Study Abroad Stories from 4 Students
In this show, I’m talking to four different students who studied abroad this past fall: Arelí Hernandez, Jahwala Johns, Alyssa Newman and Drew Descourouez. I asked each person why they chose their programs, how they adjusted to the culture, what their day-to-day life looked like and their biggest takeaways from their experience.
Arelí Hernandez is triple major in political science, Spanish and Ethnic Studies, and has a minor in Latin American studies. Over the summer, she earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study in London at the University of London, and took a course called “The Politics of Protest and Change,” which looked at social movements and NGO’s. This past semester she was in Ecuador studying international development.
GC: Why did you choose the program in Ecuador?
AH: It encompassed all my majors and it was financially cheaper, but I’m so glad I went on it because it was the most amazing experience. We were looking at international development and NGO’s with a critical perspective and looking at the context of race. I got to learn more about the indigenous communities in Ecuador as well as the issue of immigration and refugees.
My program was divided into two parts. The first half was taking theoretical classes about international development, and in the second half we were paired up with a non-profit related to what we wanted to study. I interned with a Catholic NGO devoted to the integration of migrants and refugees from Venezuela and Colombia. I come from a Mexican-American background, so I have a lot of exposure to Mexican immigrants to the U.S., but over there, there are totally different reasons for the migration.
GC: What were you doing on a day-to-day basis during the internship?
AH: I got to help with the lobbying of two ordinances with a social worker. The NGO is committed to eliminating gender violence, and during this time it was the 26 days of activism for the elimination of gender violence.
The other ordinance was for immigration for the city I was in. I got to see the lobbying with local government. We had a march as well and we put on an event where every culture brings their own thing to perform. In preparation for that, they asked me to prepare a dance, and they wanted me to teach them something Mexican. I taught them a Mexican line dance that we do in weddings or family parties. I taught a little choreography to the kids for them to perform. I was with the Brazilian nuns and they taught me samba.
Drew Descourouez is an environmental studies major with economics and philosophy minors who studied in El Salvador in the CASA program, which has since been cancelled due to increased violence in El Salvador.
Gavin Cosgrave: What parts of the program impacted you personally the most?
Drew Descourouez: The relationship to the environment was really cool. I got to see and experience what the environment meant to a developing country like El Salvador, and what it takes for us to consume sugar so cheaply here. Smelling the burning sugar cane and watching the cane being processed on the coast certainly affects the way I consume sugar today.
GC: Were there any aspects of the program that were challenging?
DD: The reason our experience was unique was that our host father was killed while we were there. It’s hard to say that because it gets paired with the closure of the program, but the cultural difficulty was more on my part. It’s very easy for our culture to say, “in a developing country, this death must have been because of some chaotic violence,” but as far as we know this incident was very personal and we weren’t in any sort of targeted danger.
The community had a culturally more sophisticated and reaction to death. In the U.S. our response can be in my opinion very personal, violent and misguided, so the way we were dealing with it together as a community in El Salvador was healthier. It wasn’t easy but it really made evident the fact that El Salvador is a country that overcomes.
GC: How are you different now coming back?
DD: I think one of the desires we have here is to be healthy and manage a work-life balance. It sounds nice and people talk about wanting it, but actually letting it happen, maybe not as much. A lot of people here would say that rest and good sleep and time to reflect on your actions is all well and good, but it’s saved for breaks or vacation.
One of the opportunities I had in El Salvador was to listen and to be and to interact in a different pace and style. It looks a lot like reflection, spirituality and time ‘wasted.’ I’m still wrestling with how to convince myself that time alone, time in prayer, and time in rest aren’t just important because they’re nice to have, they are vital in choosing what we produce.
Jahwala Johns is a marketing and psychology double major who studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain.
GC: In the first couple weeks, were there any cultural differences that you had to adjust to?
Jawala: I remember getting off the plane, and everything was smaller. The people are visibly smaller, portion sizes are smaller, everything was slower paced and relaxed. My first night for dinner, it took 45 minutes to get food and no one was in the restaurant.
GC: What did your daily life look like?
JJ: My school was a 25 minute walk from where I lived, so in the mornings I would get up and walk to school, staying at the study abroad center for about six hours. I had three classes, take a break for lunch by the beach. On the weekends I would either travel to a different country or explore the city.
GC: How did you meet new friends there?
JJ: I gravitated away from the Santa Clara students because I felt like I could come back to them if need be, but I wanted to meet other people. My closest friend abroad was from Loyola in Chicago. We met the first weekend on a program trip and bonded. There was a ping-pong league that a lot of us went through.
GC: Do you have any funny or interesting stories from your time abroad?
JJ: I was there during a wild time because Catalonia was trying to secede from the European Union. There would be times when the city would shut down for political riots. I remember walking back from school and walking into a political demonstration with crowds and fireworks. It was fascinating being there as an American.
My host mom groomed us to fit her lifestyle, and we always had to wear shoes in her house. was very adamant that we ate big dinners and she would get upset when we didn’t finish a whole paella. Whenever she heard us using English in our rooms to each other, she would tell us to use Spanish only.
GC: What advice would you give to a student considering studying abroad?
JJ: Definitely just do it. When else are you going to have the time to go do a different country without many other commitments? You have a lot of free time because you’re only doing school. I would just say to be open to new possibilities and opportunities. A lot of students stuck to their core friend group, but try to push yourself outside your comfort zone to meet more locals.
Alyssa Newman is a marketing major who studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain.
GC: What was your experience like living with a host family?
AN: It was just a mom and another girl from Santa Clara. My host mom didn’t speak any English, whereas some other host families did speak some English. Sometimes I would understand most of her words and put together sentences, but totally miss what was happening. She was a very motherly figure to have, and I loved the traditional cooking.
GC: How were you able to balance doing schoolwork, traveling and doing fun things?
AN: I don’t know if you remember high school, but it was the work level of a high school. I just prioritized that I was there to travel, learn and be culturally immersed, so if you have the opportunity to go to a festival that shows something about Spanish culture, I would do that over making headway on an essay. It’s pretty easy to make time management work if you are well organized. Also planes are a good place to work!
GC: Did you have any big takeaways or ways that you see your studies now differently?
AN: In terms of studies, I learned the importance of experiences and taking advantage of your free time. Going on spontaneous trips I learned how to pack light and quick, and absorb a lot of information really quickly.
I thought it was really cool to broaden my perspective about alcohol, because I think being at Santa Clara, there is a really heavy drinking culture that can be dangerous and unhealthy. Going abroad, I realized that alcohol isn’t evil, it’s just how you use it. We say that all the time, but I was able to genuinely see that with American students who were allowed to drink legally and the people who lived in Spain who were casual and unconcerned. I was part of a youth group, and after church we would go get beers.
GC: What advice would you give to someone who is going to study abroad in the fall?
AN: Definitely try to reach out to the local community. It was really hard to make friends with the locals just because of how our program was situated—we were surrounded by American students. Volunteering was a great way to meet people. I would go to a soup kitchen every week, and I think it was important to see Spain in that light and get to know normal people.