A summer in Europe changes Alex Zickar’s perspective

A Mundy scholar essay
Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The view from one of the trains Alex Zickar and his traveling companions took to Copenhagen, Denmark, an 18-hour journey. Zickar spent the summer studying at Georgia Tech-Lorraine in Metz, France, with the support of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering's Mundy Global Learning Endowment. (Photo Courtesy of Alex Zickar. See more on Flickr.)

Third-year undergraduate Alex Zickar traveled to Metz, France, last summer to study at Georgia Tech-Lorraine. He’d never been to Europe, never been away from home so long (83 days), never been on an international flight. In addition to his studies, Zickar spent weekends traveling throughout Europe, visiting 14 countries from Slovenia to the United Kingdom.

Zickar says the semester was the best summer of his life — and perhaps his best experience ever. “I learned a lot this summer — more than I ever could have predicted,” he says. “I’ve come to realize, however, that the vast majority of learning I did while abroad came not from the classroom, but from the real world. Meeting people, taking chances and trying new things: that’s where the true learning occurred.”

This is part of an ongoing series of essays from across the globe written by School of Civil and Environmental Engineering students who have traveled abroad with the support of the Joe S. Mundy Global Learning Endowment.

This summer was just as much about learning as it was about traveling. Some of the most inspiring learning moments came not from museums or programmed education, but from mistakes, close calls and encounters with the locals — we all made some mistakes this summer.

We had our luggage eaten by an electronic locker system in Cologne.

We ran our train schedules too close together in Switzerland and wound up racing through the station to make our connection.

We forgot to print out directions to the hostel in Rotterdam and wound up walking to the wrong part of the city.

But it’s these mistakes that I remember the most — not for the inconvenience they caused me at the time, but for the life lessons I learned from them in the end. And that’s something no book can teach you.

Alex Zickar hanging out in Amsterdam. (Photo Courtesy of Alex Zickar. See more on Flickr.)

Perhaps even more unforgettable than the quirky mistakes, however, are the people I met on my adventures in Europe. I may not remember their names or faces, but I’ll never forget the things they told me.

With travelers we encountered, we always enjoyed exchanging stories about our respective homelands, reveling in our differences in perspective. I met people from all over the world while traveling, including many Americans. In Berlin, I met a guy who identified as a Belarusian-American; he lives in Atlanta. The world is a large place, but the more you explore it, the smaller it becomes.

In the end, I think the most crucial virtue I’ll take away from this summer is tolerance and the importance of accepting people’s differences. The world is full of differing ideas, cultures and beliefs. We all carry ourselves in different ways, and getting the chance to explore a bit more of the world has shown me just how important it is to understand how others live their lives.

It’s not enough to live life in the dark, sheltered by a blanket of ignorance. I wanted a broader education, and that’s precisely what I got.

Read Zickar's blog from his summer travels.