The majority of students on campus consider studying abroad a fundamental component of a Wake Forest education.
The abroad experience is designed to help students grow, as many students live alone for the first time, learn to navigate public transportation, buy groceries and cook for themselves, legally drink alcohol and meet people from around the world. These reasons, and countless others, help explain why 66 percent of Wake Forest students study abroad during their time at school.
Yet, most students typically opt to study abroad some time during their junior year, as they have two years on campus completed and will get to enjoy another full year and a half upon returning to the U.S. Until this past year, this was not only a personal choice, it was university-mandated to be on campus for one’s first year. This fall was the inaugural year of the Global AWAKEnings program, initiating incoming freshman to spend an entire year abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“I decided that I wanted to spend my freshman year in Copenhagen because I wanted an opportunity to change and to grow in all aspects of my life,” said freshman Kira Tabor, a member of the freshman class in Copenhagen. “By living in another country, I get to step outside of my comfort zone and totally immerse into another culture as a chance to challenge my intellectual perspectives.”
Whether desire to travel, desire to grow, desire to learn or to experience new cultures, the students that decided to spend their first year in a foreign country all came for unique reasons. Colleen Riley, another member of the program, looked at the various humanities courses she would take before deciding to commit.
“I intend to study science, but also wanted a chance to see other things before I committed to that,” Riley said. “I really wanted the chance to learn about the topics that were offered here.” While still fully immersed in the city, the students get aspects of normalcy in their lives as they all live together, take their classes together and travel together. However, the students that decide to spend their first year abroad are maturing and gaining independence earlier than their peers on campus. “Everything about my life here is so different,” Tabor said. “I buy all my own groceries, I take the metro, I ride a bike, I live in an apartment; I have so much independence, but with all of this I have to remember that I am still a freshman.”
Now assimilated members of Danish society, when they first arrived to Denmark the students were just like other freshman arriving to campus on move-in day.
Hesitant, beyond their comfort zone and unfamiliar with who would become their peers for the next few years of their lives, the group of students that came to Copenhagen together have since grown individually and as a group.
Wake Forest is partnering with the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) for their program to help arrange housing, classes and travel. Zoe Kilbourne is the DIS liaison connecting the students to life in Denmark and has worked with them throughout their semester.
“As with many students who first arrive in Copenhagen, there is a sense of hesitation to explore outside of the parameters of their classroom,” Kilbourne said. “Now they are traveling on the weekends, interacting and discussing topics of Danish culture with fluidity and bringing the experiential learning and classroom experiences together.”
As Global AWAKEnings is still in its first year, there is room to further grow in order to continue its established success.
For first year students, it takes coming to terms with missing out on a conventional freshman year and having a unique college experience.
“I see photos on social media of Wake Forest students going to football games, rolling the Quad, decorating their dorm or even the late-night snaps at the ZSR Library under a pile of classwork and I do feel like I am missing out on the foundational year of my Wake Forest experience,” Tabor said.
Another key element to a conventional freshman year is meeting hundreds of new people from around the country and even the world.
While still being introduced to new American and Danish students, the tight-knit group of freshman spend most of their time together.
They live in the same dorm, take all of the same classes and even travel around Europe as a group. Some have even implied they plan to live together upon returning to campus.
Samantha Horowitz is another first-year in the program. Very vocal and active online about her experience, she embodies the spirit of “Deacs Abroad,” as her Instagram feed is filled with pictures of the group in Copenhagen and around the continent. She also, however, recognizes that her experience is different than that of her peers back in Winston-Salem.
“In the beginning, it was hard working with the same students that I lived with; it always felt like there was an underlying competition amongst us,” Horowitz said. “However, as the year progressed, I’ve learned to utilize the class structure to my advantage and collaborate with my fellow Demon Deacons on various assignments.”
There are benefits and drawbacks to creating one’s own freshman year.
Some freshmen expressed fears about missing research opportunities and others about missing Wake ‘n’ Shake, Project Pumpkin or Hit the Bricks.
Similarly, the students and administrators recognize these shortcomings and have adapted the program accordingly.
David Taylor, the assistant dean for Global Study Abroad, was the administrator in charge of brainstorming and developing the Copenhagen freshman program. Though still in Winston-Salem, Taylor has been working with the students and faculty while abroad in Denmark. Prior to their departure, the first year students travelled to the Reynolda Campus for orientation to learn about Wake Forest traditions and how to be Demon Deacons.
“Further, on Dec. 3, the Global AWAKEnings students will watch the live stream of Lovefeast, partake of the Lovefeast meal and light their candles,” Taylor said. “Similarly, a Wake ‘n’ Shake Copenhagen is being planned for March.”
Regardless of the challenges involved with studying abroad as a first-year Wake Forest student, those that decided to do the program made their choices intentionally.
Eventually they will return to campus to reintegrate with the Wake Forest community, but for now they still have another semester to continue to grow and explore Europe.
“My favorite part of studying here is seeing what I learn in the classroom come to life,” Tabor said. “Being here has truly changed how I see the world — I know now that everything around me has some kind of meaning and I love constantly analyzing my surroundings because I no longer take them for granted.”