Exploring Europe and WWII

Charlie Rae O’Brien

My STEP signature project was a History of World War II study abroad tour. During the month of May, I visited six different countries and went to various museums and memorials dedicated to the war. I studied the history of WWII and received a minor after completing the program.

Prior to this trip, I had never left the U.S. and naturally I was nervous to explore Europe on my own. I have always relied on my parents to help me solve my problems, but a study abroad program like this one encourages students to be individuals. I navigated the language barrier on my own and walked through big cities alone. While I was abroad, I fostered my independence and became my own person. I never had the opportunity to do this before and it was amazing. I was exposed to some very heavy subjects while studying WWII. Millions of people died and learning about this changed my worldview. It is one thing to sit in a classroom and look at pictures from D-Day or the Holocaust. It is completely different to walk on the beaches where so many soldiers lost their lives. These experiences shaped my outlook on everything.

Before my program started, I went to Dublin, Ireland and when the program ended I went to Prague in the Czech Republic. My freedom in these places was unlike anything I had ever had before. My itinerary wasn’t predetermined by my school or my parents. I tried new foods and went on random tours. It was novel. London was another city that I had a lot of free time in. Unfortunately, one of the days I got seriously lost on the tube. In all honesty, this added to my experience. I had to fix my own problems and mastering the tube was almost as great as getting an A on a class assignment.

Entire WWII Study Tour Group

Relationships were another contributing factor to my overall transformation during my STEP project. I made 22 new friends and had an excellent professor. I automatically assumed that I would get tired of spending a month with the same people, but it made us closer than I ever imagined. My classmates were all extremely smart and passionate about the course. I became a better student and person by the time I landed in America.

Train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Traveling to Poland was one of the most eye-opening experiences I had. Strolling through the markets and trying pierogis in restaurants made me forget that the country endured the German occupation. The country’s beauty hides the scars from war. On the last day in Kraków, my group went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was terribly depressing, but I wanted to experience it. It is part of the reason I decided to apply for this program. Still, I struggle to explain why I wanted to go to Auschwitz. Approximately 1.1 million people were murdered at this death camp. I stood on the platform where families were separated and people were sentenced to live or die. It was a somber day and a powerful experience. This trip put a lot of things into perspective for me. I began to fully understand how fortunate I am.

The STEP program has been such a strong force of good in my life. It allowed me to travel to some amazing places. In Dublin, I explored my Irish roots and in London, I finally saw the city that my mother lived in for 5 years. Normandy and Paris were so memorable, as was Kraków. Berlin was surprising, the war left a very lasting mark on the city. Lastly, Prague was unique. It was small, but colorful and the water running through it felt like a dream. Each location taught me more about myself, the world and the history of WWII. This independence I now have will help me in future jobs and journeys. I appreciate my life and the lives of others more than I did before my study tour. Altogether, the STEP program allowed me to have one of the best experiences in my life.

Me in front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague

If you’d like to read more about my trip, check out my blog!


One thought on “Exploring Europe and WWII

  1. It sounds like you learned a lot about yourself and the complexities of World War II that reshaped Europe and the rest of the world.

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