4 Common Myths About STEM Students Studying Abroad

As you probably know, STEM students continue to be the minority of those who study abroad in their undergraduate study. Many STEM students either think it is impossible for them to study abroad or feel like it’d be a burden. Let me assure you: those conceptions are not necessarily true.

Myth #1: It Doesn’t Fit My Schedule

STEM majors are known for their rigorous academic curriculum. With so many required classes as well as heavy workloads, labs, research projects and internships coming along, you might think that studying abroad wouldn’t fit your schedule.

However, if you talk to your academic advisor and contact IFSA staff, it is likely that you can find a program that accommodates your degree needs! IFSA also has an expert Curriculum Integration team who is ready to help any student match a study abroad program to the specific requirements for their major. So if you are not sure, just ask!

Cindy Tang studying abroad in EnglandIn addition to major requirements, you can also easily find fun classes that can fulfill credits for electives and general education. Cindy Tang, a psychology major from University of the Pacific, who currently studies abroad at Queen Mary, University of London, is taking a class on London and its Museums for her humanity credit. She has visited many awesome galleries and exhibitions, and even has had classes in a museum!

For some study abroad STEM students, they might miss out on the classes offered in their home school during their semester abroad, or in more rare cases, graduate later than their peers. However, Cindy Tang suggested that you might feel that you are “one step behind your friends,” but “ultimately you are living your own life at your own pace,” so it doesn’t matter if you are doing the same thing with other people or not.

“You are wherever you are.”

Myth #2: There is Not Enough Academic Support

In cases you don’t know it yet, STEM curriculum in U.K. focuses more on independent study. In addition to attending lectures, labs, and tutorials, you are expected to study outside of your class time. The benefit of studying abroad is that you not only experience living your life with more independence, but also take advantage of all kinds of support that’s available.

You can definitely be in touch with your home school’s advisors through emails while abroad. Additionally, you also have various resources provided by your host school and IFSA. At Queen Mary, the lecture videos and textbooks are posted online, so you can have access to them at any point during your study. Queen Mary has at least one international tutor at each school, whose job is to help you get used to their academic system. You will also be paired up with a buddy, a current student, who is there to help you with any question regarding academics, social life, and etc. IFSA staff members also often come to your school to check in with you, to see if you have any questions or concerns.

Myth #3: It’s Hard to Make Friends

Most of the lectures in U.K. have more than a hundred students in class, so there is less interaction among students as well as between students and faculty. However, you can still create interactions in other ways, such as signing up for societies and volunteer programs.

Studying abroad can also offer you a chance to meet more people coming from different cultures, some of whom might be your future STEM friends. Cindy Tang shared that on her way to London from San Francisco, she found out that the person who sat next to her on the plane used to be a psychology graduate student and now she works in U.K. They shared numbers and became good friends. Studying abroad is full of possibilities. You can even make connections with the “stranger” who sits next to you on a plane, on a bus, or on the tube.Marianna Sbordone studying abroad

Making friends can be as coincidental as Cindy’s encounter, but it can also happen on campus quite naturally and frequently. Marianna Sbordone, an engineering student from Harvey Mudd College shared that Queen Mary is a much larger school, which she “would have never experienced, coming from a school with only nine-hundred students.” As one of the few colleges in London that have a self-contained campus, Queen Mary provides great social spaces in its coffee shop, the Curve cafeteria, and the Drapers Bar & Kitchen where many students hang out together after class. You can easily grab a coffee or order a drink on campus with your fellow friends.

Myth #4: I Can’t Afford Studying Abroad

If you study abroad, it is true that the living expense can be high. However, London is actually rated as one of the most affordable cities in Europe. Especially, Queen Mary provides you with on-campus housing, which is already cheaper than renting apartments yourself. It’s also convenient for you cook in the kitchen at your flat shared with your flat mates. Cooking can always save you a lot of money from dining out. There are also scholarships and grants available for you to apply as well. IFSA offers a variety of work-to-study grants that can definitely help you cover some of the cost while abroad.

