The Last Word

A Single Step

by Shane Downing ’11: President of Allegheny Student Government

When asked to write about the value of my study abroad experience, I initially found it difficult to narrow my scope. It would be my pleasure to tell you all about living in Townsville, Australia, learning about the Great Barrier Reef, playing water polo, and dis- covering Aussie culture. Even more I would love to tell you about my current position in Indonesia as a Freeman intern studying language and culture and working in an environmental protection NGO. There is so much to say! Rather than giving you an in-depth summary of my experiences overseas, I am instead going to share with you something I have learned from studying abroad.

I was expecting to travel abroad from day one of my Allegheny College career. Put simply, my image of the “college experience” included an extended time outside the United States. In the summer between my first and second year of college I backpacked through Western Europe for one month: my first experience abroad and, yes, the trip where I caught the “travel bug.” I learned so much about life outside western Pennsylvania. For the first time the concept of “the world” had substance to it, it was becoming something tangible—not just something I had read about in books or watched on television. It was addicting. All I could think about was learning more about different cultures, different languages, and different traditions.

I found myself left with a burning desire to study abroad—and a year and a half to wait before I could fulfill that desire. In the meantime, a number of experiences solidified my plans. For example, I spent two months at a marine laboratory on the easy-going northern coast of California. It was there that I realized that even though I had never left the United States, I was experiencing a new and refreshing culture.

Another transformative step came in May 2009 during the strategic planning process. Many of the administrators and professors listed their own study away as the most transformative experience of their undergraduate education. Hearing their stories and watching the common bond form between people who had studied abroad made me even more excited about my own semester overseas. If you were to visit my travel blog, you would first notice that the title is “A Single Step.” This is be- cause, borrowing from Confucius, “a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” The first step is important for two reasons: a single step signifies the direction you travel, and it represents where you travel from.

As a member of the Allegheny College community this resonates with me. The steps I have taken—around Europe, Australia, and Indonesia are significant on their own, but they would be nothing without that first step taken from Allegheny College. What I have been able to learn abroad stems from what I have been able to learn in Meadville. The growth I have experienced as a person and as a scholar is set upon an Allegheny foundation.

It is my hope that the Strategic Plan will allow every Allegheny student to take “many steps” away and abroad. For as much as I have learned over my time away from Allegheny there is still so much for us, the Allegheny College community, to learn from the world. Regardless of where our travels take us, both away and abroad from Allegheny’s campus, I believe that it is that first step, a single step, into something new and challenging, sometimes frightening, always rewarding, that unites us as members of the Allegheny College community.

Shane Downing was one of three students who worked with other members of the College community to craft Allegheny’s new strategic plan.