Joseph Astrouski just wanted to get away, but he ended up getting so much more -- invaluable life lessons; a new self-image; and two national awards, including one for using his exchange-student experience to its fullest.
Astrouski chose to attend Eastern Illinois University in large part due to its impressive study-abroad offerings. His original plan was to spend a semester studying abroad, and when Eastern joined the National Student Exchange in Fall 2007, he added a U.S. exchange experience to his to-do list.
"I kind of just wanted to get out," the Belleville native said. "I guess you could call it wanderlust. I've lived in Illinois all my life -- same town, same house, for goodness' sake."
Through National Student Exchange, he packed his bags to head to Keene State College in New Hampshire for Fall 2008. It was there that he honed in on journalism as a major, thanks to his many exciting hands-on experiences and encouragement from faculty.
Due to New Hampshire's important role in the presidential election, he met several political power players. When Bill Clinton spoke at Keene State, Astrouski was in the front row and shook his hand.
And the presidential candidates were everywhere. He missed a chance coffee-shop encounter with Barack Obama by mere minutes, but he was able to attend speeches by John Edwards and Bill Richardson, talk shop for several minutes with Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, and be one of a handful of people present for Rudy Guiliani's visit to a Republican donor's home.
"There I was in a living room with a presidential candidate," Astrouski said. "It was just so cool."
Other highlights of his time at Keene included working with the Citizenship Symposium, where he was able to escort filmmaker Ian Cheney and activist Javier Angulo around town; and attending lectures by Sister Helen Prejean (of "Dead Man Walking" fame) and Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel.
His big stories for the student newspaper -- including covering the mayoral race from start to finish, the New Hampshire primary and Michelle Obama's visit -- earned him the newspaper's Reporter of the Semester honor.
He won a national award for his coverage of riots that followed the Red Sox's World Series win, but nearly as noteworthy to him is the fact that he got hit by tear gas while interviewing revelers for the story.
"At the time, it was not that fun, but in retrospect, it was pretty cool," Astrouski said.
In Spring 2008, he shifted gears to spend a semester in Europe, participating in EIU's study abroad program. He studied at a university in Dublin, Ireland, and immersed himself in the city's environment.
"I would walk the streets of Dublin," Astrouski said. "When you live in the culture -- you do mundane stuff, you buy groceries, you mail a package -- you get to know the culture from the ground up."
Through his time living in Ireland and visiting 10 other European countries, perhaps the most educational moments came when dealing with the unexpected "rough stuff," he said.
"You think, well, if I can manage to get around Italy on the wrong train in the middle of the night, I can do anything," he said. "It changes your outlook on the world and the way you feel about yourself."
Astrouski's future plans might include working away from Illinois, but eventually, he wants to make his home in the Midwest. An EIU Presidential Scholar and member of the EIU Honors College, he credits his time away from home with further equipping him for success, not only from a resume standpoint, but also from a personal one.
"Aside from all the big experiences, one of the greatest things about my time away was meeting people my age with different backgrounds, who have the same kinds of questions about where they want to go and what they want to do as I do," he said. "That was worth the trip by itself."
Bonnie Irwin, dean of the EIU Honors College and EIU's National Student Exchange coordinator, said Astrouski has set a wonderful example for future EIU students who participate in the program and beyond.
"Joe values every opportunity he is given," she said. "He is an exceptional young man in many ways."
This fall, Astrouski learned he was the winner of the NSE's Bette Worley Student Achievement Award. The honor, which includes a $500 cash award, goes to the student who demonstrates the best use of his NSE participation, exemplifying the NSE president's high standards.
"In his one short semester at Keene State College, Joe was more involved in his temporary community and campus than most students can say after spending four years here," wrote a Keene State official in nominating Astrouski for the award. "Though Joe’s active participation while at KSC will indubitably have a lasting impact on him for years to come, Keene State is a better place after having Joe Astrouski attend for one semester."
Astrouski said the experience did, indeed, change his life, in two major ways.
"NSE gave me a sense of career -- the sense that there was something in particular that I wanted to do," he said. "It also gave me a greater sense of independence. I got to chart my own course, to experience things that were completely new, and to have an experience that was my own, and that's something that I really appreciate."