Even though studying abroad as STEM students sounds challenging, it is more than possible to do it. Cindy, Marianna and I highly encourage every STEM student to consider studying abroad for its countless benefits.  It may be easier to achieve than you think!

This blog post is brought to you by Unique Wenxuan Xue, a Wesleyan student currently studying abroad with IFSA at Queen Mary, University of London.  Unique is serving as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.

The Hidden Gem of Malmö

You’ve probably seen several posts about the destination Malmö, Sweden from other DIS student bloggers. I know I have it’s the reason why I decided to visit alone for the weekend two weekends ago. For that reason, I would repeat the points about how inexpensive Sweden is, how close the destination is to Copenhagen, how you can easily walk around forgoing a transportation pass, or that all the points of interest can be explored within 48 hours.

No, I refuse! What I will talk about is something that I found most compelling aimlessly walking the streets of this city – the street art. When I first left the central station, I first came in contact with these sculptures along the coast.

The highlight for me personally of the street art was the murals hidden in several spots in the city center. A part of an Artscape festival in Sweden back in 2013, all of these murals popped up around the city and residential areas. Most of them are created by prominent figures in the street art sphere from all around the world.

Having no previous knowledge of Malmö, it was a pleasant surprise to see murals on sides of buildings and on garage doors of fantastic designs. These artworks reminded me of the murals in the urban areas of Philly that I’m so used to seeing every week growing up in that tri-state area.

But, if you are interested in the points of interest I visited here is a list:

  • Kungsparken – Free!
  • Malmöhus Castle (Museums and Aquarium) – $2.50 for Students
  • Turning Torso – Free!
  • Lilla Torg – Free!
  • Malmö Town Hall – Free!
  • The Stortorget – Free!
  • Malmö Konsthall – Free!
  • The neighborhood, Limhamn – Great Photo Places
  • The neighborhood, Sibbarp – Great Photo Places

P.S. Mom, your kid is alright!

Embracing Discomfort: Studying the Arts in London as an East Asian

Unique Wenxuan Xue is a Theater major at Wesleyan University, currently studying abroad with IFSA-Butler at Queen Mary, University of London. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.

This is what I wrote down on Facebook, right before the plane took off to London, the city where I would stay for the next six months. All kinds of anxieties started to upsurge into my body, and one of them is the fear of being a minority, an outsider.

During the first several days in London, I was actually very surprised and satisfied by how diverse London is. Especially in East End, where the campus Queen Mary, University of London is at, there are many Asian students and also Asian neighborhoods nearby. Walking on the streets of East London, I did not feel self-conscious about my identity at all, until I entered the Arts One building, where most of my theater classes take place.

I am a theater major, but I grew up not knowing what theater was, because back then, there weren’t many contemporary theater opportunities and resources available in my home city Beijing. After I performed my first monologue in a student-of-color performance festival at Wesleyan University during my first year, I felt empowered by performing and creating theater.  As I realized that I could express myself much more clearly and freely through the arts, I was also given the strength to embrace my cultural identity and who I am.

However, when I went to my first theater class at London, I realized that I was the only East Asian person, and perhaps the only person of color in the classroom. When I saw my first West End production, I noticed that people who were sitting around me as well as on stage are almost all white. The anxiety of being an outsider immediately came back and I felt uncomfortable to be the only East Asian person in a room. Even though the outside world is much more multicultural, the arts industry is quite the opposite.

Anxiety or a Learning Opportunity?

I knew that I had to work with my discomfort, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to concentrate, participate, and make the most of my experience here. I have kept telling myself that I am here to learn as much as everybody else. It is easy to say, but hard to do. There have been many times I would feel my heart beating rapidly and I was too anxious, unconfident, and scared to fully embrace my Chinese identity in a predominately white space. I believe many of the difficulties I face are just internal struggles –  my assumptions on the way other people look at me. Just because the school is too white doesn’t mean that people here hold prejudices. It might be true that I can be the first East Asian person they met who studies arts, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Maybe if I’d just allowed me to open up myself, things will change. Or maybe if I’d contributed more in discussions and conversations, they would also learn something new.

