South Africa, India, and the Philippines: A Three Year Journey That Started With Studying Abroad

Studying abroad and each day that unpacks the experience will be unique to each student who chooses the endeavor. When reading about my experience throughout this article as well as seeing past experiences of other students through social media or other forms, I want to draw attention back to you, the reader, as an individual. My story and others, I hope, provide information and recommendations that allow you to make the best decision based on your values and what you as an individual want to learn more about. Most importantly, I want to highlight that finances are a real and understandable concern to students when approaching study abroad and the article attached here shows how USAC provides and will personally assist with guiding students to resources that will assuage the apprehension that many students feel. I can speak personally to my experience working with a scholarship advisor that was supportive and effective in making my semesters abroad possible. “Receiving the Gilman Scholarship affected my ability to travel abroad by allowing me to live comfortably in my program city without having to worry about any sort of financial situation that could get in the way.

Have you ever read The Alchemist? If you haven’t, it’s about a young shepherd from Andalusia, Spain who goes in search of his personal legend. The author, Paulo Coelho, depicts the boy’s life as a reflection of each of our lives, believing we all have a personal legend and if we follow its calling it will transform our lives. 

I’ve always related to this idea of wanting to align myself with my purpose. As a journalism and strategic communications major, writing, networking, and advertising came naturally to me. But I really only felt a draw towards marketing for products I fully believed would positively impact others. During my junior year, in the middle of feeling a bit like I had just boarded a bus and wasn’t positive where it was going, I decided to study abroad.

A student studying abroad in Stellenbosch, South Africa during a road trip to Etosha National Park in Namibia
Taken during a road trip to Etosha National Park in Namibia

My family really encouraged my first semester abroad. Listening to the people I love and trust the most talk about such an impactful experience gave me a final push. After making the decision I decided to tell a few close friends who also deeply appreciate traveling. They were thrilled and asked me where I was going to study and I said, “I’m not sure, but I think Spain.” (Spain was a destination where I had seen so many people study abroad and it felt like the place you go when you decide to study abroad.) I was so excited about learning from another country that I hadn’t put time into thoroughly looking at other programs. My friends looked at each other and said, 

“When you pick the location you’re going to study abroad in, you won’t have a question in your mind. You’ll know that it’s where you’re meant to go.” 

I didn’t have that feeling in regards to Spain so I started searching for it. I was mailed a USAC packet with a catalog that listed each of USAC’s locations and I started reading about each program. I quickly noticed that I didn’t know much about any country in Africa, the history of the continent or individual countries, and the past relations between the U.S. It immediately seemed like an opportunity rooted in education, an opportunity to learn more about an incredibly important part of the world. 

I began reading about the program in Stellenbosch, South Africa and it completely captivated me. The courses that interested me included Gender, Culture in the State of South Africa and Transitional Justice in Africa. When I read the description I knew it was a program that would offer an invaluable educational experience.

Stellenbosch University where USAC students take classes when they study abroad
One of my favorite buildings on Stellenbosch University’s campus where all law classes are held

My favorite part of my time in South Africa was the education I received. I met many people who weren’t afraid to have hard conversations and my classes introduced materials that developed my social and political views. Topics like the white savior complex and poverty tourism made me more aware of the impact my actions and footprint has as a traveler. This in turn made me realize my own voice and the impact it has in the world. 

During my semester my favorite class was Gender, Culture in the State of South Africa. I learned an immense amount about gender and the importance of learning about it on a global scale. Half way through the semester I decided to change my minor to women’s studies.

I saw  the importance of continuing to learn about race, gender and feminism and how it would serve me as a global citizen. 

During my last month I tried to find a way to continue my education in South Africa, but the classes I needed to graduate weren’t available. I wanted to continue to challenge my thoughts and learn more about social structures, religion, and other cultures. I started to do some research online, and the week that I returned to the U.S. I met with my women’s studies advisor about studying abroad in India. I was able to complete all of my minor requirements and graduate on time because they offered a lot of classes involving gender. The program was also one of the most affordable options and I was able to save for the next 6 months before I left.

One of Christ University’s many cultural festivals, on this day students marched through campus showcasing different decades of India’s history .
One of Christ University’s many cultural festivals, on this day students marched through campus showcasing different decades of India’s history .

