Alumni Spotlight: Grace DeRidder


In summer 2011, I was lucky enough to go on a school trip to Italy and Greece for two weeks. It was the best two weeks of my life - the food, the adventure,and of course, the freedom. I was incredibly brokenhearted to leave but somehow I knew it wasn't "goodbye" forever, just "see you soon". So I fell hard for wanderlust and the desire to one day live out of my suitcase once more.

Grace is a senior at Columbia College Chicago majoring in Photography and minoring in Art History. After a high school trip to Italy and Greece, she knew living out of a suitcase and learning from experience was the only way she wanted to live her life. Since then, she has been fortunate enough to do two study abroad programs to build her portfolio and travel experience: a summer in the Australian Outback and a semester at the University of Westminster.

Why did you choose this program?

I choose the Semester at the University of Westminster for two reasons: academics and location. Academics, because it was one of the few schools that offered photography courses. And location because the school was in the heart of London.

It offered easy access to transportation around the city and out of the city. Whether it was to the countryside, trains, or the airport. There wasn't going to be a question of "how will we get there?" or "how expensive will it be?". I knew any trip I wanted to plan once I got there was going to be doable.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

I did an independent program, CIS abroad, and they assisted me with the academics courses and getting the courses approved for academic credit, the financial process, transition into the program, and just about every question that I could think of they answered.

They have an amazing staff that help you through the stages of applying and getting you abroad, and their on site staff go above and beyond to make you feel comfortable and at home abroad.

While I was abroad and ran into some trouble in another country (my passport was pick-pocketed), my on-site coordinator contacted the on-site coordinator in that country and she was able to meet up with me and help through. They are an amazing team and I am truly grateful for all they do.

I organized my credits and classes to make sure I would come back to school with everything in line for graduation, flights, finances and expenses while abroad, learning about my new "home", and pre-planning potential trips.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Never go a day without going out into the city to explore. Even if you aren't feeling well, the weather sucks, or you're just tired. Get out there. You are only living abroad for so long, so take advantage of every precious day and explore.

You don't even have to go far to find something you have never seen before. Trust me, in no time you will know the city like a local and will have a little pride to be able to say you wandered the city everyday.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

An average day at Westminster is your normal rise and shine for classes. Depending on your campus, you can either walk to class or hop on the tube.

When the "study" part of studying abroad is done for the day, the fun begins and the daily adventures around Regent & Oxford Street, to Big Ben, or jump on the Tube to find a new part of the city to wander around for the day.

At the end of the day, if you are not making a mess with friends in the tiny on-campus kitchens as everyone tries to make dinner, you will probably be at a pub (okay, the pub thing is a once, twice a week thing,not everyday!).

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?

I think my biggest fear going into my program was I wasn't going to meet people who wanted to travel as much and as far as I wanted to. I wasn't afraid to do one or two solo day or weekend trips, but I didn't want to get to a point where I was always traveling on my own because I couldn't find anyone to travel with.

When the time came, I rarely ever traveled alone when I planned a trip and asked friends if they wanted to come. From my experience, everyone that studies abroad wants to get the most out of their time there, have a very hard time saying no to a new adventure, and are always up for exploring something new.

I think that vibe, putting a bunch of traveling souls together, is the most amazing part of studying abroad and what makes the bond between the friends you make abroad so strong: you are constantly on the move, in cramped quarters, making mistakes and learning as you go, and laughing and having fun along the way (all while taking in the best culture and experiences the world has to offer).

What did you learn about yourself from studying abroad?

I have done two studies abroad, and looking back I have learned five lessons from my journey:

  • I am not afraid to be myself anymore.
  • I am fiercely independent.
  • I can laugh even in the darkest of times.
  • With a little planning, and a lot of scheming, nothing is impossible.
  • The best addiction in life is travel: it feeds your soul