One of the few East Asian theater students I met at Queen Mary is Cindy Kim. She was born in South Korea, grew up in Hong Kong, and now studies in UK. She shared with me that having cultural differences from other students did make her feel lonely and alienated in the beginning, but it is worth going out there and making friends with those who are different from herself. It has helped her to break out of her comfort zone and expand her horizons. Thus, I followed what Cindy said and started to let go of my anxiety, turning the situation of being the only East Asian student in a classroom into an advantage for both myself and other students. After all, it can be a great learning exchange opportunity for all of us.

“How do you enjoy London?”

My professor sat next to me and checked in with me when I came into class in the following week. I smiled back to the professor, and showed her that I am doing well. During my first three weeks of school, all of my professors have reached out to me and offered me help. It has been really helpful for me personally to know that the professors here care about my study and my mental wellbeing.

“Thank you for your commitment, collaboration and creativity, it is not easy working like this with people who are new to you.” Another professor wrote me an email and encouraged me to keep challenging myself and embracing the discomfort.

Yes, Embrace the Discomfort!

It is never going to be easy to study arts as an East Asian no matter where I go. There will always be struggles and challenges, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t find my place in the art community. It is a community where different voices and cultures are celebrated in the most creative way. It is a community where people make thought-provoking performances that lead to social change. It is a community that keeps working to be more inclusive, diverse and equal. Especially in London, there are many people and organizations that are striving for a change in minority’s representation and visibility in the field of arts. It is actually very exciting to be in London during this time to both witness and be part of the change.

London, UK

Courses in my Major; Dominant culture; Men Abroad; Mental Health; Navigational Skills; Racial and ethnic identity; Reflections; Students of Color

Meeting Søren Balle

As a part of my Scandinavian Moods of Cinema elective, we watched the film Klumpfisken (The Sunfish) in preparation for its director, Søren Balle, to visit our class as part of a field study. Unfortunately, because of his busy schedule, he was unavailable to visit on our scheduled field study day (Wednesday) and he came later in the week.

We were able to pick his brain about his film and the film “industry” of Denmark. These were some of the key things that I took away from the Q and A:

  • The peninsula of Jutland has usually been portrayed in Denmark creative media as the butt of the joke. Balle wanted to change the culture of viewing this film to reflect the reality of its inhabitants as more than a one-dimensional punching bag. (This notion I really reacted strongly too as an African-American filmmaker.)
  • The film is unapologetically Jutland. The actors speak with the specific Jutland dialect (which worried distributors). It was shot on location and was heavily influenced by his personal views of his own hometown.
  • When making a film with state money (as European films are funded by the government in this case the Danish Film Institute), the creative control is heavily on the director and writer. Film is the space for the auteur to shine while television (as Søren has had the pleasure of directing for Danish television) has less control of the final product. The showrunners have the final say.
  • Differing from the states, film is the space to explore the minority and niche markets while television is reserved for the majority.
  • He hates the poster because distributors had marketed it as a romantic comedy which spoiler alert the film is not. Distributors believe that attaching a genre to the film would market it better which reminds me of Hollywood film.

CCW: The Good With The Evil

On the last day of our core course week, we all woke from our slumber in the city of Odense and shining sun. Something we haven’t really experienced in the cloudy city of Copenhagen. The bus jerks suddenly as we all tumble out in front of the unmarked tall building. We all remember why exactly they’ve taken the long way back to the city – Lars Von Trier.

The Brandts Museum has curated a fantastic exhibition about the works and life of Lars Von Trier. After the difficult film showing of “Århus By Night,” many of us were wary of engaging with another filmmaker that we already know is controversial.

That being said, the curatorial efforts of the museum is astounding. The exhibit was both interactive, engaging, and unsettling which is the same feeling you get watching a Lars Von Trier film.

With a career built on trilogies, introspection, and Danish moods, Trier has created really great art with extreme aesthetic merit. I have trouble with some of the subjects he tackles personally, and would gladly write a whole paper on my hang-ups on Trier (but I’m tired lol). But, he still created one of my more recent favorite movies of mine, “Dancer In The Dark” (again controversial).

