From Baltimore to Belgium and back again

Two Hounds share why returning abroad for graduate school was "the best decision we could have made"

By Olivia Earenfight, '15, and Brenna O'Connor, '15  |  Cover photo by Juan V. Vera del Campo, Flickr Creative Commons | Article photos courtesy of Brenna O'Connor, '15

It takes a considerable amount of hindsight to be able to reflect on life-altering experiences or events.

Graduate school falls into this category. We need time to decompress and relax after the intensity, and, quite frankly, the stress of it all. When your graduate school experience takes place abroad, in city in Belgium just a few miles from Brussels, the reflection process requires some distance before we can really grasp its impact on our lives.

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Brenna O’Connor (left) and Olivia Earenfight pose after receiving their diplomas from Loyola in May 2015.

In short, now several months after graduation, we are certain that attending graduate school abroad was the best decision we could have made.

The two of us have been friends for over five years now. We met as first-year students at Loyola, in Butler Hall. As sophomores, we separately decided to apply for the study abroad program in Leuven, Belgium.

When we found out that we both had been accepted, we were ecstatic. The decision to study abroad for a year—to leave Loyola, friends, and family behind for a year—seemed daunting. But we were incredibly excited for the adventures ahead.

Leuven is the most charming, walkable, bikeable, livable, city we could have had the good fortune of living in. A hidden gem among the larger cities in Europe, we fell in love as soon as we arrived. There’s a coffee shop on every corner, the cobblestone streets are lined with bicycles; students from all over the world attend KU Leuven, and of course, a glass of Stella Artois is ever accessible.

Leuven was a comfortable home away from home during our junior year abroad. As juniors, we lived in the Loyola International Nachbaur Huis, which houses all Loyola students in the program, as well as Belgian students and students from all over the world. We interacted with people from all over Europe, Asia, and South America, experienced new cultures, and made friendships that will last a lifetime—including some that have already proven to stand the test of time and distance.

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Groot Markt, one of the main city squares in Leuven

When we returned to Baltimore and to Loyola for our senior year of college, we felt a lot of uncertainty about what to do after graduation. We would meet in the Humanities building and sit on the porch, where we would chat about future prospects or career ideas.

As global studies and history majors, there is no direct career path… After many long chats and a lot of research, graduate school seemed like a viable and beneficial option. But graduate school back in Leuven? We were sold. Olivia applied for the Master of European Politics and Policies, and I (Brenna) applied for the Master of European Studies. For the second time, we were both accepted into international programs and beyond thrilled to be returning to Leuven, a place so close to both of our hearts.

From a very practical standpoint, attending graduate school in Europe is a brilliant option. Tuition is a fraction of what it costs to get a master’s degree in the United States. Student housing is affordable. Everyone in Leuven speaks English, so there is little to no language barrier. We were familiar with the city after having lived and studied there for a year. And we would complete the programs in 10 months.

On the list of pros and cons, the pros far outweighed the cons. Both of our programs were inherently international, and our classes were filled with students from all over the world. We were able to apply our bachelor’s degrees in Global Studies (Olivia) and history (Brenna) and build on our academic foundation in liberal arts throughout our graduate studies.

Additionally, studying in a foreign country gives you the advantage of a foreign education. There are many differences between European and American education systems, yet we rose to the challenge and adapted so that we were successful in our graduate programs.

Attending school in a foreign country also offers endless opportunities to travel. Whether it was a day trip to another Belgian city or weekends spent in Paris and Madrid, we certainly took advantage of the geographical proximity to other impressive European cities, traveling as often as we could.

After our experiences abroad, we feel comfortable in new situations, we are extremely adaptable, and we are capable to rise to any challenge set in front of us.

There is no way to fully prepare for the realities of graduate school. Those who are in graduate school now or have already graduated can surely relate. The demands of class were overwhelming: Readings of articles, chapters, books, and reports seemed to never end. There was always work to be done on the thesis, perhaps the most important paper of our lives up to this point. The stress became all-consuming at times, and our programs tested our mental and physical strength.

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Brenna and Olivia enjoy dinner on Muntstraat, a charming street lined with restaurants, to celebrate finishing their program and the end of the year.

An absolute blessing of our year in graduate school in Leuven was the remaining Loyola community from our junior year. We lived with a close friend, Merlijn, who is from Amsterdam, and another Loyola graduate, Madeleine Hodur, in an international house. We were one other’s support system.

It was truly amazing to live with such close friends who were also enduring the trials and tribulations of graduate school. We were also very fortunate to live in a house together, which made late-night study sessions more bearable, and we could count on a companion for daily runs to our favorite waffle and gelato shop.

The support system that we provided for one another carried over to the pain and uncertainty that we felt after the terrorist attacks on the city of Brussels and at the Brussels International Airport on March 22, 2016. It is no secret that the world is facing international political turmoil. And due to this fact, international education experiences and world travel become that much more questioned—and that much more necessary.

Our collective years abroad forced us to grow, gain new perspectives, and have certainly shaped us into the people we are today.

We strongly encourage everyone, if given the opportunity, to study abroad, be it for undergrad or graduate school—or both! Because if we can experience other cultures, try to understand other people’s views, and empathize with one another as a result of shared experience, we will all be better off.

Despite all of the challenges, attending graduate school in a foreign country was the best decision we could have made, and we’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

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Brenna O’Connor now works in publishing for Penguin Random House in New York City. Olivia Earenfight works for a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.

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