My name is Shani Sullivan, and I am the Program Advisor for our Costa Rica, Cuba, Israel, and Japan programs. I began my role with USAC in July of 2021, and although I studied abroad with USAC in Alicante, Spain during my college career, much of my previous work experience is in higher education from a university perspective. I worked with student organizations, fraternities and sororities, leadership development, housing and residential life, and even student conduct (do not worry, it was not my favorite either). Although I did not work in international education before joining USAC as a professional, much of my role is the same. I help students troubleshoot and prepare for meaningful experiences.
Reflecting on my own time abroad, I was the student who was nervous to make mistakes. When I was in my Spanish classes, I would get afraid to speak because I was not quite sure how to pronounce a word (I cannot roll my Rs to save my life) or because I did not know what the word for an item was. I didn’t take a cooking or dance course because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Looking back at my time abroad, these decisions hindered my experience because I was worried about the outcome instead of living in the moment and truly having experiences and learning from them.
Here are things I wish I would have known prior to studying aborad:
No one expects you to know everything.
Being vulnerable and willing to make mistakes is a large portion of why studying abroad can be such a life-changing experience. Not only are you entering another culture and learning the nuances of how to live within that culture, most of the time, you are doing it from scratch. So, ask questions, pronounce words wrong, and take a course even if it makes you a little nervous! The outcome far outweighs the initial feelings of uncertainty. Especially in the mist of a pandemic, travel and living abroad comes with so many questions and very little answers. Being able to acknowledge that you may not have an answer and moving forward with the experience anyway can be empowering and enhances your ability to be present while you are abroad.
Live with locals.
During my time in Alicante, I lived with other USAC students, and it helped me feel more connected to my cohort and made the culture shock a little less overwhelming. My reasoning was that I was independent. I had been living on my own for a year and the idea that I would have to work around a family’s schedule and lifestyle made me uneasy. Would there be a curfew? What if I didn’t want to eat the food they made? What if we didn’t get along? There were so many questions, but since working with our Costa Rica programs, I have a greater appreciation for the homestay experience. It adds another layer of immersion that living with U.S. students won’t provide. Families and local students are prepared for you to be unsure. Most of them have welcomed U.S. students into their homes before and they understand there is a learning curve and culture shock comes with that. They are the perfect resource when you have questions, want to practice your language skills, or are looking for advice on where you should travel to. I wish I had challenged myself to have this experience and build more connections with locals as it would have enhanced my experience and made me feel more connected to Spanish culture.
To trips, to food, to experiences. This is cliche but hear me out. When I was studying abroad, a few students decided to go to Morocco, and I was jealous because I have a goal to make it to Africa. I would have loved to go, but I was nervous about the money aspect of the trip (which is completely valid), but thinking about it now, I could have made it happen. It is extremely important to financially prepare for your study abroad experience (something I wish I would have done more). However, there are moments and trips that may not make themselves available to you again and are worth prioritizing. So, if it is feasible for you, make it happen. You cannot rewind your experience, as much as we all wish we could, so you have to decide sometimes what will challenge you and provide you with a positive learning opportunity even if it is accompanied by feelings of doubt. Even if it is small decision such as eating a food you never thought you would or going to a carnival in the middle of the night when you normally wouldn’t, say yes! I will take this opportunity to remind you to be safe and make decisions that do not put you in danger, but don’t talk yourself out of opportunities you’ll regret not taking.
Study abroad for longer.
As time moves forward, the idea of studying abroad for a year becomes increasingly more nerve wracking for students. What if you don’t graduate on time? What if it impacts you ability to get a job? However, I look back and wonder what my experience would have been like if I committed to a year. Would I still be able to speak Spanish? Would I have stepped outside my comfort zone a little bit more? Would I have spent my second semester somewhere else? Now a days so many students are worried about graduating on time and getting a job, but I wish the one take away students acknowledged is that you do not get your college career back. Once it is done, it is hard to go back to the phase of your life where you are expected and encouraged to grow, explore, and take chances. I also acknowledge that is definitely a rule created by society and it is not hard and fast, but none the less it does get increasingly more difficult based on decisions you make. For example, I have been considered living abroad in the future, but I have a dog and the impact and cost of bring her with me is a big consideration. I am sure it gets even more challenging as you find a partner or start a family. So, take the opportunity while you are in a phase of life that promotes experiential learning and growth. I am not saying this is the last opportunity to go abroad, but this phase of life really encourages you to learn in new and impactful ways.
So, to summarize: please make a fool of yourself, pronounce words wrong, use google translate, and challenged yourself to trying new things. You will only thank yourself in the future for all of the experiences you had during your time abroad.