It was enlightening to get an in-depth, hands-on approach to all things Trier. From props to screenings of clips from his films paired with the inspirational texts, there was not a shortage of stimuli for us. My favorite part of the exhibit is the screenings orientation. There is an enclosed circle of screens at the far end of the exhibit which showed all his films featuring female protagonists edited in a way that overwhelmed the senses. Also, a great place to nap.


(den)Mark My Words

Hi! My name is Kalee Kennedy! I’m currently studying Art & Visual Culture in Copenhagen, Denmark with the DIS program. Here are my thoughts, musings, and photos from my time over there.


“Honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing here and I’m just figuring it out as I go along.”

The girl next to me in the Diverse Identities Social Club culture talk said this as she introduced herself and pretty much shocked the room, but I couldn’t help but feel kin to the feelings she spoke to.

I think before getting here I didn’t think this would be as hard as it is. Adjusting to an unfamiliar culture and an unfamiliar language is just as hard as they told me, but I figured because I had experience living with different cultures that it would be a piece of cake. Boy, was I wrong.

I left January 12th in the evening to make my connection to Munich. To say the least, my mom was more emotional than I was and my sister was practically pushing me to the gate lol.



I had a hard time sleeping on both planes, so I was majorly sleep deprived when I made it into Copenhagen. That being said, every DIS staff member I ran into was more than welcoming and accommodating. I was then driven over to my kollegium and given the keys to my room. Before I could let myself pass out until we had to meet back up at 7 pm to do a quick tour around the neighborhood, I managed to unpack my bags and take stock of what was provided by the program for me.

On the night tour, we found that the neighborhood grocery store was right at the corner and the mall was just a minute walk away. We also had the train and bus stops right near our doors. So, a prime location for sure. We then headed to the grocery store and woah. That was the greatest anxiety-inducing activity I had to complete. Even though I had studied Danish with some apps and a quarter course at school it didn’t prepare me for the fact that all the stuff that I would usually eat is not available in Denmark. Also, without an oven, the meals that I initially thought to make while I was here has changed greatly. I hope by the end of my stay I can say that I learned more stovetop recipes and managed to keep myself fed without utilizing takeaway and restaurant options.

The next day, Sunday, we were sent on a scavenger hunt to familiarize ourselves with the transportation and the offerings of our neighborhood, Nørrebro. My two person group ending up winning a gift card to this fancy dessert place. I can’t wait to use it.

At the start of the week, we went through our arrival orientation events. The opening assembly was in this beautiful space. It reminded me of an old burlesque room from Moulin Rouge. We heard some music from Jada, a Danish singing artist and some welcoming comments from the directors of the program.



Then we were sent on a scavenger hunt of some of the primary historical landmarks of Copenhagen. We found out some great information about King Christian IV and saw the Queen’s guards announce her arrival with a march and music. But, it was extremely cold, so we tried to get it done as fast as possible. Afterwards, we went to Jagger for lunch/dinner. That was a great day of exploring and getting to know new people.

The following days, I went to a couple of my classes and I’m really excited to get into them and learn alot.

Now back to the first quotation:

Although, I’m learning a lot about the country and the people. I still have a lot of fears. I’m hesitant to speak the language or even speak English sometimes because I feel for some reason it’s disrespectful almost. I also don’t know exactly how to navigate places which is a little scary as well. The etiquette is lost on me right now and I’m trying to discern from social clues what exactly is happening. Hopefully, I’ll be able to address my fears and really get involved with the program and the culture. That starts with the Activities Fair and my visitng host family.


To read more from Kalee’s blog, click here.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health and Study Abroad (by Sylvia DeMichiel)

Study abroad is often painted as an idealistic experience. Living in a new country. Making friends. Traveling. Eating new food. Having incredible new experiences. It is often marketed as the semester that will change your life. And for some, it could be just that, but that’s not always the case.

