large historic building in belgium

New Beginnings in Belgium: How One Longhorn Rediscovered Herself Abroad 

  • Jun 26, 2020
  • Suvi Bhalgat

Belgian-born Frances Garnett has been traveling all her life and found herself right at home in Brussels — literally.  

After spending part of the spring 2020 semester in Belgium through an Education Abroad program, Garnett was able to reconnect with her roots, visit old family friends and explore quirky facets of Belgian life, like baguette vending machines. She vastly improved her French and gained more confidence navigating new landscapes.  

Garnett, a rising senior at UT, is double majoring in international relations and global studies as well as theater and dance. While abroad, she enrolled in the Institute for Field Education in Brussels and worked at renowned theater company Les Riches Claires. She immersed herself in the local culture and documented her experiences as part of the Global Ambassador Program, which provides UT Austin students with an outlet to share their insights while abroad.  

Due to the growing safety concerns regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, UT suspended university travel abroad and recalled students from all ongoing abroad programs in March. Despite the premature ending, Garnett says she has no qualms about her decision to go to Belgium. In fact, she is actively seeking out her next international experience and cannot wait to continue exploring the world.  

After returning home to Austin, Garnett reflected on her life abroad and shared her thoughts with us. She highlights how eye-opening her abroad experience was, the wealth of professional and personal experience she gained there and how the Global Ambassador program helped her keep track of it all.  

Read more about Garnett’s experiences in the Q&A below.  

What first interested you in going abroad? 

Because I grew up traveling between countries, it was important for me to leave the U.S. again and continue exposing myself to new cultures. I chose to go to Brussels because I was born there and wanted to explore my roots a bit, but I’d also been studying French since middle school and was determined to become bilingual.  

Why did you become a Global Ambassador for Education Abroad? 

I knew I wanted to give myself a space where I could share and reflect on my study abroad experience, because I knew it would consume my life in the best way possible. I thought it would be particularly helpful if I had deadlines to meet to help me stay accountable to my original goal. I also wanted to encourage more students to study abroad in Belgium, because I think it’s such a fascinating, fun and welcoming country. 

What was the best part of your time abroad? 

I was invited over for dinner by an old family friend who actually used to babysit me and my twin sister before we moved away. That night felt like a benchmark moment where I realized how I’d achieved a lot of goals I made for myself before I went abroad. I could carry on a conversation in French with her and her husband and I successfully and independently navigated the train system to reach her house just outside the city. I felt like I was connecting with my roots in some kind of weird circle of fate when I played with my old babysitter’s twins and helped tuck them into bed.  

That, and finding a baguette vending machine in Luxembourg. 

Frances Garnett reflected on surface of baguette vending machine

What was the most challenging part of your time abroad? 

Being in a French-immersive internship was extremely difficult. My program had prepared me for it. All the classes I took were in French, except for one introductory Dutch course.  

I still felt like I dove into the deep end. I worked at a theater as a director’s assistant, so my work environment was very social. Everyone was kind and funny, but because they were constantly talking to each other and telling jokes that I didn’t quite understand, it took a lot of brainpower to stay concentrated and understand what was going on around me.  

I learned quickly how important it was to eat a good breakfast and bring snacks to work so I wouldn’t get too tired, and to ask a lot of questions, even though it was intimidating. 

What new skills did you learn from your experience? 

My French improved so much. Even though it was difficult, I’m much better at following conversations and I have more courage to speak up and actually call myself a French-speaker. 

I’m better now at navigating large cities without drawing attention to myself, which makes me feel safer but also more like a local. 

Frances Garnett poses in front of large historic building with group of students

What was it like being in Belgium when UT students abroad were recalled? 

Everything changed overnight. I remember sitting in a café eating fries and hanging out with my friends the night before Belgium announced it was going under lockdown. No one seemed to be worried at all. Even at my internship, people were still making jokes about the coronavirus.  

But, the next morning I woke up to dozens of texts and missed calls from my family back home and an email explaining we had to leave. That was a Thursday, and by Friday at midnight all non-essential businesses were closed. I went out with the people from my internship that night for dinner. It felt like the whole world was out eating and having fun to make up for the months they would lose.  

The day we found out we were being recalled, I immediately called my program coordinator and she was extremely helpful and empathetic. Since then, I’ve really appreciated that they’re still in contact with us, giving us practical and administrative information as well as opportunities to get refunded for disrupted travel plans. 

The next week, the city felt extremely quiet. I even saw a policeman take out his megaphone and call out a group of people gathered in the street. For me, it wasn’t as scary as it was claustrophobic, and I decided to leave sooner than I had originally planned.  

What have you been up to since you returned? 

I’m in the same boat as a lot of students. I’ve mainly been doing homework, going to class and working on my research paper. In my free time, I’ve been hanging out with my mom and now my sister and our new foster dog, Harriet! 

I’m less heartbroken than when I first found out I had to leave Belgium, but I’ve accepted it now and it’s nice to be back with loved ones.  

What are your goals now? 

I want to keep working on my French every day. Thankfully, this is pretty easy because I’m still finishing up my coursework and research in French, but I also make sure to call one of my old study abroad friends every day so we can practice speaking it.  

I also want to extend my program’s thesis next year so I can use it as my final thesis at UT, which would be an exciting way to still maintain my connection to Brussels. 

What are your overall thoughts on your time abroad? 

I fell in love with Brussels so quickly, and I know I’ll miss the slower pace of life there. But, I really don’t have any large regrets about the time I spent there. There are some cities and museums I missed out on, but I came back with so many new memories that I feel like I had a full semester there. 

A hanging exhibit of various European mythical creatures cardboard cutouts

Do you want to go back abroad? 

I would go back to Belgium in a heartbeat. I’m currently brainstorming ways I can make that happen after graduation. 

What did you learn about yourself during your abroad experience? 

I learned that I’m a more spontaneous person than I thought and I’m confident that the next time I move abroad I’ll be able to handle it. 

What do you think is the value of studying abroad? 

Besides giving you first-hand insight into a new culture, studying abroad takes you completely out of your comfort zone and puts you in a position where you have to be independent and fend for yourself, usually for the first time in your life. I felt much more like a competent adult after studying abroad. 

What is your advice to other students who want to study abroad? 

Do it! Find a program that will get you integrated into life in your city and locals. While you’re there, be spontaneous. If you know there’s something you can’t leave your country without doing, then don’t wait – do it as soon as you can and bring friends along.  

Finally, find a good social and goal-oriented routine that you can actually follow and stick to it! It’s a great way to develop connections with other people.