Imagine this: you have just finished high school and are ready to take your next step in life. For most KO graduates, this means going to college somewhere in the United States, but not for Ben Poulios ’19 and Ben Small ’19. They decided that moving away from home to a new state wasn’t far enough, so they left the country. Their experiences abroad, although very different, taught them many lessons about what the world is like outside of their homes.
During their time at KO, they co-wrote a column called “Ben there, done that,” sharing experiences that they did together. Since they have graduated, I felt that something was missing in my life, and I was quick to realize that this void was their regular column in the KO News. So, I decided to catch up with them to see what they have been up to as college students abroad.
Ben P. spent his time outside of the US in Canada, which is a six-hour drive from his hometown of Colchester; Ben S. went a bit further to China, which is very far from his hometown of West Hartford.
Ben P. did his semester abroad through a program called NUin. This program had the students attend McGill University and stay in Montreal. Ben P. first found out about this program on the Common App when he was given the option to go abroad. He later got an acceptance letter saying that he had been accepted into the program.
The program that Ben S. traveled to China with is called the Novogratz Bridge Year, a nine-month program that allows new Princeton undergrads to experience a year of public service abroad. Ben S. will be on Princeton campus next year as a part of the class of 2024.
During his time away, Ben S. stayed in Kunming which is the capital of Yunnan, with a homestay family and volunteered at an NGO. Similar to Ben P., he knew about the program before applying and decided that if he got into Princeton, he would apply to the program.
Although Ben P. wasn’t too far from the United States, it was still difficult for him to be in a different country. “Going in, I thought that it was pretty American and similar,” Ben P. said. In reality, one of the main struggles of living in Canada was that most people expected him to know French; he did not. There were even times when people came up to him on the street asking for directions in French, assuming that he had lived in Montreal for a while; again, he had not. Eventually, as time progressed, he learned how to say in French that he only spoke English and soon adapted to his new lifestyle in Canada, even getting to know the baristas at his local Starbucks.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the earth, Ben S. was not as prepared. “My Chinese was ok, but I quickly realized how bad it was compared to how much you needed it to get around,” Ben S. said “Even if you speak Chinese, you still feel like an outsider in China.” This was surprising for Ben S. because he is a very experienced Chinese student. At KO he was one of two students to take AP Chinese. Many people also questioned his ethnicity and were not very quick to realize that he was Asian-American. In many instances, he found himself wondering how someone who didn’t understand Chinese could get around.
Like animals in the wild, both of them learned to adapt and survive in a whole new world. For Ben P., this meant not eating his Tim Hortons on the street while walking to class because no one around him in Canada ate food on the road. Imagine being in a place where they don’t eat food on the street. Insane, right?
For Ben S., this meant making sure he wasn’t sending things in WeChat that could get him arrested. “In mainland China, there is this thing called WeChat, which is the messaging service, but the Chinese government can read everything you send,” Ben S. said, “In the program, we would do monthly topics and one of the month’s topics was human rights. We had to send all the articles we were reading through email because if we sent one through WeChat, we could have gotten arrested.”
This story of taking precautions not to get arrested was only one of the many intriguing tales Ben S. collected in his time spent in China.
During his time in China, Ben S. spent time with a family and his homestay brother who’s name is Lasagna, of all things. At the same time that Ben S. was in China, there were Hong Kong protests regarding plans to allow extradition to mainland China. “My homestay brother went to Hong Kong for two weeks,” Ben S. said. “The first thing he told me when he got back was tear gas doesn’t have a smell. It just makes you want to cry. You don’t realize how much freedom you have until you are in a place where people have grown accustomed to having very little.”
Not all experiences that Ben S. had in China were dangerous; in fact, he did a lot of things that were exciting and fun. “I went with some friends and my homestay brother to bike around a lake called Dianchi,” he said. “It was about 90 miles which was very difficult but also extremely cool.”
Ben P.’s experience abroad may not have been as scary at some points, but it taught him a lot. “I learned how to adjust to a new lifestyle,” he said. “I got used to the social norms of Canada, which are not necessarily the same in the United States. Overall, I think I learned how to be independent in a different country.”
Part of being in Canada is the French influence, so I decided to ask Ben P. what stuck out to him about Montreal. After telling me stories about what he did for fun, things I decided would be smarter not to include, we stumbled upon the topic of his favorite place in Canada, Old Port. “It’s the first main part along the water,” he said. “It felt like you were walking through Europe, and they had this nice French restaurant where I would order poutine and a smoked meat sandwich. The streets were cobblestone, which was really beautiful.”
If Ben P. were to do this all again, he would want to go somewhere where there is more of a language and cultural difference. For him, this might mean traveling to Italy or France, even though French-Canada is very different from France. And for Ben S., he would want to go back to Asia because the language piece was what interested him the most.
I concluded my interviews by asking them to give some advice for recent high school graduates who might want to follow a similar path. “If you have an interest in some aspect of a different culture, language, or place just do it,” Ben S. said. “Being presented with that opportunity is definitely something that few people will ever have the ability to do, including the people you meet on your trip. So recognize how good of an opportunity it is and how much privilege you have to get that experience.”