Right turn … walk two blocks … radio tower …”
in a raspy voice, my host mother, the retired woman whose apartment I’d be living in for two weeks, unleashed a fusillade of half-decipherable directions in Spanish over the crackling phone line. Outside Madrid’s Plaza Puerta Del Sol, buses roared beside me.
I boarded one. Then another. Then I walked. Walking became wandering. I crossed a highway. The sun throbbed; my shoulders bowed under the weight of a Buick-sized backpack jammed with my worldly goods. I asked for directions, then asked again. I was in the suburbs, literally off my map.
Sweaty, confused, hungry, and not a little delirious, I was, for the first time in my life, on my own. Nearing 30, I’m old enough now to remember a world without smartphones and Skype, where keeping connected across continents wasn’t simple. Nobody knew where I was. I wondered idly what would happen when twilight crept in. I was lost in Spain; I would have to untangle this. Half a day later I gratefully stumbled to my Señora’s door. And I had Wake Forest to thank.
As a Reynolds Scholar, I was fortunate to receive grant money to study and travel as part of my scholarship, spending a summer tracing the literary footsteps of Ernest Hemingway across Spain. Though I resisted, my scholarship committee insisted I go solo — I had envisioned tagging along with other students, my copy of “The Sun Also Rises” in tow. Instead, there I stood in Pamplona, alone in a crowd of thousands of Sangria-spattered white T-shirts. After cool, green-curtained mountain walks in the company of cattle, I ate trout at the Pyrenees lodge where Hemingway thought, wrote, and fished. Because of my scholarship committee, I learned that I could take care of myself, could speak Spanish and survive, could make friends anywhere. The world was smaller than I realized.
After that adventure, I returned to the States just long enough to swap shorts for sweaters and returned to Europe for a semester at the University’s Worrell House. There, I soaked up London’s charms through the brilliantly convoluted historical scavenger hunts assigned by Professor Emeritus Jim Barefield in his History of London course. One week we combed the cobbles of Chancery Lane to tease out the minutiae of Dickens’ “Bleak House”; the next we examined Tower of London armor to understand medieval warfare. Then the rhythm of the semester was sharply interrupted. It was September 2001, and I was rummaging in the high-ceilinged communal kitchen for a jar of Nutella. A classmate rushed in.
“Did you hear the World Trade Center’s being bombed?”
I didn’t understand at first, thought it was a joke. Soon everyone in the house was crowded around the lone basement TV, silently watching the plumes of smoke rise. We felt so far away; the tragedy unfolding in America didn’t seem real. Everyone took turns on the house phone anxiously calling home. One classmate from New York spent the afternoon trying frantically to reach his father. And so we watched the world change through a British lens, U.S. headlines splashed across Tube passengers’ tabloids.
Three days after the attacks, friends from the house and I waited outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, the grand dome casting a shadow on hundreds milling in the thin morning light. We joined Britons to mourn. Inside, every pew was packed, the crowd spilling outside. “The Star-Spangled Banner” played along with “God Save the Queen.” The Archbishop of Canterbury prayed for the dead. And we found comfort. Mine came not from the worship service, but in the palpable sense of solidarity, the collective expression of a grief that surpassed borders, a shared sadness and, with it, hope. For a while, at least, we didn’t feel so far from home.
Wake Forest is a homey place: intimate and lovely, where faces really are familiar. And yet, for an institution that prides itself on cultivating a campus community, Wake Forest creates a culture where international experiences aren’t merely available, but are actively encouraged, considered by many a requirement for a complete education.
During and after college, friends of mine from Wake Forest worked in Ecuador and helped run an educational nonprofit there. Others built a schoolhouse in Vietnam or cared for the sick in India. Some did graduate research in New Zealand, taught English in France or were stationed with the Army in Germany and Iraq. They, like me, were eager to see and touch different corners of the world, learn from people different from ourselves. Our experiences were far-flung, yet all part of Wake Forest — where students expand their worldviews and learn to navigate an increasingly complex society.
My undergraduate experiences overseas primed me for my most challenging trip yet: moving to Taiwan, where I just finished a year living with my husband, Aaron Winter (’02). Aaron took a job as a visiting professor of American literature at National Tsing Hua University while I worked as a freelance writer. He, too, spent a semester at Worrell House. But it was the semester before me, so the two of us began our courtship through transatlantic online chats. Since then, we have traveled to more than 35 countries, together and separately; traveling is a shared passion that has brought us closer. (Perhaps closer than we’d like at times — four showerless days hiking the Inca Trail can do that.) We arrived in Taiwan bumbling and illiterate, pointing at indecipherable menu listings and hopping on buses whose destination could only be guessed. Mandarin, a tonal language with thousands of non-alphabetic characters, is not something you just pick up. But little by little, we were able to make ourselves understood, and make friends.
True, I once asked a worker in the campus cafeteria for a job when I wanted juice. True, I inadvertently made sexual advances to strangers, not realizing the slang expression “I like fried rice” meant something quite different from what I intended.
But I also came to love a singular culture where tradition and religion coexist with democracy and technology. Aaron and I learned why the number 4 is unlucky, how to receive business cards respectfully (with both hands), and how not to embarrass a businessman to whom you’re teaching English. That leaving your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl is inauspicious, and that you should always fill the teacups of dining companions before filling your own.
The warmth of the Taiwanese is unsurpassed. Buddhist nuns invited us to tea in a temple. Strangers stopped us in the subway to practice English, reciting couplets they had composed. As Americans raised to value individualism, we learned new ways to negotiate in a society that shuns confrontation. Our new appreciation for ancient Chinese tradition and our new friendships have their roots in our time at Wake Forest. By adding basic Mandarin to passable Spanish, we can now chat about the weather with just about anyone in the world.
Living as an outsider in a foreign country confronts you with differences trivial and profound. Wake Forest’s study abroad initiatives give students the chance to discover that the American way of doing and seeing isn’t the only way, that challenge and risk help us grow and that open-minded compassion is the bedrock of cultural understanding.
If that’s not Pro Humanitate, I don’t know what is.
Susannah Rosenblatt (’03) is a former journalist with the Los Angeles Times, a Michelin travel guide co-author and now works as a Senior Project Director with KSA-Plus Communications in Arlington, Va., specializing in education communications. She lives with her husband, Aaron Winter (’02), in Arlington.