Q&A with one of our previous study abroad superstars!

Dr. Alexandra M. Towns, graduated from Towson University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies.  Her study abroad experiences at Towson consisted of the German Language Immersion program in Summer of 2002 at Carl Von Ossietsky University in Oldenburg, Germany, the Spanish Language Immersion program in Cuernavaca, Mexico over Minimester in 2003, and finally the Butler University Study Abroad at Chilean Universities Program in Santiago, Chile over the Spring semester in 2004.  In 2015 she was also selected to be the Towson Honors College Alumnus of the year.  Dr. Alexandra M. Towns is now a medical ethnobotanist working at Naturalis and Leiden University.

Alexandra Towns

Q: You had the opportunity to study abroad multiple times while at Towson. What (or who) got you started and how did you choose your program?

As an international studies major, I was very motivated to learn about other parts of the world. Studying strictly in a classroom setting, however, was not enough- I realized that I needed to have my feet on the ground to really understand other countries. I was a Spanish language minor, so I wanted to not only improve my language skills in a Spanish-speaking country (Mexico 2003), but also to challenge myself to take university-level coursework in Spanish (Chile 2004). The desire to learn German (Oldenburg 2002) was motivated by my heritage; my mother immigrated to the US as a teenager from Germany, and although I had visited with our German relatives many times as a child, it wasn’t until college that I had a chance to really learn the language.

Q: Have your experiences abroad met your expectations? Exceeded them?

My experiences abroad, both as a Towson student and in my professional life, have continuously exceeded my expectations. Traveling, studying, and working abroad have had a major influence on the person that I am today.

Q: Your study abroad experiences were a large part of your time at TU. How have they affected your career path?

Before even applying to Towson University, it was my intention to work internationally. However, the opportunity to study abroad in different contexts provided the initial occasions to test out my ideas of living abroad and helped to build my skills and confidence. It also helped friends and family adjust to the type of lifestyle I would be living.

Q: Of all the places you’ve been, both study abroad and in your life after TU, do you have a favorite? Where and why?

I’ve been extremely lucky to have traveled and lived in many places across North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. I’ve backpacked across South America, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, completed a doctoral degree in the Netherlands, researched herbal medicine in Benin and Gabon, attended an academic conference in Hong Kong, and traveled and visited friends all over the world. Each place has inspired, challenged, and surprised me in so many ways that I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite. But I can say that one place in particular has a very special place in my heart: Niger. It’s an incredibly humble location- very hot, dry, and dusty with some of the lowest human development indicators in the world- but also with some of the kindest, funniest, and most generous people I’ve ever met.

Q: Many returned study abroad alumni speak about an “ah ha” moment or a particularly powerful memory. What’s yours?

I can’t say that I have one particularly strong memory, but sense of smell is a really powerful source of remembering for me- be it a tea that I was introduced to in a country, a spice that was used in a specific cuisine, the odor of certain leathers used in artisan handicrafts, or just something in the breeze on a random Tuesday- I am immediately transported back.

Q: What would you say to students worried / concerned / afraid of studying abroad?

I would say to take those fears of studying abroad seriously- realize that there are real risks to your health, security, and well-being. Inform yourself how to avoid/prevent them by doing your research, talking with others, and taking all precautions, but then hop on a plane and go!

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