This post by Associate Director Kelly Holland is a result of her phone interview with Towson University study abroad alumnus Clark Rachfal. Clark is perhaps best known as a Team USA para-cyclist, who has been competing since 2007, but we know him first and foremost as a study abroad success story. We wish him well as he races this week in the Netherlands in the UCI Para-cycling World Championships!
Study abroad can be a lot of things to a lot of different people. For Clark Rachfal, study abroad was an opportunity to “hit the reset button.” Enrolled at Towson as a double major in Economics and Political Science, he went looking for an off-campus experience where English was the primary language. Clark jokes that when he realized fall semester would be cold in the United Kingdom and summer in Australia, he quickly committed to Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia!
The Annapolis native says, “Australia was somewhere I wanted to go in the world since I was a child.” What started as a fall semester extended to a full academic year, allowing him to study halfway around the world for ten months. ANU greeted him with a wide variety of students: Australians from Melbourne and Sydney, some American and Asian students, as well. Meeting new Australian friends allowed him to travel beyond Canberra and explore the country. Was there a difference between semester one and two? Clark says the first round was about personal growth, and the second round was about academics.
When asked what his family thought about his decision to go abroad and stay abroad even longer, he acknowledges, “My parents were scared shitless.” Growing up, the family had hosted au pairs from Norway, France, Australia, and Northern Ireland. Clark notes, “Whenever we could, our family would travel in the U.S.” and even had the pleasure of attending the wedding of a former au pair in France. “My parents ingrained the travel bug into me and my sister,” he points out. So why were they so scared about a semester in Australia after all this exposure to travel? Clark Rachfal is legally blind.
Diagnosed at age 4 with a degenerative retinal condition, both he and his family learned to adapt in many ways. Australia was an opportunity to meet new people and visit a new place, and he was fortunate to find support abroad as well. “Disability Support Services at ANU were awesome. They made the transition very easy,” Clark shares. It was in Australia that he hopped on a tandem bicycle and rode for 270 kilometers (about 168 miles) for three days as part of a fundraiser. Clark stopped riding a single bike around age 13 when it became too dangerous to do alone, riding his family’s tandem bike instead. In 2004 when his friends offered him the opportunity to get back on a bike he jokes, “I didn’t think they’d find someone who would let us borrow a tandem but they did!” Clark says it was important to be open to the idea but also credits his new friends as a support system: “I was growing more comfortable in my own skin, and they were trying to make [the ride] happen.”
The charity ride was when Clark first started to use a team for mobility. As it turns out, that long tandem bicycle ride was just the beginning. Clark would later return to Australia in Fall of 2005 to complete two independent studies and an internship with the Australian Legal Aid Society. He recalls being warned that the return trip would be different, and it was. “People, environment – that all changes. You yourself change.”
When asked about the challenges he faced while abroad, Clark is honest and candid with three moments for three different reasons. One, “the realization that I am there for classes and still had to study and write essays,” he jokes. Two, in between semesters when his mom came to visit and travel with him and returned to the States, he experienced homesickness. Last but not least, Clark acknowledges that there was a time when he realized being “a person with a disability as great as this is, there are still things that I can’t do.” When he speaks about returning home from Australia after that first year, he asks if Towson students are aware of reverse culture shock, recalling when he had to assimilate from Australian culture back to America culture after ten months abroad and how he didn’t know it would be an issue.
Challenges aside, Clark’s enthusiasm for study abroad and travel is evident. When asked what he would say to students who are considering study abroad or nervous about the experience, he says, “Few opportunities like study abroad are going to come up in your life. You almost have this opportunity to hit the pause button on reality, go gallivant around the world for an extended period of time.”
Clark’s para-cycling career took him back to Australia once more, racing in the World Cup in Sydney in 2011. Although Australia first stole his heart, Italy is also one of his favorite countries, “for people, experience, and culture.” When talking about another important piece of culture – food – he admits he is a “seafood snob,” thanks to his Annapolis upbringing and fondly remembers many BBQs in Australia where grilling out was a big part of the culture. A less fond memory is the time Clark mistook Vegemite for Nutella and slathered it on a piece of bread, only to throw the whole thing out after two bites — we can relate.
Thanks to Clark for taking the time out of his busy training schedule to speak with our office. Best of luck in the Netherlands!
Read more about Clark’s journey:
Team USA biography: http://www.teamusa.org/para-cycling/athletes/Clark-Rachfal
Towson Alumni Magazine, Fall 2010: http://www.towsonalumnimagazine.com/towson/fall2010#pg18
“Annapolis resident to compete in para-cycling world championships,” http://touch.capitalgazette.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-82990690/