My time in India was vibrant, educational, and loud– like me!! It was challenging in the best way possible, both inside and outside of the classroom. It developed the way I understand religion versus spirituality, it taught me powerful principles from Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, and it showed me the beauty of cultures that are vastly different and invested a deep sense of respect for those who practice life differently than me. Here is a video I produced during my time in India that shows a glimpse into my daily experience.

During my semester in India, I reached out to my former supervisor who is now the Digital Communications Specialist at USAC, the study abroad office on my campus. I asked her for some guidance on my next step and if she could send me any open positions that seemed to fit what I was looking for. A week later she sent me a listing for a content marketing internship with GoAbroad.com in the Philippines. I applied and within a few weeks had committed to move to the Philippines and complete a content marketing internship for six months.

A view of the Island I lived on called Leyte – behind this photo is one of my favorite restaurants that overlooks Tacloban City

My internship with GoAbroad introduced me to the field of international education. I didn’t know the field even existed and after conducting informational interviews with other professionals, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in marketing and communications for a study abroad provider. This work deeply matters to me and I know my skills in marketing combined with my studying abroad experiences can reach students and hopefully provide them with the information they need to study abroad. Even more importantly, I hope to tackle barriers and misconceptions that students have about studying abroad and provide information and resources that help them make the best decision for them.

When I look back at all of this I never felt like I was on the correct bus taking the right route and getting off at every perfectly calculated stop – quite the opposite. If you are reading this and hoping to find some guidance on your route, you won’t find the answer in taking the same path as me. What my story offers is guidance about taking intentional steps forward that are aligned with who you are, what you love, and what you think is best for you. I know this might seem simple but it can translate into powerful decisions.

Varanasi
After learning about the importance of the Ganga to Hinduism I visited Varanasi by myself and hired an incredible guide who was born just outside the city; this was the most special journey I took

A few things my story speaks to: studying abroad twice is possible and affordable – whether for two semesters, two spring or summer terms, or a semester and a spring/summer term. I received scholarships for both semesters that really helped me. It’s also possible to complete an internship abroad – the company I interned for covered all expenses including my flights and a monthly stipend for day to day expenses. Studying abroad with USAC not only furthered my education and helped me follow my passion, but USAC also helped guide me to an exciting life beyond study abroad.

Where do you start? There are many options and people waiting to help. Do the research, meet with your academic advisor, meet with a study abroad advisor, meet with a financial aid advisor and the head of the scholarship department at USAC, and make a plan! These are specific steps you can take to find out what your study abroad options are with USAC and what financial support is available. 

Like the Shepherd from Aldusia in The Alchemist, my advice is to tap into your personal legend – what you love and what you have are passionate about. This isn’t always easy. My story also includes arguments, self doubt, sleepless nights and three jobs. You can face all of these battles if you are able to tap into your passion, reach out to those around you who are waiting to help, and put in the work – it will surely pay off. As Coehlo says, beginner’s luck is on your side when you tap into your personal legend.

Running through the trees in Stellenbosch, South Africa during USAC Study Abroad
My first day studying abroad in Stellenbosch South Africa, I will never forget this run beneath the trees.

Lastly, consider putting a spotlight on academics when deciding what study abroad program is right for you. In my experience, academics were my favorite part of both of my semesters abroad.

When traveling is rooted in education, it provides invaluable experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It manifests in the form of developed social and political views, intercultural competence, maturity, courage, personal development, and empathy among many other skills.

All of these qualities helped me excel during my six month internship in the Philippines and they continue to  serve me daily!

If you need some additional support or don’t think that studying abroad is possible for you, feel free to reach out to me through email. I’ll do everything I can to help make studying abroad a possibility for you! maryalicehaas@nevada.unr.edu

Mary Alice attended college in Stellenbosch, South Africa, Bengaluru, India, and graduated from The University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in journalism and minor in women’s studies. She is known for giving loud women empowerment toasts and boxing whenever she gets the chance. Her passion lies in international education and she recently finished a marketing internship with GoAbroad.com in the Philippines. You can find her strumming a ukulele, dancing to 2000’s hip hop, or using her outside voice. Connect with Mary Alice on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mary-alice-haas-963223139 and read more study abroad articles shes’ written at: https://www.goabroad.com/author/mary-alice-haas