A boomer did a senior year abroad… as a senior

Sometimes, as an active generation of baby boomers, we still do new things. Sometimes we do old things differently. That’s what Stuart Brotman of Knoxville, Tennessee, did a few years ago. He’d had a junior year abroad forty years ago and this time he turned it around. As a bonafide senior, he did a senior year abroad.

It had been 40 years since my college junior year abroad in London.

That memorable chapter in my life opened my mind to new possibilities. It exposed me to numerous different sights and sounds, especially at the neighborhood pub, listening to a great rock band with the unlikely name of Brinsley Schwarz. The exhilaration I awoke with every day, combined with my constant need to cope in unfamiliar surroundings, taught me the critical life lesson that it would be okay to leave my comfort zone every now and then.

Brinsley Schwarz and his group. Schwarz is on the right.

Decades later, as I was about to turn 60, all I kept thinking about was how to bring back those feelings of openness to the world from that special time now long in the past. Blessed with good health, a wonderful family, and a successful career, I began to consider whether I could adapt my experience of youth in an age-appropriate way. I didn’t want to relive what was long gone. Instead, I wanted to create an homage that would reflect who I am now.

As in college, I wanted to embark on this journey by myself, but now with the support of my wife and three adult children. Quite simply, I wanted to live outside the U.S. again, to continue having vigorous intellectual stimulation, to make new friends (at this age?), and to immerse myself in cultures that would be foreign to me in the truest sense of that term. I really wanted a senior year abroad.

Having been an active alumnus of Northwestern University for many years, I accepted an offer to teach at Northwestern’s only overseas campus, in Doha, Qatar. My expertise in media law and ethics was a perfect fit for a region of the world where there was no tradition of free speech or free press. It would be akin to teaching English as a second language.

Waterfront in Doha Qatar with traditional wooden small ships known as dhow and city skyline.

Alas, I was back in college again, but in a different role. I was challenged by my students and had plenty of new friends, ranging from 27 to 72 years old. My students, dressed in religious and Western garb, hailed from countries I only had read about at home with apprehension— Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. We often bonded together as strangers in a strange land, gathering for weekly pizza parties to watch episodes of Homeland that were downloaded on Apple TV.

In all, during my senior year abroad redux, I traveled to 18 countries, ranging from Azerbaijan to Vietnam. I even crossed over the line to North Korean territory for 15 minutes during a DMZ tour, under the close watch of armed military guards. I was in planes, trains and automobiles— along with buses, dhow boats, canoes, gondolas, and donkey carts. I even strapped on a helmet and revved up for a motorcycle ride in a village outside Ho Chi Minh City.

Stuart Brotman today.

During a magical May weekend in Stockholm after the semester ended, I boarded a motor boat reconfigured as a floating pub, with rocking live music on the upper deck as we cruised around the city’s waterways. I sat in the front row as a band called Ducks Deluxe performed raucously. Each member took a bow individually during the first of four encores. The last to step forward was someone who looked strangely familiar. “Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the legendary Brinsley Schwarz.”

I always knew that my senior year abroad, like my junior year abroad so long ago, was designed to have a beginning and an end. It was all the sweeter because I could savor every moment as it happened.

When I returned home, many in my age group were beginning to downsize their life experiences. But my senior year abroad moved me in another direction— more enthusiastic to learn and to engage actively with the wider world.

1 Comment

  1. I never had the option of a senior year abroad in college. But on my 61st birthday, my husband and I stepped off the plane in Bologna, Italy for our own one-year adventure. Rather than using it as a base for travel throughout Europe, we planned to spend our time living in a non-English-dominated city to live like ordinary Italians. Within a few months, we’d moved to Parma, now the city of my heart. Like Stuart, we made lifelong friends in their 20’s through 70’s.

    As retired folks, we spent our days doing ordinary things–biking to the store, attending local concerts, getting haircuts, enjoying festivals and other celebrations, traveling by train and with friends to explore the country, and searching for “real” Italian bread. Although we never became fluent, our Italian helped us have a more authentic experience.

    The year changed our lives. Had we known how we would have stayed. When we returned, we decided to move from our quiet home. We wrote a book, Not in a Tuscan Villa, about our experience and cultural observations which has inspired hundreds to travel in our footsteps, a few to move abroad, and thousands to journey with us in their minds. That too, has changed our lives and opened an entirely new, and unexpected, avenue of exploration and adventure for us. We’re now writing our third travel memoir. Our motto for any senior with a dream….Just do it.

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