I studied abroad my fall semester of my senior year in Cusco, Peru. I was extremely excited. I wanted to explore, travel, eat all the food, and just be in this beautiful historical location, but I had a difficult time. I found myself wanting to sleep a lot. I didn’t connect with the other students. My appetite was minimal. I was no longer excited. I just wanted to go home. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I learned briefly about Culture Shock, but this lasted longer than Culture Shock was supposed to. I didn’t know who to turn to either. The program I was on just told me to get out more. I ended up figuring it out my own, and a lot later than I wish I did. I went to see an English-speaking therapist in Cusco and volunteered for two hours a day five times a week. Even though I was able to have a better time in the last month I was there, I still felt like I failed study abroad when I came home. I listened to others talk about their amazing experiences abroad, and I just never really said anything. It wasn’t until later that I found that this wasn’t an uncommon experience.

Looking back, I wish I knew what to expect and how to take care of myself mentally when I was abroad. Now, every study abroad experience will be different depending on who you are and where you want to go. I do believe that it’s important to go into this experience knowledgeable about how to take care of yourself mentally when you’re abroad because it can be different than when you are at Wesleyan.

First, I just want to briefly mention a few aspects of study abroad that can affect your mental health and experience.

Environment: When thinking of where you want to go, try to be mindful of the climate of where you are going. Does rainy weather affect your mood? What about how much daylight there is? Do you prefer colder weather?

Culture:  Learning a bit about it before you live there. Is it a masochistic culture? What does the culture think of other religions? Races? Clothing? There often is a lot of discussion surrounding culture in pre-departure so pay attention to that.

Living Situation: Depending on the program you can be staying in homestays, dorms, close quarters on a boat, etc. Do like being surrounded by people most of the time? Do you prefer to have the privacy of your own room?

These are just questions to ask yourself. Just because you prefer sunny weather, and you want to go to a place that has mostly rainy weather, I’m not saying don’t go- but be aware of how it can affect you before you go. By being aware you can create a plan and have an understanding of it. This will help. Also – these are just a few aspects of what can affect you when you go abroad. You also have just normal stresses that will also affect you at home: social life, academics, loss, etc.

As I mentioned, just being aware is a huge first step in understanding your mental health and being abroad. You also should be mindful of the resources that are available to you when you are abroad as well as your coping mechanisms. This can just be by understanding what you do to take care of your mental health at home. You may not actively think about it so thinking about what makes you feel well or happy.  Here are some examples of resources and coping mechanisms:

Medication: If you take medication to take care of your mental health – think about how you will be able to bring your prescriptions abroad – talk to your doctor and know the laws of where you are going.

Therapy: If you are currently attending therapy – can they still see you online when you’re abroad? Should you find a new therapist in the host country? Does your program offer help with this?

Coping Mechanisms: Does exercise help you? Team sports? Music? Cooking? Religion? Meditation? Whatever enables you to stay well, think of how you can adapt this to where you are going to study abroad. Look for team sports at the school where you are going. O for example.

To bring this all together, just be aware of it. I didn’t understand what was happening to me when I went abroad – I only knew of Culture Shock. If I was more aware of it, I could have helped myself sooner. I could have had some plan or idea. I may have had a more exciting experience abroad. I no longer believe I failed study abroad. I learned more about myself when I was in Cusco than I did on my home experience – but it wasn’t what I expected. I just wish I was more prepared or aware of what I could experience so I could have learned even more about myself and handle my mental health properly. Your study abroad experience probably won’t be perfect – but that’s okay. You may struggle with mental health, identity, culture when you are abroad – that’s okay too. Just be aware, and you will come out of this experience learning something new about yourself.

Deconstructing Difference on Politicizing Attention (by Mika Yaakoba-Zohar, class of 2019)

In the Fall of 2017, Mika Yaakoba-Zohar spent the semester studying abroad with CIEE in Hyderabad, a city in the South Indian state of Telangana. As part of the program, participants enrolled directly in classes at the University of Hyderabad, and spent most of their time on campus. Mika says it was a wonderful experience that she would definitely recommend, but like anything, it wasn’t always positive, and she always tried to think critically about many aspects of her experience. The following is a piece she wrote for her program’s newsletter, Hydertales, in which she attempts to analyze in a political light the attention she would receive as a foreigner.



If you’re in Hyderabad and you are white and female-passing, you will be stared at. I’m sure if you are in Hyderabad and you are a number of other things you will also be stared at, but I can only speak to my experience. And let me tell you, the experience is not always fun, especially at first.

