This past May I participated in the Global May Hungary study abroad program to Budapest, Hungary. The program focused on studying the history and culture of central Europe through lectures at the BKF (University of Applied Sciences in Budapest) as well as trips to Poland and Austria. The program concluded with a week-long video project which allowed students to show what they learned about the city of Budapest.
Before I left to study abroad, I knew next to nothing about Hungary and Central/ Eastern Europe. This program allowed me to learn about a different part of the world through firsthand experiences. It became clear to me that many of my assumptions about this part of Europe were not correct. I had always imagined Hungary as a places of farmland and factories. While Hungary does have much of this, it also holds a rich history of culture and knowledge. Instead of the factories and fields I had expected, I saw grand buildings full of history and countless monuments to the proud and sometimes regretful history that Hungary has. The study abroad program allowed me to understand the colored history of Hungary and the surrounding Eastern European countries through museums, monuments, and interactions with locals. The stereotypes and assumptions that I held about the people from this region of the world were all proven wrong as I met people who were really not all that different from myself.
The understanding that most Hungarian are just like me and are more similar than different caused me to question my view of the world. I had always assumed that with different regions of the world and languages comes different cultural norms and behaviors. Though Hungary does have different social norms than the United States, many of the people I met generally behaved similarly to me and the other students on the trip. The students I met at BKF still deal with the same stress from classes and life that I deal with. Besides the language barrier and geographical differences there is not much of a difference from a Hungarian university student and myself. This view of the world prompted me to learn more about myself during this study abroad experience. I learned that love to travel to new places and I enjoy the feeling of being uncomfortable with a new experience because the feeling of finally overcoming one’s uncomfortable-ness and insecurities makes it worth the challenge. Additionally, I came to the conclusion that I am not happy simply visiting a new places for a day or two just to say I visited it. I need stay and explore a new place and city for at least of few days to get to know the city. To me, I no longer see value to visiting a place if I cannot learn about its culture and take something away from the city and the experience.
The experience I had learning about World War II in Budapest was the most pivotal part of the changing of my world views. It is one thing to learn about WWII in the United States, but it is a vastly different story to learn about it in Budapest, Hungary. My first exposure to WWII on this study abroad experience was on VE (Victory in Europe) Day and it was not in the way I had expected. Previously, I had planned to look for WWII VE Day souvenirs for my family; I could not find any. In one of my first class sessions it was made know by a native Hungarian lecturer that WWII is not something to necessarily be celebrated in Hungary. This stems from guilt, among other emotions, of Hungary being a part of the Axis powers in the war. Furthermore, the end of the war did not mean great peace in Hungary as the end of the war led to the Soviet occupation of Hungary. The experience I had learning about WWII in Hungary was something that I could never had received in the United States nor would I have understood the emotions that Hungarians still feel about their history in WWII that I learned from locals.
Although Hungary has a deep history intertwined with WWII and the soviet occupation, the country overall has managed to rebuild itself and move into the 21st century. This same level of recovering during the post-Soviet occupation cannot be said for another country that I was able to visit, Romania. While in Hungary, there was a free weekend in which I traveled to Timisoara, Romania. The weekend trip to Romania was one I will never forget because I was able to see a city and country still recovering from the Soviet occupation. The occupation was not a piece of history that is simply talked about; the evidence of the occupation still remain all around Timisoara. The odd thing about traveling to Romania was that it was the only place I visited on the entire trip in which I truly experience culture shock.
There are Soviet-era apartment buildings, museums to protests and massacres that occurred less than twenty-five years ago, and a general “run-down” feel to many parts of the city. It was shocking that the third largest city in Romania would have graffiti on the base of almost every building and that facades would be falling off of numerous buildings in the city center. The most eye-opening part of the trip to Romania was listening to a local in her late twenties talk about how her parents sent her away from Timisoara to a relative in the countryside when she was four years old because the city was unstable and there were many protests that ended violently due to a repressive communist regime. Her stories made me realize why the city is in the less-than-ideal state that it is in; violence and repression are not simply history, but rather something that everyone over the age of thirty experienced and remembers. I now understand that it is not quite so simple for a country to recover itself, its government, and its economy when many members of the country still live with memories of distrust of a corrupt and repressive regime. This is especially true considering that Romania had one of the most repressive regimes in the entire Soviet Bloc. This first-hand learning experience gave me a clear understanding of the history of the region because I never understood how history could still be so relevant today and how it could influence the behaviors of a country. I now understand how powerful history can be, especially when it happened only a quarter-of-a-century ago.
The longer I spent in Budapest and the more locals I interacted with, the less I felt like a tourist and more like a member of the city. I spent three weeks solely in Budapest during the trip and even after that I realize all of the things that I failed to visit and failed to learn about. This sparked the knowledge about myself that I cannot just visit a city for a day; I need at least several days to explore and experience a city. For me, seeing the tourist sites, visiting some museums, and eating the local cuisine does not constitute experiencing a city or a country for that matter. Many days are needed to fully understand a city’s/ country’s culture and to interact with locals. This knowledge became clear after I visited Vienna on this study abroad experience for one night and I left feeling as if I could not even say I truly experienced Vienna. In addition to learning about the cities, interacting with locals was fundamental in feeling a sense of belonging to a city. The pinnacle of my interactions with locals was be mistaken for a different country of origin and mistaken for a local of Budapest. This was so important to me because I was no longer just a tourist; I was someone who could blend in and be a part of the city. To me, this is what Ohio State’s goal of Global Citizenship should look like. A global citizen is someone who can learn about a foreign place and learn to integrate into that society. I felt that I reached this point when I was mistaken for a Frenchmen by a local and mistaken as a local twice by tourists. To some this may not seem like much, but to me this showcases that I learned how to be a Global Citizen in a city thousands of miles away from my home.
Possibly one of the most fundamental transformation gained from this experience abroad was that money should be used to fund experiences rather than material possessions. A train ticket is a onetime cost for experiences and memories that one will never forget, or the same money could be used to purchase material goods that will not enhance one’s life or teach lessons through experience. My future plans now all acknowledge that money should be spent on experiences and that adventure is always waiting if you have the desire to pursue it. I will be open to new experiences and will not be afraid to interact with the locals because I now understand that everyone feels the same emotions and experience similar things once one can see past the cultural differences. There is so much to be learned from locals and other travelers that it is a disservice to oneself not to interact and learn about other people.
In terms of academics, this experience did n ot transform, but rather solidified my academic pursuit. I am more motivated than ever to get my degree and take it wherever I can around the world. My degree from Ohio State is my tool to blend work and travel into one. This leads into my professional goal which this experience confirmed my desire to work abroad at some point in my life. Personally, I realized my love of traveling and experiencing new things no matter where I go. In some ways this experience did not necessarily transform my goals for life, rather it took some loose ideas I had for my future and set them in stone. It allowed me to see that my goals are not simply dreams, but something that can be turned into a reality if I apply myself in the correct ways. This is what I find to be the most significant part of the STEP experience; it has allowed me to define a concrete path for my future and shown me what I need to do to follow that path. The new knowledge is invaluable going forward and something that could only have been discovered through the combination of self-reflection. traveling, and new experiences.