#StudyAbroadBecause It Is the Gateway to a Life Full of Passion and Inquiry

by Dr. Jessie Voigts / Feb 07, 2015 /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Alex Berger is the author of VirtualWayfarer.com (one of my favorite sites!) and specializes in travel advice, stories, photography, and videos. He is also an active researcher and focuses on the intersection between travel and technology. Born in Colorado, raised in Arizona, he relocated to Copenhagen, Denmark for a two-year full degree Master's in 2011. He's still in Copenhagen, where he currently lives and works.

 

Alex Berger - #StudyAbroadBecause It Is the Gateway to a Life Full of Passion and Inquiry

 

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

My story is fairly complex. As a kid, my parents homeschooled my brother and I in place of 5th and 7th grade. 5th grade was spent backpacking Europe. 7th grade was spent in a 32-foot 5th-wheel trailer as we took a year and drove across the United States. I did my first study abroad the summer of my Freshman year of College. I was incredibly nervous despite the childhood trips. It was a 6.5 week Honors study abroad program in the British Isles. I debated doing a full semester or year and really wanted to, but could never work up the nerve. The summer program ended up being a great experience. Despite loving it and really flexing my travel muscle, I still never quite worked up the courage over the remaining 3 years of my BA to do a full semester or year abroad.

When I graduated, I turned around and tossed caution to the wind. After 4 years of being worried about doing a solo semester abroad, I closed my eyes and jumped into a 3 month solo trip through Europe. I figured it was now or never. It was amazing. I returned to a full-time job in Mergers and Acquisitions, where I managed two 16-21 day trips a year for the next 3 years. Then, tired of Arizona and eager to return for a Master's, I applied to a number of schools selected based purely on reputation, the appeal of their location, and if they had a communication program. My methodology? A list of the top 50 Universities in the world and an afternoon of research. I ended up with 8 Universities split between 4 PhD programs (trying to skip the MA) and 4 MA programs. Of these, 3 were in Europe. All of the PhDs rejected me and the MA decision came down to Georgetown in D.C. or the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Georgetown wanted $30k in tuition a year. University of Copenhagen offered me a complete tuition waiver...as well as a 2 year visa to live in and explore Europe. The opportunity to do what I hadn't had the nerve to do previously was too enticing to resist (and that tuition waiver helped).  

Despite having only spent 2 days in Denmark during a trip the year before, I relocated figuring I'd see what happened and give it a go. It was one of the best and most pivotal decisions of my life.

 

Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Photo by Alex Berger, VirtualWayfarer

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

 

What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?

It was incredible. I had a lot of international friends, international roommates, and had traveled extensively. So, I thought I knew what the experience was like. I had no clue. There were moments that were profoundly humbling and difficult, but the vast majority were exciting, social, engaging, and they fostered in me an internalized self-confidence that is impossible to get elsewhere. It was 26 months before I returned home for the first time (family met up abroad during that period). When I met with one of my mentors, one of his comments resonated with me. He said I seemed more at ease with myself. At first, I was slightly put off - but then I realized he was spot on. It was a powerful and wonderful process that was a lot of fun. There were setbacks - like accidentally buying 2 kilos of beets, thinking they were sweet potatoes - but in the end I've fallen head over heels in love with Denmark, learned an enormous amount about myself, about my own country, and am a much richer person.

 

Alex Berger. #StudyAbroadBecause It Is the Gateway to a Life Full of Passion and Inquiry

 

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad?

I don't feel it, but I know I am. I had developed social confidence before leaving...but those two years truly helped me internalize that confidence. It is no small task to really start to believe in yourself and to know that regardless of what comes your way, you can handle it. I also understand the world and the people within it much better. This goes beyond just better understanding what it means to be American. I now have a much better understanding of fundamental differences in life experience, in world view, and ideology. I felt like a very well rounded and capable person before...but after this trip? I realize just how much more I still have to learn and how gaping the gaps were in my experiences and perspective. I've also developed whole sets of new skills  - from making friends to behaviors for communicating - which are incredibly valuable.

 

Preikestolen, Norway. Photo Alex Berger, Virtual Wayfarer.

Preikestolen, Norway

 

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?

For this interview, I'm focusing mostly on my 2 year full degree done abroad, but both programs were fundamental in shaping my passions, my career, who I am, and the footprints I leave on the world. When I reflect on what these two experiences did for me...it is impossible to express my gratitude for the opportunity and my absolute relief that I eventually managed to work up the nerve to actually go for it. The richness, friends, perspective, and success both have brought is truly staggering.

 

Alex Berger, Virtual Wayfarer

 

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?

Talk to people and ask questions. It is ok to be afraid. It is ok to be unsure. It is ok to not know where to start. There ARE scholarships, grants, and lifestyle changes out there that can make it all possible for almost anyone. I was blessed with decent grades, involved parents, and family financial support - this helped offset some of the costs. Still, perseverance and being smart and strategic about my approach has enabled me to do things that most, even with significantly more resources on hand, often think is impossible. A lot of study abroad programs are super expensive. Want to go abroad? Look at doing it yourself or doing a self-guided program. Other options include doing what I did and going for the full degree, where things like tuition waivers are more readily available.

Also, don't self sabotage. This is the #1 obstacle you will have to overcome. It isn't language, it isn't money, it isn't cultural barriers. It is you - not doing your research, "accidentally" missing deadlines, not asking the right questions or not reaching out to people.

Still terrified? I've told you my story - so believe me when I say so was I. This, even though I've now done 40+ countries and relocated for a 2 year Master's in a foreign country. If you can dream it, you can do it. All those excuses that come to mind? They're B.S. - sweep them aside and just take the plunge.

 

Alex Berger, Virtual Wayfarer.

 

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?

I am and will always be an American - but I am now also truly a citizen of the world. To live and study in a foreign country with foreign classmates where you are the foreigner is a wonderful experience. In some ways, it cements and reinforces your cultural or national identity. In other ways, it supplements and enriches it. You are no longer just the product of the environment you were born into - you are something more, with the choice and perspective to choose and embrace what makes the most sense. To top it all off, you realize just how much of what is going on in the rest of the world follows a fundamentally different structure.

 

Alex Berger, Virtual Wayfarer.

 

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

At the conclusion of my 2 year Master's, I fully expected to return to the US or to take a job somewhere in the world. Instead, I realized that I had fallen madly in love with the city of Copenhagen, and to a lesser extent Denmark. Not because of some girl or some romantic tie. Just a love for the experience, for the mentality, for the city, for daily life, and for the opportunities that presented themselves. I've now been in Denmark for 3.5 years and recently began a full-time job here. I fully expect to return to the US in a couple of years and absolutely adore my native country. However, my international experience was a portal to an incredible lifestyle and rich experience which I am still in the midst of. There is still so much to learn...

It can be a bit rough at times as a sojourner living abroad...as that "outsider" or "immigrant" but even those moments bring with them incredible insights and an increased robustness to my own humanity.

You'll probably be more content with life if you never study abroad. Just as you'll likely be more content with life if you never leave your home state. Life will be simpler. If you choose to study abroad, you'll be less content with life. You'll yearn for discovery, for new people, and you'll always be chasing new questions about the world, about yourself, and the universe. You'll be less content but you'll also live a much richer life. So, the question becomes - do you want to live a life in black and white where you don't know a world full of color is out there? Or do you want to live a life in full HD color?

 

#studyabroadbecause it is the only way to meet and craft your true self.

#studyabroadbecause it will help you discover your true self.

#studyabroadbecause it is the gateway to a life full of passion and inquiry.

 

 

#studyabroadbecause it is the gateway to a life full of passion and inquiry.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Alex Berger