During orientation, CIEE took its students, five white girls (coincidentally all blue-eyed, as one participant noticed) to the old city. Once ruled by the Muslim Mughal Empire, Hyderabad became an independent region when viceroy Asif Jah I declared its sovereignty in the 18th century and became its first Nizam. During British colonialism, the city continued to be ruled by the Nizams as a princely state. The city therefore has a strong Muslim influence, and the old city remains a predominantly Muslim area. So, as you might imagine, a group of five white girls walking through a very crowded street filled with burkas can draw some attention. Navigating the packed streets, as I stretched further and further outside my comfort zone, the weight of my decision to study abroad in India set in.

But it’s not only in these more extreme situations that the stares are palpable. Just standing on the side of the road waiting for a rickshaw every morning—let alone mornings when I walk to school—draws looks that even when I’m in a good mood are hard to ignore.

At first being constantly looked at was quite unsettling, especially for someone like me who is not only unaccustomed to but also pretty uncomfortable with receiving attention in the first place. And I found that actually a good way to cope with this newfound attention was regarding it intellectually, distancing myself from it, asking myself, Why is it so interesting to look at someone who is different from you? We’ve all had experiences in which we see someone different and can’t help but stare. It’s part of our humanity; we are wired to be curious about someone different. We want to see the human in them, to see that they are like us even though they don’t look like us. Our values are illuminated in the conclusions we draw from that difference, but the curiosity itself is not malevolent. Regarding it in this rather detached way helped me deal with a pretty uncomfortable feeling and encouraged me to sympathize with the people around me.

But it wasn’t long before I began considering the attention I was getting in a political light, especially as certain incidents became increasingly ambiguous in their innocuousness. For example, especially when we’re in a group, people often ask to take pictures with us. I’ve experienced this much less since establishing a routine, but the first couple of times I was confused and unsure what to do. After some preliminary thought my attitude about it was pretty casual, thinking, what harm could taking a picture with some Indian children do? But the more it happened the more uneasy I felt. It’s not just that people want to take pictures of you, which would be weird enough; they want to take pictures with you, as if you’re somebody not just different, but important. I couldn’t imagine a reverse situation in which a white person asked to take a picture with a black or brown person. I don’t know what this discrepancy really means, and it’s likely that for every individual or family that asks to take a picture the motivation is different, but it feels significant. And for me it feels like consenting to being photographed is accepting not only a way of thought but also a systemic reality that regards me as superior, one which I want to work towards resisting.

Other experiences are more clearly about the value of my skin color. Recently two other CIEE students and I went to a school for disadvantaged children. As we were shown around the school, in every classroom the lesson was stopped in order for us to have basic conversations with the children, all the while our host was taking pictures of us. And I don’t blame him; three white girls smiling down at eager brown children is really photogenic, and we’re flooded with these images all the time. But recognizing the harm in them is extremely important. Visually privileging white presence in such a way tends to eliminate indigenous work and activism, a representational omission that has real effects on the ground and often works to discredit the voices that matter most. After all, it is the teachers in the school, whose lessons we were allowed to interrupt, who are ultimately the ones making a difference, not us.

My intention is not to place blame or point fingers, and it’s important to remember that, globally, it is white people who have to do the serious work of unlearning racism. I’m still figuring out how to have these conversations with my Indian friends and classmates without getting frustrated at the wrong people. I’m still figuring out when my presence is political, or rather should be politicized, and when people’s actions in response to my difference should be politicized or just taken as human dispositions.

I also don’t intend to judge or shame any white person’s reactions to these situations. But it’s important to have these conversations both with similarly privileged people and with our Indian classmates because they matter, not only here but also in our communities back home, which are not immune to the valuing of white bodies over others’. I hope that in learning to better navigate these tricky situations of power and privilege we will continue to grow and maybe, just maybe, make a small difference.

Welcome to our new interim study abroad advisor!

Hi everyone!

