By the time I left home to spend the spring 2019 semester in Budapest, I was pretty confident I had the whole study abroad thing figured out. I’d already traveled to China with 80 other freshmen through Marshall’s Global Leadership Program and spent the following summer working in an internship in Taiwan, and through these experiences I had grown comfortable visiting and living in new places. I also knew countless people who had studied abroad in the past, and used their tall tales as an inspiration to plan my own grandiose travels across Europe; I was ready for a semester of rapid jet setting, frequent Instagramming, and bucket list fulfillment.
To be clear, my expectations weren’t necessarily wrong – I did travel to some of the most incredible places in Europe. Ironically, though, the place that most stands out in my mind when I think back on my experience is not a Swiss mountaintop nor a Montenegrin beach, not a Slovakian castle nor a Serbian church, not a Hungarian ruin bar nor a Barcelonan club, nor even the Croatian taxidermy frog museum (this really exists, and yes, it is wonderful). Instead, it is Siofok, a small, ordinary lake town in the Hungarian countryside.
This is because what made my study abroad experience truly special was not the places I visited, but the people I visited them with.
For some background, unlike most other large U.S. universities, USC does not send its exchange students off in massive cohorts that are isolated in their own classrooms and dorms. Instead, I went to Budapest with a small group of Marshall students (6 of us), and we were lucky enough to participate in the general exchange program with a few hundred students from around the world. I met students from several different countries and got to truly experience what it is like to be a student in Europe, while establishing close friendships that I never expected to make.
It is with many of these friends that I traveled to Siofok, capping the semester off with an amazing weekend at Lake Balaton in Western Hungary. About 30 of us – French, Dutch, American, German, Swiss, Finnish, Pakistani, Kiwi, and Mexican – rented out two houses and spent the weekend hanging out by the lake and partying at night. It still remember fondly many of the small parts of this trip: house breakfasts out on the balcony; playing soccer by the lake; the local club that was completely dead until our arrival; the Siofok residents’ complete confusion with our group’s existence.
This trip brought me closer to several people who I still consider friends, and even though we are now all scattered across the globe, we will always remember the trip to Lake Balaton. No other trip I made while abroad impacted me personally the way this weekend in small-town Hungary did. In many ways, this is the magic of international experiences in college: while you will undoubtedly visit many big, famous places, your experiences will in many ways be defined by the small, unique moments and the relationships you make along the way.