What I Know Now: Reflections from a USAC Enrollment Specialist

As a USAC Senior Enrollment Specialist, Joel reviews student applications for Latin America programs—Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Uruguay. His dream would be to travel to every USAC program with cuisine courses, and take them all twice, as it’s his belief that nothing brings people together like good food.

Joel explores Toledo, Spain with USAC.

The More Things Change…

I’ve been helping students wishing to study abroad for nearly half of USAC’s almost 40 years in existence, so you might think I’ve grown tired of it. You’d be very wrong.

Like any organization that has been successful this long, we’ve been through many changes, as have I. I’ve raised a family in that time, and my children are now of the age where I can push them out the door and say, “go open your own Gateway now.” My son studied abroad for a summer while still in high school, and that experience changed him, lit a spark in him, and he plans to go again while in college. My daughter is next, and she is as eager to go as I am to send her.

As my personal family grew, so did my USAC one. When I started we had only three full-time staff working on applications and the academic side things, now we have nearly 12 people. But once upon a USAC time, students had to mail in paper applications torn from the back of our thick catalogs, a personal statement that was sometimes handwritten, official transcripts on thick stock paper, and a check. Paper, paper, paper, paper.

If a student was approved, we mailed them more forms to fill out, and once those were returned, we mailed those documents to the staff overseas (sometimes we faxed them). The Advising staff had two people in the Central Office, and they too now number a dozen or more. We had one accountant, and two people in IT.

Since then, all our departments have grown, tripled or more, we’ve added many new, fantastic program sites, and made connections with so many new domestic universities (we now have a data system just for that). We’ve grown in ways I couldn’t predict, including having a second office building constructed just for us (and only half of the Central Office “us” at that).

What hasn’t changed (other than in number)— trust me, we’re all very, very happy about this— is our students. They (you) haven’t changed in my nearly 20 years with USAC, nor likely from the 20 years before that.

USAC students smile in front of fountains in Madrid.

Embrace the “Why”

In my first year, after helping to bring us to a mostly digital, online application process and communication system, I was fortunate enough to tag along with the Spain students going on the Madrid tour, so I had the privilege of visiting three of our program sites in Spain (we now have five). But even that relatively short visit changed me opened my eyes in a way I couldn’t predict. And I’m so very grateful.

Part of my job has always involved reading the Personal Statements that students must write as a part of the application process. It didn’t take me long at all to start realizing that I was reading some of the same goals, hopes, dreams, and phrases in nearly every student’s statement. It also didn’t take me long to realize that while I was reading some statements that sounded very similar to each other, each student was writing it, feeling it for the first time.

Since that realization, I look forward to reading these same desires in each student: I hope that they are leaving their comfort zones, pushing their boundaries, wanting to experience a different culture, try new foods, learn or become fluent in a new language, find their roots, meet new people, get a global perspective. These goals are why they go, why you go. It’s why I want to go again and again. It’s why I want to send my children. And it’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

USAC students pose for a photo in Madrid.

We’re All Connected

When I got on the plane, along with a merry band of USAC students headed to Spain, it was my somewhat naïve expectation that we’d be visiting this vastly different culture. Of course, once there, I did honor and enjoy those little, fascinating truths. I saw and touched history, tasted the wonderful cuisine of Spain.  I walked the streets and put my hands on stone walls that have been there long before my city was even built. But the people, to my silly surprise, were much the same as me, and the people I know and call family. They had the same concerns, joys, hopes, triumphs, failures, needs, even if their culture and personal history brought them there along a different path.  

Though I had traveled abroad before, I’d never studied abroad, but in just that short trip to Spain, visiting the sites with other eager, young students and our fantastic Resident Directors, the biggest thing I learned, the best thing I brought back home with me and still carry, is how much we really are all the same, each of us, and the realization of how connected we truly are, one side of this globe to the other.

Upon returning home, I realized that this is also true of the students whose Personal Statements I read every day.

I can’t wait to read yours.

To start your study abroad journey, visit our website for resources, a list of upcoming program deadlines, or to schedule a one-on-one advising session with a USAC advisor.