Abroad experience is life-changing, students say

By Kellie Oates

There is no one adjective in any language to sum up the reality of studying abroad. But one student put it into perspective.

“It’s important to remember that you’ll get out what you put in,” Seth Riker, a Spanish and psychology senior, said.

Riker, who spent a semester in Chile and had never been out of the U.S. before, described himself as someone who dives head first into every situation. When it came to it, studying abroad was no exception.

“I spoke sub-par Spanish at the time, and once I arrived in Chile, I realized just how different Chilean Spanish was from the Spanish I’d learned back home,” Riker said. “All I could do was laugh at myself when making language and cultural mistakes because it was inevitable, and that was okay.”

Riker described the language as “Chileno,” a type of slang that was widely used.

“My host family treated me like real family. I went to all their family events,” Riker said. He had three host brothers, all in their twenties, and still lived at home, he said.

“My host mom was so distraught when I told her I moved out of my mom’s house at age 17.”

In Chile, it is the cultural norm for children to live at their parents’ homes until their late twenties, he said.

“I never told my host mom I was gay because I didn’t feel I had too, even though I felt like being gay was less understood in their culture,” Riker said. “They opened my eyes to their world, and I believe I opened their eyes to mine in certain ways too.”

Riker said that his experience boosted his confidence in ways he’d never imagined.

“I definitely cried when I left though; I have no problem admitting that,” Riker said.

Abby Hollander, study abroad coordinator, explained the comings and goings of studying abroad.

“There will be cultural adjustments with both acclimating to a foreign culture and then coming back home. The experience can be very transformative,” Hollander said.

The Education Abroad program offers a pre-departure orientation where students preparing to leave figure out what they expect culturally and how they can prepare to be a minority in a different culture. Once the students return, they have a welcome back session in order to find out how they can be a part of an international community in the States.

“One of the most important things I hope students gain from studying abroad,” Hollander said, “is the ability to market and articulate their experience in a way so they can use it for future job prospects.”

Ann Marie Vaughn, an international studies graduate student and the peer ambassador coordinator for Education Abroad, used her experiences to create a career path once home.

“After my first time studying abroad in Copenhagen, I fulfilled my fantasy of living in Europe; but I wanted to go abroad again,” Vaughn said. “The experience is exhilarating.”

Vaughn went on to spend a summer in Bangladesh, and then once she finished undergrad, she spent two years in China as an international student.

“It may seem difficult to leave your established life here on campus, but 99 percent of students who study abroad say they wish they had stayed longer,” Vaughn said.

Alexandra Brown, a communications senior, spent a semester in Costa Rica and said preparing to leave was temporarily life-consuming because she was so excited.

“After the application process, deciding on a program and school, and finding a sublease for my apartment, I researched Costa Rica everyday; their culture, food, languages, everything. I wanted to know everything there was to know before I arrived,” Brown said.

Brown said her and her classmates went on excursions every weekend.

“We went to a waterfall, volcano and zip-lined all in one weekend,” Brown said. “On Tuesday nights we’d go to a hookah bar, on Thursday nights we’d go salsa dancing, and pretty much when I wasn’t in class I was exploring the area or hanging out on the beach.”

Brown said the Costa Rican lifestyle was one she had no problem adapting to.

“All of the natives were on ‘Tico time,’ which basically means everyone there goes with the flow. If you show up 30 minutes late for something, you’re on time,” Brown said. “You could tell your teacher you were late because you had to stop in the street to talk to a friend about the weather and they would understand. Costa Ricans seemed to value relationships more than anything else.”

Riker, Vaughn and Brown all expressed how being immersed in a different culture for an extended period of time changed their lives.

“To experience another culture, well, it will always be with you,” Brown said. “College alone is a big, exciting change, but to experience it in a different country you’re unfamiliar with it’s a whole different kind of freedom.”

Riker said when he came home, his friends wanted to know about his experience, but expected a one word answer.

“It was impossible to belittle and condense something so life-changing,” Riker said. “You really become homesick for a place that’s not your home.”