McKenna Johnsen - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

Traveling abroad to a foreign country on my own without knowing anything about their language and culture completely scared me, which is exactly why I knew I had to do it. I wanted the chance to push myself outside my comfort zone, meet new people, and explore new lands. Studying abroad would give me the opportunity to travel, eat delicious new foods, and learn how to be truly independent. When else in my life would I be able to easily move to another country without breaking my bank account? I knew since the beginning of college that adventures were out there in the world, and I made it my goal to seek them out.

John Lennon Wall, Prague, Czech Republic

Being tourists at the John Lennon Wall

Why did you choose AIFS?

AIFS is one of the most well-known programs used by students at my home university. The cost was affordable and I had dozens of options to choose from. They promised me housing, meals, and excursions, what more could I ask for? When looking at the online reviews, I am not the only person that thought this way. Everyone loves AIFS, and after four months of living abroad, it is obvious why they thought so. After deciding on AIFS, I simply pulled up their map with all the destinations that I could travel to, and picked one at random. There was no way to go wrong with an AIFS program.

What was your favorite part about Prague, Czech Republic?

Prague is a city right in the heart of Europe. From this place, my options for traveling were limitless. I got to take a plane or bus nearly every weekend to a new country, but with that said, I came to realize that the most beautiful cities on the entire continent were right there in the Czech Republic.

My favorite part of the country was hiking. Not many people know this, but Czech is famous for having some of the most well-marked trails in Europe, making it easy for travelers like myself to explore them. Whenever I had a free weekend, I jumped on a train or bus and ventured to a random area of the country, where I proceeded to hike for hours on end through trees, across rivers, and beside 200 year old monuments. On my hiking trips I saw markings on trees dating back to the 1800s, held a hawk that belonged to a local, ate at a random restaurant in the middle of nowhere, and scaled the walls of castle ruins. While the city life is magnificent in itself, I truly fell in love with the sounds, sights, and smells of fresh air and grass I got to experience throughout the lesser-known parts of the country.

What made your study abroad experience unique?

Coming on this study abroad journey in Europe, I quickly realized that while most people had traveled here before, I was the so-called odd-man-out. I had never been to Europe before, or any country outside of North America for that matter. While these other students quickly adjusted to life abroad, I took a lot longer to embrace all the changes.

Things constantly went wrong; I lost my bags, I forgot my pass and got fined by the tram police, and I often found myself lost in a random part of this huge city. After five months of living in the Czech Republic, I have learned to accept that in life things are bound to go wrong sometimes. I have learned so much more through these crazy experiences, and in the end I am extremely thankful that I was taught this life lesson.

I now know how to survive on my own in a foreign city. I can communicate with hand gestures, navigate using a paper map, and I plan for adventures days or weeks in advance. While I may have started out with a disadvantage, studying abroad allowed me to adapt to change and learn from mistakes.

Trdelnik in Prague, Czech Repubic

Trdelnik in hand, standing on the Charles Bridge watching the sunset over the Prague Castle

How did the local AIFS staff support you throughout your program?

I have no idea how I would have survived without the help of my AIFS staff. There were countless times where I felt stressed or overwhelmed, and they were there 100 percent of the time to support me and put a smile back on my face. I've never experienced such friendly and welcoming people. The staff showed me where to buy food or supplies, how to navigate transportation, and even told us about all the cultural experiences taking place each week. They provided us with guided tours, ballet and opera tickets, and even gave us free coffee and cake from local cafes. The AIFS staff here in Prague have only had a positive impact on me, and I can only hope that I will be able to repay them one day.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

If I were to do this experience again, I would have found a way to meet more Czech locals. My day-to-day experiences included brief interactions with them on tram rides, at the grocery store, or at the local dance club, though it is hard to communicate while music is blasting. Toward the end of my program I had the chance to go to a local Prague woman's house for a home-cooked meal. She told stories about her life growing up in communist times and all the crazy things that have happened to her while living in the Czech Republic. I learned about their history, education, and unique forms of art. Hearing from this woman changed my outlook in many ways, and I wish that I had more opportunities like that to speak to other Czech individuals.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

My day started early, around 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. (for a college student that is early!). I threw on my workout clothes, and ventured out to the local park for a morning run. I ran through mud, grass, and playgrounds, dodging people on horses as well as hundreds of ducks and dogs off leashes.

Afterward, I hopped on a tram that took me past the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and the Vltava River to the primary school or high school, depending on the day. I taught the students English as well as presented on my life back at home, allowing them the chance to teach me about their lives and how it is different.

From there, I went to class at Charles University, where I studied European history, literature, and philosophy. Between classes I sat in a coffee shop and relaxed with soup or a quiche. Once classes finished, I ran errands and made my way back home. On a good day, my friends and I would finish the evening with dancing for hours at the club.

Castle ruins in the Czech Republic

Exploring castle ruins, just a casual day in the Czech Republic

What was your favorite thing to do in your free time?

My favorite thing to do in my free time was to get lost. I love exploring new places, so whenever I had the chance I would set out on a walk or a random tram, and see where the journey would take me. I found residential neighborhoods, big parks, and new cafes. It felt relaxing to have my own agenda and to walk without a destination. I learned more about the city through these adventures than I would have if I had chosen to simply google the top things to do and went there instead.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

My accommodation was both a hotel and dormitory. I enjoyed having a mix of people from around the world. Most students living there attended CVUT, the local technical college, so I got the chance to meet people outside my American program and meet people from Asia, Africa, and other European countries.

My favorite part about my accommodation was the gym. Yes, I know this sounds strange, but the gym is a great way to meet people. This gym in the dorm was small, with a maximum of six people that could enter it at one time. In between exercises, I would talk to the people I met at the gym. I joined a group of guys for an ab workout a few months back, and they have been my close friends ever since.

What is one thing every participant should know before studying abroad in Prague?

There is no possible way to be completely prepared for the journey ahead. You either bring too many things, or you forget tons of items back home and will spend hours trying to navigate your way through the store despite the fact that everything is in a foreign language. When entering the city for the first time, there are so many unknowns and you will learn as you go.

The key to a good study abroad experience is to stay positive.

There is no use letting the small things get to you, so rather than stressing, know that hundreds of people like myself have been in your situation, and before long you will figure everything out and be able to get by on your own just like we did. It is all worth it.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Traveling is so easy in Europe #cliffsofmoher

Now that you're home, how has your time in the Czech Republic impacted your life?

Just before I left my program, I was coached on how to deal with culture shock, but I had no way of knowing how big of a deal this would truly be. Abroad, I felt my life changing on a daily basis. My perspectives on the world and its people were different, and I had gained an entirely new sense of independence. I traveled every weekend, ate new foods, and found new adventures. There was no "typical week" because every week was different.

Coming home, things were nearly the exact same as when I left five months earlier; my family works everyday, my friends still go to school and have the same hobbies. Since coming back from studying abroad, I now see the importance of mixing things up. You won't learn and grow by doing the same things all the time, and now I try my best to seek new experiences rather than sticking to the same old routine I've had for years before going abroad.

Would you recommend AIFS’s program in Prague to others? Why?

I would absolutely recommend AIFS, without a doubt. This program provided the exact leadership I needed to thrive in an unknown city. Having other students around that I know are going through the exact same struggles as myself boosted my happiness. The staff welcomed me with open arms, and any time I had a problem they were the first people I would go to. I am incredibly thankful that they taught me about anything from where to buy kitchen supplies to the entire history of the Czech Republic through guided tours they provided to us. They also gave us chocolate sometimes, so I'm just about as equally thrilled about that (anyone that knows me is aware that I have an obsession with chocolate).