Before the summer of 2017, Alexis Bates had never boarded a plane. Now, she can’t stop booking tickets to crisscross the globe.
In just two years, Bates, a senior majoring in liberal studies, has become a seasoned international traveler thanks to her participation in four University of Missouri–St. Louis study abroad programs.
Between the summers of 2017 and 2019, she has journeyed to Belgium, China, France, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. You would never know it looking at her passport full of stamps, but there was a time when studying abroad – traveling in general – seemed out of reach to Bates.
To study abroad or not to study abroad
Many schools featured study abroad programs prominently when Bates was vetting colleges. Still, they didn’t seem particularly accessible.
“I thought it was something only a few people would do,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a big thing. I just didn’t think I would have the opportunity to do it.”
Bates thought, maybe, she would do one study abroad program by the time she was set to graduate from UMSL. Little did she know an opportunity would present itself much sooner.
Toward the end of Bates’ freshman year, Sandra Trapani, her French professor, told her about a summer study abroad program in Strasbourg, France. Trapani directs the three-week program, which involves language classes and excursions to learn about the history and culture of the city.
She encouraged Bates to apply for it. Although she doesn’t recall all of the details leading up to the trip, there is one thing she sensed clearly at the time.
“I think she wanted to go abroad and see something outside of her view in St. Louis,” Trapani said.
Bates applied – albeit a little reluctantly – and to her surprise, she was accepted.
“Even when I got accepted, I was like ‘No, I’m not going to go,’ because no one in my family had a passport,” Bates said. “I couldn’t get help from someone like that. It was me doing things on my own.”
To fund the trip, Bates applied for, and received, the Bob Baumann Prize for International Studies. The scholarship provided $2,000 for her travels. That turned out to be the easy part.
The process of applying for a passport was fraught, requiring a mountain of paperwork and numerous phone calls. Bates threw herself into the process, and Trapani helped her as much as possible, but it almost wasn’t enough.
Officials called shortly before the trip; there was a problem with the passport photo.
“It was so frustrating,” Bates said, recalling the situation. “I wanted to cry every single day.”
With her dream of traveling abroad in jeopardy, Bates persevered and worked to remedy the situation. Her passport appeared the day before the flight to France.
It offered momentary relief before a turbulent first day in Paris.
Bates landed in the French capital the day before the program officially started. Luckily, another student on the trip also arrived a day early, and they were able navigate the City of Light together.
Getting around was fairly easy, as many Parisians have at least a limited grasp of English. However, Bates was eager to immerse herself in the new country.
“I did kind of force myself to speak French, and it just started everything off at a great point,” Bates said.
That is, until the two students found themselves in a French ambulance. Bates’ companion had a minor medical incident, requiring examination at a local hospital. Facing a difficult situation, Bates took control and communicated with the first responders.
“They didn’t really speak English, and she couldn’t really speak,” she said. “It was at that point where I knew I had to step up. I felt very powerful at that moment.”
It was certainly a memorable introduction to France, but it’s not what Bates – or Trapani for that matter – remember most.
For Bates, it was taking French classes and the chance to interact with other international students at Institut Stralang, a language school, in Strasbourg. Trapani recalled her eagerness to explore the area during excursions.
Bates was the only student to take part in every optional activity offered on the trip. To Trapani, it was heartening to see a student so determined to experience everything.
“One of my favorite moments with her was one little optional trip where we walk to Germany,” Trapani said. “I have a picture of her in her UMSL T-shirt with one foot in France and one foot in Germany. To me, it was just a powerful moment.”
Belgium, the Netherlands and beyond
After the ordeal getting to France, Bates was confident she could study abroad again. She just didn’t think it would happen so soon.
On a whim, Bates – at this point a sophomore – applied to a business study abroad program in Belgium and the Netherlands after taking an interest in the international institutions she saw in France. Once again, she was accepted. Once again, she was shocked.
The short-term trip was scheduled for winter break 2018, only about six months removed from her last international trip. It would cement her wanderlust.
“I think that’s when I realized I had a passion for travel,” she said. “I was going to take every opportunity I could – whether it would be on my own or in school.”
Michael Costello, associate teaching professor in the College of Business Administration, directed that trip, and he informed Bates of another he was directing. It was a business study abroad program in Dubai and Abu Dhabi during winter break 2019.
Naturally, she couldn’t turn it down and started packing her bags for a third time.
“Alexis is a wonderfully engaging student with a passion for international topics,” Costello said. “She found our business visits interesting as she explored different industries from Shell’s global research to Bayer’s protected agriculture to Boeing’s development of alternative fuels.”
In fact, that passion has helped her earn an international business certificate.
Bates took part in her fourth study abroad program this summer, traveling to China. The business program takes students to Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai.
While the European destinations – and even Dubai – felt somewhat familiar, China was the greatest source of culture shock. Everything from the cuisine to maneuvering pedestrian spaces to paying for goods and services was slightly more difficult. It compelled Bates to make a greater effort to get outside of her comfort zone, especially when it came to food.
“In China, I tried everything,” Bates said. “I was trying frog and squid and things I knew I wouldn’t have tried back at home.”
Of all the places she’s been, Strasbourg still holds a special place. Bates remains in contact with the international students she met at the language school, and she still thinks of the picturesque scenery regularly.
“It was very beautiful,” she said. “It just reminded me of what I want to wake up to every day – water and flowers.”
There’s still plenty of world to see, though. Bates said her goal is to visit a new country every two years. Right now, Greece and Australia are her two bucket-list countries, but they’ll have to wait until she gets back from her latest destination.
At the behest of a friend, she plans to study abroad in Japan next summer as an alumna – not that her friend had to twist her arm.
The most valuable lesson study abroad teaches students is that there are some things you can’t learn in a classroom.
Trapani believes taking students out of their element is one of the most impactful aspects of studying abroad. It was true of Bates. Being forced to learn and navigate the norms of the other countries taught her valuable lessons in mutual respect and empathy.
“I definitely learned to be humble about being in others’ presence and learning how to respect their culture, even though mine is different,” she said, admitting it wasn’t easy at first. “It was hard for me because I hadn’t been many places outside of my own hometown.”
Traveling made Bates grateful for the freedoms and opportunities afforded to her back home, as well. She hopes to take these lessons into her future career as a school counselor – a profession she was drawn to by her desire to help others.
Currently, Bates is helping friends and family interested in seeing the world, something they weren’t much interested in before her trips.
“I’ve inspired my family to get passports,” Bates said. “Even my little sister has been to two countries already. She went to Costa Rica last year and Ghana this year.”
She is proud of the impact she’s had on her sister, who is in high school. Her sister was able to travel to Costa Rica on a class trip and to Ghana via a scholarship. Having a little guidance from her big sister didn’t hurt, either.
“We really didn’t have much as kids,” she said. “Having this opportunity itself, being a young teen from north St. Louis going out of the country, it’s pretty much unheard of.”
Bates encourages anyone on the fence about traveling or studying abroad to make the leap.
“I’ve learned that opening up and just saying, ‘Yes,’ sometimes isn’t the worst thing in the world,” Bates said. “I always say, ‘Don’t limit yourself, but know your limit.’”
For now, it seems there are no limits for Bates.
“I think I can handle anything in the world.”