Welcome Sylvia & Some Lessons She Learned About Study Abroad

Welcome Sylvia

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.