I’m Beck, the Graduate Intern (and now interim Study Abroad Advisor) here at Wesleyan for the 2017-2018 academic year.  I’m currently studying my Masters in Counseling in Bridgeport (with a focus on higher education), and bring to this position a strong background in international education.

So, what would you like to know about me?  Well, I’m originally from Australia.  And I absolutely love life.  I love to do things, see things, feel things, and to simply be a part of this amazing, magical, wonderful world of ours, lapping it up like a thirsty camel and always wanting more 🙂  I love live sport, local music, photography, volunteering for local and overseas NGOs, Desiderata, riding my motorcycle, independent films and yes, of course, travelling the globe!

Actually, I’d probably consider myself a travel addict … I first travelled in 1999 on a 3-month trip to the USA (to CT, no less!) and since then have lived and worked in nine different countries (Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the U.S., Greece, and Iceland).  In between I’ve travelled … a fair bit!  In fact, seeing the globe – and indeed inspiring others to spread their wings to see it also – is my true passion in life.  And the more I travel (130 countries down, a few more to go!), the more I want to see, to feel, to experience…

I think this is how I found myself in international education (many, many years ago now…) – I’m drawn to those from other cultures who have found themselves here in North America, and to those wishing to step outside their comfort zone and to immerse themselves in another culture by studying abroad.

Me somewhere just outside of Cusco, Peru

This is usually best done through spending a decent amount of time in the one place (eg. a semester abroad), and more often than not, with the local people.  I personally prefer to get off the beaten track, down the back alleys, mix with the locals, and get away from all those tourist traps!

I look very much forward to helping students here at Wesleyan find their study abroad passion, and to support them in pursuing their educational and personal goals in a foreign land 🙂

Welcome Sylvia & Some Lessons She Learned About Study Abroad

My name is Sylvia, and I am the new graduate intern at Office of Study, here at Wesleyan. I am currently in my second year of graduate school at SIT Graduate Institute. When I was in undergrad at the University of New Haven, I studied abroad in Cusco, Peru. After I had graduated, I worked at a 3M Distributor and then at a Community Foundation in Connecticut. In 2013, I took a month off and spent it in Cordoba, Argentina. In 2014, I applied to graduate school at SIT. I spent Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 taking classes at their campus in Brattleboro, Vermont. This experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on my study abroad experience and why I wanted to become involved in this field.

Sylvia at her campus in Cusco, Peru

Sylvia at her campus in Cusco, Peru  Photo by Becca Tiernan

My study abroad experience was strange or maybe just different from what others would expect. I studied abroad in my fall semester of my senior year in Cusco, Peru. I lived in a hostel with other students. The program was separate from the university, and there were only around twenty other students in the program from the United States and Australia. Cultural immersion was challenging. When most of my peers went out on the weekend, I stayed in. I had a boyfriend back home at the time, and I spent time with him. After class, I would go back and Skype with him for hours instead of exploring the city. I felt the compulsion that I needed to spend time with him. I had anxiety if I didn’t have internet access. Since I didn’t socialize with the other students, I became isolated. They did try helping me and now looking back, I am incredibly appreciative that they even reached out to me. I started crying a lot. I started not wanting to even go to class. I didn’t eat a lot. I realized that something was wrong, that my depression was becoming triggered and exacerbated. I finally reached out to the program director and asked about services they could provide. At first, he only told me to stop talking to people back home. I said I needed more assistance than what he was saying. Eventually, he was able to find me a therapist in the area that spoke English. I saw her for about a month. I don’t think she knows this, but I am eternally grateful for her and gave me that push that I needed to get better.

I ended up making a difficult decision. I went home for a week and a half in October. This decision came about because of multiple personal issues I was having. I had a break from my isolation in Peru. I talked to my study abroad office who were amazing and graciously helped me. When it was time for me to go back to Peru, I cried a lot in the airport. I knew people were staring, but I couldn’t fathom how I could survive another two months in Peru. When I returned, I knew I was still going to struggle. I became involved in a local organization and volunteered with four-year-olds every day of the week. It helped me immensely. It was still a fight for me. I was still isolated. I survived and learned a lot from it.

