Reminiscences of Summer Travel and Study Abroad


Image: "Castle" by xedos4 /

Image: “Castle” by xedos4 /

It would be no exaggeration to say that my trip to France in the summer of 1980 changed my life. As a typical angst-ridden teen—with a slightly atypical penchant for Existential literature—I found myself in a funk at age 16, the promise of three months’ vacation notwithstanding.

An extended journey through France changed all that, opening my eyes to the world beyond my hometown classrooms and ho-hum haunts. In particular, a little five-year-old boy named Florian (who patiently taught me French vernacular), his ten-year-old brother Cyril, and my French “parents”—all of whom are among my friends on Facebook more than 30 years later—welcomed me to the south of France. They shared the beautiful beaches, monuments both famous and not-so-much, including the largest sand dune in France, Bastille Day celebrations, and justified French pride.

After spending several weeks with my new French family, I rejoined a cohort of teen travelers to explore the Loire Valley before spending our last few days in Paris. While I could seriously write a book about the indelible impressions made by my first sight of L’Arc de Triumph, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Seine, Montmatre, the Champs-Elysée, Notre Dame Cathedral,  and, of course, Versailles, I think I was most moved by two of the castles in the Loire Valley, both of which I had studied in French class the year before: Chenonceau and Chambord.

We arrived at Chenonceau at night. The image of the resplendent castle reflected off the water in a way that even the combined Kodachrome slides and enthusiasm of my French teacher couldn’t capture. When our tour guide took us through chamber after chamber, pointing out all the differences in style, fashion, design, and period architecture of the six women who decorated it over a span of four centuries, I gained a cultural and historical education simply not found in books.

Similarly, Chambord, the hunting castle of Francois I, rocked my world. I still remember where I stood with our group in the fields outside the castle, its magnificence illuminated by a technicolor light show, when our tour guide told us that it was Francois I’s summer home (!) and described the architecturally innovative double-helix style staircase we would see inside.

I am a HUGE proponent of summer travel for teens and study abroad programs in college, not because it makes sense in theory—which of course it does—but because it literally changed my life, inspired several return visits to France, a backpacking trip to 10 European countries, three years of graduate study in Oxford, England, and formed some of the most vivid and compelling memories I have to this day.

And, of course, both summer travel and study abroad experiences can make for excellent application essay material, whether you’re applying to college or graduate school. At CollegePrepExpress, we can show you how.

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