January 6, 2020

Dylan McDowell

As usual, there is a lot to report since the last time I submitted an essay to your organization. However, this time I am writing to you from Vladimir, Russia, the city where I am currently studying abroad. For the reason that I am speaking almost exclusively Russian here, please excuse what, in my opinion, will almost certainly be a less grammatically sound essay. Regardless, I am excited to tell you about the ways that I have grown and learned over the past year.

The spring semester of the last year finished wonderfully. My sophomore year panned out exactly as I had planned and hoped it would. I took the year off from working to strive for better academic marks and achieved that goal, reaping the fruit of my tireless efforts. I learned the subject material from each class thoroughly but also grew to become a much better student.

One of my very best friends from High School who attends Virginia Tech also had a
good semester. We rewarded ourselves by making good on a high school promise to split up the first and second halves of our college careers by traveling somewhere interesting or doing something truly memorable. In the event that this plan was realized, we had diligently saved up money in our respective jobs since high school. A cancelled Spring Break college trip to Russia freed up the additional funds I needed to travel. Thus, we set our eyes on the common goal of American college students — Europe. Starting at around the time I sent the last scholarship essay, we began to draft plans for where we would go, what we would do, and how all of this would happen. There are few things I am more proud of than the way things turned out. Our planned itinerary for "EuroTrip'11," as we soon came to know our trip, was spotless. All of our hostels were booked, documents acquired, trains marked down, and things packed. We left the perfect amount of breathing room between travel days and ensured that a realistic budget would be met.

We benefited from our pre-departure work by being able to focus on expanding our world view and experience in Europe. From Barcelona to Switzerland and then to Paris, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and London we stayed with friends and family when and where possible. My friend Pat has Aunts and Uncles who live in Norway and the Netherlands and we made friends with some kids from London while participating in a parade there with our marching band in High School. Seeing the continent was not only educational and full of truly landmark memories, it was fantastic practice for studying abroad.

My fall semester at American University was difficult. I occasionally worked odd jobs for the athletic department, allowing for a flexible schedule while still compiling a small income to help prop up my bank account. My classes pushed me harder than ever before and I learned what it is to be truly up against the odds. Nevertheless, I completed the semester with good grades and walked away a better researcher and a more rigid academic thanks to an International Relations research class and difficult teachers. Where my other classes opened up new areas of studies, I fell back on Russian as a familiar class with a beloved teacher of mine to expand my language abilities. Through all the madness, I prepared to throw all caution to the wind and study abroad in Russia.

And that is exactly how it felt as I visited my friends at AU for the last time. For two days we were put in a hotel in DC by the American Councils study abroad program. On the night before my departure, I visited my old apartment that my two best friends and I lived in during the first semester. One of those was not studying abroad and was still there. As a stranger in my own house, I sat and talked to him and the new subletting residents about the daunting challenge presented by flying to Russia to live with a family who speaks only Russian, taking classes in Russian only, and generally being deeply and completely immersed in a culture that is very foreign to our own.

I am overjoyed to report that my fears were only the pre-departure butterflies that every traveler gets before an ambitious journey. Upon landing, I slipped right back into the rhythm of traveling, no doubt largely thanks to my time in Europe. Traveling can only ever mean that you are away from home. And yet, the feeling of being abroad and depending on yourself to navigate large distances and foreign cultures can feel like home with practice. Here, I have further realized that I am a fantastic traveler and a man who does not feel out-of-place or threatened when in other lands. But also, I am thoroughly immersing myself into the Russian culture. I have established strong, loving relationships with my Russian host family and teachers here. I have even begun to make Russian friends my age with whom I can better practice my language skills while enjoying the company of foreigners from my generation. This experience is clearly going to be one of the most definitive in my life.

I am currently engaged in this massive life event and will undoubtedly have many more that will shape the man I hope to be and the life I hope to live in the future. I am applying for a number of paying internships for the upcoming summer. I am hoping to live and work in DC until the start of my senior year. Until next spring (which will certainly be a warmer one than here in Russia), I have some major decisions to make and important paths to follow.

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