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Andie Bent: Studying Abroad ‘Empowering’

08/03/2017 3:34 pm

Andie Bent: Studying Abroad ‘Empowering’

Aug 3, 2017 | Catalyst, Global Affairs | 1 comment

Andie Bent had not experienced much outside her “vinyl-sided neighborhood” in small-town Roscoe, Ill., when she enrolled at Rockford University. Now a senior, she has visited more than 20 European cities in the past year, spending her last two semesters abroad at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

“I knew from the beginning of college—the idea was in my head,” Andie explained chatting via Skype in an interview from her apartment. “My mom kind of put it in my head, because she knew about the opportunity to study in London when my brother went to Rockford University. He didn’t take the opportunity and she was always mad at him secretly.”

A marketing major and graphic design minor, Andie started pondering the idea more seriously while she was enjoying her experience in a Spanish class. She talked to RU Director of Global Affairs Sam Bandy, who spent about six years studying abroad and teaching in Ecuador, where he also met his wife and started a family.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you go to Spain and learn a second language while you’re at it, instead of going to London?’”

After a brief introduction to international travel—thanks to a two-week field experience in Madrid through a Spanish theatre course—Andie was hooked. She is even considering a second major, Spanish, “if I can complete it all in time.”

Learning to adapt
In addition to trekking across Spain, she has since visited neighboring Portugal, as well as Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom—yes, her trip to London happened, after all. Pressed to pick a favorite, she would choose Barcelona—where by happenchance she took a tour throughout the city of architect Antoni Gaudí’s work. She was swept up by the creatures, colors and curved lines of his creations, as well as his polarizing legacy.

“Being an artist, a graphic design artist, I’ve heard it before—if your work isn’t controversial, then you’re not doing something right,” she said. “Gaudi’s architecture is unique, and kind of weird. He is the heart of Barcelona.”

Pushing the limits has been a sort of theme for Andie in her travels, who adopted the phrase “your comfort zone equals your success zone” early on when she was constantly adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings. Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Spain’s northwest Galicia region, has its own dialect of Spanish, and the university boasts more than 40,000 students.

“I told myself that all the time,” she said. “You’re going to be uncomfortable, but you’re going to make it work.”

Day in the life
Her first trip out to dinner, Andie and a roommate were perplexed to find not a single open restaurant kitchen around 5 p.m., an hour when many Americans traditionally are feasting on their supper but most of Spain is taking a break for its “siesta” period. Now, Andie and her roommates—Rockford University classmate Bianca Martinez-Franco and a Chilean exchange student —live like locals, “not eating dinner until 9 o’clock, even in the house.”

A vegetarian, Andie has found options for her diet and favorite restaurants even in a place where fresh cuts of ham hang in storefront windows and you can buy “pulpo Gallego” (Galician octopus) on just about every corner. A couple of her go-to dishes have included “caldo,” a traditional soup usually made with white beans, and a tapas bar staple—a tortilla stuffed with eggs and potatoes. But her favorite Spanish comestible?

“Chocolate con churros is at every café, and I struggle saying no to those,” she said. “Their hot chocolate isn’t watery like ours—I don’t know what we’re doing in America!”

Into her own
Early on, Andie relied on her membership in the local chapter of the Erasmus Programme for international students to meet people at weekly mixers and get ideas on where to travel through organized overnight and day trips. Now, on a whim she’ll backpack solo for a week across Brussels, Amsterdam and Germany. Her adventures among new faces and places have sparked not only wonder about the rich histories around her, but about her own story.

“I started to think about, what’s American culture?” she said. “What’s my Italian, Irish, English heritage, and where does that fit into that?”

With some help from her mother, Andie traced the lineage of a great-grandfather back to Pescocostanzo, a town of 2,000 in central Italy that makes Roscoe look big. Inspired by her family’s past, she decided to join a class from Rockford University about to embark on a post-semester trip to Rome. She covered all of her transportation costs for less than $170, spending two nights in Milan, two in Florence and three in Rome. At her last stop, she regaled the new travelers in the RU student group with tales of making friends throughout the week with a Scot, New Zealander and Frenchwoman.

“I encouraged them all to take on a solo trip, even if it is in the U.S.,” she said. “I have learned that it is really empowering to go to a foreign place and figure it out.”

‘A good journey’
Andie dreams of someday rounding up her family and returning to Pescocostanzo to “walk the streets of my great grandpa,” but once she graduates, she is hopeful to stay in Rockford to launch her career.

“I really love Rockford, and the University. Entering that community and getting involved outside of campus as well, I’ve met so many passionate people who are proactive about changing the world, changing our city,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what I want to do, but I suspect I’ll be in the Rockford area for a while because I have built up such a great network of colleagues and friends. I’m really passionate about the transformation that’s occurring in the city.”

As far as where she would like to settle long term, Andie figured she would have narrowed it down to fewer options at this point, but she had discovered the more she sees, the more potential she finds.

“I thought traveling would help me, but it’s made it worse because there are so many beautiful places, people and cultures,” she added. “Now I have no idea where I’ll end up, but I’ll have a good journey figuring it out.”