The Importance of Valuing Study Abroad Opportunities
Old Gold & Black
Guest Columnist
Thursday, March 1, 2018

Early last year, my older son, Ethan, then a sophomore at Wake Forest University, announced to my wife Laurie and me that he planned to spend fall semester of 2017 in Copenhagen.  Yes, Copenhagen.

“Denmark?” I asked. “Who goes to Denmark?”

“Haven’t you heard that the happiest people on Earth live in Denmark?”

“How is that possible, Eth?” asked Laurie.  “Isn’t it dark there like 90 percent of the time, except during summer?”

So Copenhagen might not have been my first choice; I feel that since humans are thought to have first roamed the Earth in warm places like East Africa, Southern Africa and the Middle East, it’s simply unnatural for them to literally be left out in the cold.  The Israeli-American in me thinks that spending a semester in Tel-Aviv eating falafel and sipping on gin and tonics on the beach with my sometimes-arrogant-but-always-entertaining people sounds spectacular.   

Turns out that, despite its unforgiving climate, Ethan was right about the Danish happiness assessment. Year after year Denmark ranks among the world’s happiest counties, according to economic, health and polling data tabulated by the UN-sanctioned World Happiness Report (yes, it’s an actual thing), and based on a people who are refreshingly trusting of their fellow countrymen and their own government.   

Ultimately Ethan did end up in utopian Denmark this past semester and he enjoyed his time there immensely.  He’s also saw no less than 10 other European countries during weekend jaunts, and he took away something special with each trip.  Though Laurie and I have cringed at the sight of his (our) credit card bills (who knew Oktoberfest had that much beer), we continue to bite our tongues in order to have lived vicariously through his experiences, and physically through our own visit to Copenhagen over Thanksgiving break.  Danes have even remedied their harsh environment, not only with alcohol, but also through the concept of “hygge,” pronounced “hoo-gah”, and loosely translated as coziness. Each café, home, store, fireplace and restaurant is more charming than the next, with special attention paid to presentation (perfectly-shaped, delicious, fresh Danishes, and perfectly-lit, abundant scented candles) and warm clothes (unapologetically colorful cashmere socks and sweaters). Breathtakingly clean streets and outdoor Christmas markets only accentuate this special effect.

If it seems as though I’m jealous of Ethan’s experiences this past semester, well, I am.  While we may have chosen different destinations, ultimately the shared goal is to have embraced another culture, another climate, another perspective, that will have contributed to personal growth, and that will be remembered for a lifetime.

In the 1980s, I rushed through my experience as a pre-med zoology major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I specifically chose to forgo my chance to attend a semester in Israel because I didn’t want the opportunity to prevent me from graduating a semester early, as there were really no “zoology abroad” programs available at the time. I did eventually graduate a semester “ahead”; it was a real hoot treading water and marking time by working in Madison for the first few frozen months of 1987 for minimum wage as a salesman at a strip-mall camera shop and as a busboy at a strip-mall Italian restaurant.  Fun times; I promise you I will not take finer photographs, cook better meals, or retire earlier as a result.

I knew I wanted to become a physician since early childhood, and there were clearly advantages to being focused in my youth; as I lacked a photographic memory, I relied on sheer determination to survive organic chemistry classes with hundreds of overly-competitive aspiring neurosurgeons and cardiologists. However, my overemphasis on delayed gratification left a void in my “spiritual” education.  Only after rushing through medical school, internship, residency and fellowship did I come to the conclusion that my life would have been enriched by immersing myself temporarily in the pursuit of something other than medicine, like traveling, writing, or even learning to play the banjo (Ethan’s newest passion).

Lamentation aside, it’s never too late to take that metaphorical plunge; get on that plane, start typing that manuscript, grab that banjo, capture that hygge moment.  There will always be time for work, but one must make time for a dream.

Ron Bahar, MD, is a pediatric gastroenterologist and novelist who now lives in Los Angeles.