When I’m looking back now, I have an appreciation for it. It taught me a lot about myself. It pushed me. I made mistakes while I was there that I regret. I wish I allowed myself to connect with the other students on the Study Abroad Program. I wish that I didn’t go home for that week. I wish that I started volunteering sooner. I wish I took advantage of traveling in the area. I wish I were able to practice my Spanish more. But you know what, I didn’t. It is what it is now. I am currently getting my master’s in international education. It didn’t push me away from study abroad. Even with all my challenges and struggles I had, I would still recommend it to others. I believe in it. I do think that says a lot about the field and the experience students can have. I still struggle with anxiety and depression. I had struggled with it before I went as well. This experience taught me a lot. Here are some lessons I learned that could help others in the future:

  1. Practice self-care

Self-care has become an integrated part of my life. I think about it constantly. I reflect on the things that I do that make me feel well and I do my best to do them. Just because you are abroad, doesn’t mean that you can forget about taking care of your mental self. Take time to invest in yourself. If you are always moving and going, take a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take a step back. There are plenty of links to articles online that discuss this important topic. Take time to research and become aware of what you need.

Sylvia with a fellow student hiking around Cusco, Peru

Sylvia with a fellow student hiking around Cusco, Peru Photo by Becca Tiernan

  1. Become connected to the community

If I didn’t start volunteering in Cusco, I don’t know how my experience would have turned out. All I can say now, though, is that it helped me immensely. I finally started to feel connected to the community and that I was a part of something bigger when I was there. If you are starting to feel isolated or just that you want to become connected, take steps and learn about what is there for you to explore. Connect with locals in whatever works best for you. For me it was volunteering, but if you have organizations at the university where you are studying abroad, join one.

  1. Do what works for you.

While people are studying abroad, they may want or expect different things. Your peers will be taking different classes and investing and exploring topics different than yours. Others will want to explore nearby cities or countries, while you may want to stay in the city where you are studying and become fully integrated into that. Do what you think is best for you to be able to gain what you want from the experience.

  1. It’s important to prepare yourself for where you are going.

Every country is, of course, different. Studying abroad in Brazil or Italy, you will be getting two completely different cultures and environments. The food, where you will be staying, the people, the holidays, accessibility, diversity, etc., will all be different. It is important to have some basic understanding before you go so you are not completely caught off guard. While I was in Peru, even though I stayed in a hostel, the internet was scarce. Many times it would go out and wouldn’t be fixed for days. People who stayed in homestays had no access to hot water. These may seem like little things, but having to experience it a whole semester can be challenging if you are not prepared.

  1. The staff is there to help.

Maybe it’s my depression or anxiety or maybe this is normal, but I felt bad talking to the staff while I was studying abroad. I didn’t want to bother them. I thought my problems were not significant. I thought I would just be a burden. It is important to recognize that staff is there to help you. Talk to a staff member who you feel comfortable with about your concerns and questions, before, during and even after your semester abroad. It helped me. When I came back, I visited the office often, and it helped me unpack my experience and move forward with it.

  1. Don’t compare your experience to others.

My experience differs from others on many levels. Every student’s experience will be different. When I got back home, I heard other’s raving about their experience abroad. Talking about how many good friends they made and how much they experienced. I, on the other hand, was depressed for most of my semester. I didn’t become close to anyone. I heard others and I kept thinking how I was awful because I didn’t have an experience exactly like theirs.  I found that it was important to remember that my experience was unique. That it helped me get to where I am and that no one can take that experience away from me. It became a part of my story and I needed to own it and accept it. Listen to others, but don’t put your experience down just because you don’t think yours was good enough.

  1. Take classes that fascinate you and push your understanding of the world.

My classes abroad taught me a lot about the culture and the history of where I was in Peru. It was great to learn, and sometimes it was interesting, but it didn’t fascinate me enough. I loved being able to explore historical sites for my classes and see the history and architecture and connect it to where I was and what I was learning. But you know, if those things don’t connect with you, don’t feel like you have to take those classes. It can be interesting just to learn about a subject matter that is important to you but in a different worldly perspective. Be opened minded with your choices and get the best academic experience you can. It will be worth it.