what opportunities are available - and safe - for Americans. In her case, the director of the student affairs program drove the student volunteers four hours to remote villages so they could help.

"The whole point of going abroad is to experience another culture and place, and you can't do that by just going to class and seeing the night life," she says. "See the other side of the country, and not just the east or west side, but the poor or rich side, the old or young side, the dark or light side."

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