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Home Away from Home: Building Life-Changing Relationships in a Global Classroom

    By Kylie Martin

    On April 30th, 2022, I boarded a plane that would be flying halfway across the world to Gdańsk, Poland, for the DDC Abroad trip to Poland. It was my first time truly traveling internationally, and out of the three professors, a few staff members, and fourteen UM-Dearborn students, I’d only spoken to a handful of people. That left me stranded across the world with what was virtually a large group of strangers. 

    Several students traveled together but I was alone, flying eight hours from Detroit to a six-hour pitstop in Frankfurt, where I anxiously texted my faceless peers whether a debit card would work abroad in order to buy myself food, followed by the final two hour journey to Gdańsk. 

    Those first few hours in Gdańsk were rough, as my dehydrated, hungry, and sleep-deprived brain failed to calmly process the changes around me. Everything, from the language on the street signs to the snacks in the corner store to the look of the buildings were all similar but still vastly different from what I was used to, and I was overwhelmed. After a few of us students made it into our dorms, I found myself unable to hold back tears as I stared blankly out of a window, feeling alone like never before. 

    Group picture infront of mountains

    That’s when I was approached by another girl from the trip, who was assigned to a different room on the same floor as me. She didn’t comment on my tears, but instead offered me a few squares of a chocolate bar she’d bought at the corner store to try and cheer me up. That sweetness was the first taste of everything that was about to come from my time in Gdańsk.

    Throughout the next few days, I finally met the rest of my peers as they arrived in Gdańsk one by one, and we began having our first of many adventures together. We spent the first whole day exploring the tri-city area in Poland, starting off by dipping our toes in the Baltic Sea, taking a late lunch break of pierogi after watching a Polish holiday parade in the city center, and ending  with a group discussion where all students, faculty, and staff members gathered together to discuss the highlights and troubles of the day. 

    Classes for the “study” component of study abroad began the next day, bringing a slew of unique experiences as well as technical difficulties for us “guinea pigs” for the first run of the DDC Abroad program to solve. In the evening, I found myself playing card games, chatting with several of my peers, and enjoying every moment of it. As the night went on, the conversation shifted to something more serious, and the question was raised as to whether we would all keep in touch after the trip or not. My eyes individually met with the eyes of everyone at the table before we shook our heads in sync, trying to be realistic about the true cruelties of life.

    But we were wrong.

    Group picture infront of building

    You see, when you’re so far away from the place you call home, people become your home. We became a family, spending most of our time whether it was class time, dinner outings, corner store runs, or grand weekend adventures. While I admittedly ended up closer to some of my peers than others, I knew that any single one of them would’ve been there anytime if I needed them to. I found myself constantly and endlessly grateful that these were the individuals I was grouped with on my first experience out of the country. 

    While we spent more time together in our student group, our professors and faculty were always there for support, advice, help, and of course, for the typical restaurant recommendation or free-time suggestions. Having such great professors and faculty elevated the experience and shaped it into something one-of-a-kind; they allowed the “study” portion of “study abroad” to be something less stressful and more self-reflexive, equipping each of us students with tools to make something of our experience.

    Over the course of those seven weeks in Poland, we saw mountains, oceans and lakes; medieval castles, museums and memorials; and none of it would’ve been the same if we hadn’t experienced it together. 

    I left the program with new friendships, new opportunities, and most importantly, a special bond with everyone who’d been on the trip, some who I might never see again and some who would become regulars in my life. Nonetheless, we shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience through our special bond during our time in Poland.