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Studying Abroad

By Carol Bengle Gilbert

Studying abroad was without a doubt the most exciting and enriching aspect of my law school education. I attended a two-week program of study in Brussels, Belgium. The Brussels Program introduced law students to the then-developing body of European Community Law and to particular components of international law.

How I Decided to Study Abroad

My discovery of the Brussels Seminar was a bit random. I was listening to the Ballad of John and Yoko and the song suddenly inspired me to travel abroad. I had a sudden desire to see Europe but didn't have a ton of money to travel. This led me straight to the placement office, where I rummaged through files until I found this unique, and free, seminar. Up to that point I had planned on taking international law, but had not considered going abroad to do it. As soon as I discovered the Brussels Seminar, though, attending became my passion. This whimsical, impulsive decision turned into a sound career move.

What Studying Abroad Was Like

Attending the Brussels Seminar was in some ways like walking into the pages of a book and interacting with the content. We met the very people who were trying to create a new system of continental government. We got to share their excitement over progress they'd made and their disappointment about the pitfalls they faced.

There were approximately 20 American students living on a Belgian university campus during this study-abroad program. European Community members, government officials and law professors shared their expertise in daily seminars on the legal framework of the emerging European Union.

My Academic Experience

We learned about the give-and-take between national interests, historical traditions, and international trade. I still read stories in the newspapers today that directly relate to these debates.

In the field of public international law, we studied international conventions, including one devoted to terrorism. At the time, terrorism was not deemed to be the most interesting topic for most of the students. But in the years since, it clearly has become much more relevant.

Not only did we have the opportunity to share ideas in the classroom with the people who were altering the face of the European continent, but we also had an opportunity to actually visit the international institutions where this change was happening, getting a first-hand look at how they operated.

My Experience Outside the Classroom

Outside the classroom, the program hosted social get-togethers between the students and the leading movers and shakers in the growth of a European Community as well as local lawyers, government officials, and law professors. It was a great opportunity to learn about European customs and to ask questions about social and intellectual topics outside the course content. We also got a chance to share our own experience from living in the USA, something that was of keen interest to the Europeans.

And beyond academics, what was it like, socially, studying abroad?

We never slept. Too much excitement. Might be why a two-week trip provided a lifetime of memories.

We communicated in French on a daily basis.

We traveled in the off-hours. One advantage of studying abroad in Europe, in particular, is that the distance between countries is minimal, allowing us a chance to explore the continent.

We experienced foreign customs firsthand. I still remember a pub that had a co-ed bathroom where both men and women used the facilities at the same time. We were often pushed outside our comfort zone, trying new cuisines... Filet Americain, anyone?

What I Learned

Without a doubt, studying abroad helped shape who I am. It opened my mind to new ways of thinking and expanded my problem-solving skills. Learning to respect tradition even while trying to change it, communicating tactfully when shocked or in serious disagreement with the opinions of others, figuring out how to meet someone's underlying needs rather than accepting their position at face value - these skills all began to develop in that long-ago seminar abroad. In so many small ways, the foundation laid in just two weeks of studying abroad created a lifetime of opportunity.

Learning Outside the Classroom


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