Study abroad opens up world for 2007 Moffat County High School graduate
January 5, 2010
If you go
What: 2010 Financial Aid Meetings for high school seniors and parents
When: 6 p.m. today
Where: Library at Moffat County High School, 900 Finley Lane.
When 20-year-old Kaleb McKey pulled into Craig in mid-December, the scene that greeted him was just what he had been hoping for.
"All I wanted to do was see my parents, my dog, and come home for a white Christmas," McKey said.
The week before, he had a Christmas tree and plenty of holiday spirit, but it was summer in Adelaide, Australia, and it wasn't the same without snow.
After four months studying abroad as a Colorado State University junior, he said the warmth he felt coming home to his family was everything he wanted.
Upon return, he stayed out late with high school friends, went snowboarding and traveled to see family. The beaches of Australia were thousands of miles away, literally and in his mind.
"You can make friends anywhere you go," he said. "But you can't replace the memories of the people you grew up with."
But you can add to them, and that's what McKey's four-month adventure in education did for him.
With the help of the study abroad office at his school, scholarships and loans, McKey was able to live in a place he could only describe as "paradise."
At 6 p.m. today, Moffat County High School counselors will host the 2010 Financial Aid Meetings in the library. Students and their parents are encouraged to attend to start looking at ways to find their own version of paradise.
For McKey, his semester didn't just offer the traditional face of paradise with white sand and palm trees, but the experience of exploration, learning and immersion.
"Everything was just so new," he said. "It's like re-doing freshman year. You're in a completely new place, you're not familiar with anything, and you get pushed out of your comfort zone. People would just ask, 'Hey, where are you from,' or 'What are you doing tonight?'"
When he arrived in Adelaide, where his university was located, he didn't have a place to live.
At one of the first meet-and-greets through his program, he met Didrik, from Norway, who would become his roommate and best "mate."
By the end of the semester, they had agreed to go to each other's weddings someday.
During the semester, McKey rode elephants in Bali and learned how to surf.
He took classes at the university on outdoor education and group dynamics, and trekked through the Australian bush among kangaroos and koala bears.
But most importantly, he interacted with people and cultures from around the world.
"I think it's really easy to get comfortable with what you know," he said. "There are language barriers, which can be really frustrating. There's immigrants everywhere, and they're all speaking their own language. But I met so many people from Europe, like England and France. And by the end of the semester, we all had the same jokes."
He said he always had known a thing or two about geography, usually the names of the countries and where they are on a map.
But when he met and spent time with students from those countries, he found he learned much more, such as when Didrik would tell him about the history of Norway.
"They have a lot of pride in their countries," McKey said. "The way he talked about Norway, I just fell in love with it."
He said after hearing stories from his parents about traveling, he was inspired to study abroad.
"The biggest thing that changed is that it got me thinking outside America," he said. "I never thought much about going outside America except for going down to Mexico for spring break or something. I thought we had it pretty sweet. But now I have so many great friends from Europe, and I can't wait to save up the money and do all of Europe."
Not only was he immersed in an international social environment, he also was immersed in a part of the natural world that he had never seen before.
His parents, instead of paying for a trip to visit their son, sent him on a four-day scuba diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
He learned about reef ecology, different kinds of coral and how it grows, and how the reefs need to be protected from destructive forces.
"It's more beautiful than any city or anything we've ever built," he said.
McKey said there were times during his adventures he contemplated giving up school, packing a backpack and traveling the world.
He wanted to keep experiencing the wonders of travel that he had during his months down under.
"It really crossed my mind — maybe I'll just drop everything and be a jet ski rental guy or something," he said.
But it was on his trip home, somewhere between Sydney and Los Angeles, when reality began to sink back in, and the importance of his next few years at CSU began to come into focus.
"I guess I just started to see the bigger picture," he said. "And that bigger picture is to finish my education and get a great paying job so I can take all these trips."
He said he knows how fortunate he was — that with the support of his parents, he was able to study abroad — but he knows the issue is often a financial one for many students looking to expand their horizons.
"There's a lot of help out there," he said. "I had a lot of scholarships, and there's financial aid. It's not like you have to be a straight-A student or anything."
McKey said he knows he might be paying off loans for his four-year degree for a long time to come, but what he took and will continue to take away from his educational experience is more than worth it.
"You can't put a price on an experience like that," he said. "It's expensive to go, but you get to push yourself and open up to new things. It's priceless."