The Necessity of Solitude and Reflection in Learning (Study Abroad #2)
This is the second post in a 5-part series about my study abroad experience in college. I went to Sydney, Australia for a semester in 2009. I also wrote about why I decided to go abroad, how I started my first blog, and staying present in modern phone culture, and the learning edge.
The jacaranda trees were in gorgeous purple bloom. Raindrops coated their petals and pitter-pattered on my umbrella. I could smell the wet bricks on the path. As I tried to step over the next puddle instead of in it, a gust of wind released a fresh set of drips from the leaves above me. My tennis shoes squished.
I walked alone. I was downtown, exploring some new section of Sydney, Australia near the end of my college semester abroad. Alone was fine. As Dr. Seuss once put it, "All alone! Whether you like it or not, alone will be something you'll be quite a lot." (Hey, what can I say, I read lots of picture books these days.) I didn't mind being alone. Alone is not the same as lonely. Alone is solitude. Alone is time for rest and reflection. Alone is necessary.
Learning in Outdoor Education
One of the classes I took that semester was called Learning in Outdoor Education. Most people signed up for the class because it included hiking trips to the Royal National Park and the Blue Mountains. That was definitely part of the appeal for me, too, but I also had a strong interest in learning and in learning about how people learn.
The class used trips to parks and mountains as a setting for discussing theories of constructivism, experiential learning, and group formation. One of the theories we covered, the Kolb cycle, highlighted the cyclic nature of experiencing, reviewing and reflecting, learning from the experience, and planning for future experiences. That cycle made a lot of sense to me that semester. My time abroad was a long period of review and reflection after two years of intense study, competition, and experiencing. It also had the cycle within it: my adventures, exploring Sydney and the hills beyond, meeting new people; journaling as I went; reflecting and learning from the experience—including reflection now, over a decade later.
In my final reflection paper for that class, I wrote:
After the first Learning in Outdoor Education lecture, I noted, "The class sounds like it'll be great. I had the same feeling walking out of the classroom as I did after the first lecture of my introductory cognitive science course: I'm excited." I was excited about the prospect of finding new ways of seeing my experiences, and about gaining another piece to add to my puzzle of how people learn and interact.
For me, this class was an exercise in introspection and reflection. It was engaging. I realized the first day that what I got out of the class would be proportional to what I put into it.
And near the conclusion of the paper:
The experience isn't just about what you learn while you're out there—it's not just hearing aboriginal legends and gaining an appreciation of Australian culture, or observing group development as it happens. It's also about the time spent reflecting on the experience ... What happened? Why did it happen? How did you feel about how it happened? What were the consequences? What could you do differently or better next time?
A walk between beaches
The water sparkled, the sun glimmering on waves rolling across the long white beach. Because it was still early spring, few people populated the sand. I could imagine how busy summer was, with sun-tanned crowds smelling of sunscreen and sweat shoving their way through Sydney's sweltering December days. Shirtless young men would challenge each other to countless rounds of beach volleyball while their girlfriends lay on long towels collecting the sun's hot rays. Children would scream and shout as they splashed in the water. Sand castles would be built up and destroyed.
But it wasn't summer yet. I wore my burgundy Vassar fencing sweatshirt, long pants, and tennis shoes. The path winding along the rocks from Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach was cut with wind, chilling the day further. Maybe the sun would bring some heat later. My plan was to walk the whole 6km before catching a bus back to the city. I had brought my bookbag stocked with journal, water, and lunch.
I found a spot to sit with my journal, on a bench along the rocks, looking down at the ocean. At this time of year, a series of sculptures were set up along the trail for the annual the Sculpture by the Sea event. I could see one of the sculptures, a bemusing tangle of large, curving metal rods, from where I sat.
So many people talked about their semesters abroad like those months were a blur of parties, wild adventures, and new best friends. Mine was more like this trail along the water: full of reflection, learning. New friends, too, and certainly an adventure, but mostly, a slower kind of adventure.
Traveling and reflection
Traveling has often included journaling and reflection for me. Perhaps it's because travel exists in a different plane than the rest of life, outside of my usual routines and habits. As a teenager, I'd pick up a pen during sailing vacations with my dad. The salty air, warm breezes, and relaxed pace lent themselves to contemplation.
Throughout my college years, in between semesters, you'd frequently find me curled in an airport chair, notebook in hand, ignoring the loudspeaker announcements and watching people scurry to catch their flights. I'd be in a window seat on the train from Grand Central to the end of the line at Poughkeepsie, writing as the city shrank into suburbs, and the suburbs collapsed into green countryside slowly chugging by. My junior year, I also spent one quiet weekend at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, a little interlude in the midst of a busy semester.
I have a vivid memory of one time I flew back to San Francisco from New York. The rest of the airplane was trying hard to be asleep: muffled coughs, the occasional snore, a passenger quietly asking the flight attendant for a cup of water, a baby crying. The loud hum of the engines. The slow hiss of the fan above my seat. I remember looking out the dark double-paned plastic window at the stars and feeling the cold pushing against the pane. I held a pen in my hand. My notebook was open on the tray table beside an empty pretzel bag. I snuggled into my Vassar sweatshirt and thought about life, the universe, and everything.
Whether traveling across the continent or between continents, in college or before or after, those moments between activities are one of my favorite kinds of in-betweens. Travel time exists as a blurry boundary between here and there, then and future. It's the sunset feeling; the feeling of ending, beginning, change, and possibility wrapped into one. It's quiet time. It's time not allocated for anything else.
That semester in Sydney, I spent a lot of time thinking. I learned about being alone with myself. I considered my direction of study, the busy semester that would follow, the relationships I was forming, and so much more. It was a semester exactly as fascinating and full of learning as I'd hoped it would be.