Have you ever wondered how you are going to set yourself apart from your peers after graduation? What unique elements can you put on your resume to give employers a reason for a second glance? Have you considered a summer, a semester, or even a year abroad? No? Well, you should!
Study abroad offers opportunities to make connections, to experience other cultures, and to broaden your worldview. Not just for students with majors in a language or the international studies of business, relations or marketing, students of any major can benefit from the experience. Much more than just language immersion, immersion in another culture exposes one to a whole other way of life. Much different than experiencing another country as a tourist, living abroad allows you to get into the rhythm of another country and culture.
Amanda Snyder, a class of 2015 Spanish major currently spending the 2013-14 academic year in Barcelona, Spain, says of her experience so far, “Studying abroad helps you truly learn about what another culture really has to offer and the subtle differences you find when it comes to the classroom and the daily living routine. It opens up your world to the way others think and feel and when immersing yourself in a different language, learning how to think and feel in a completely different way.”
I was fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of two study abroad programs this academic year. As a Spanish major, I spent the fall 2013 semester in Salamanca, Spain, and I was also able to participate in the “WCU in Cuba” program during the Winter session 2014. For me, studying in Salamanca and Cuba will always be one of the best and most unique experiences of my life.
In Salamanca, I shared a homestay with other students from the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy, and it really exposed me to different cultures in ways that would have been difficult to experience otherwise. Being able to connect with them through our shared Spanish language, and find commonalities such as similar tastes in music, books, and movies, really broke the ice and allowed us to explore the differences in our cultures.
One of my favorite things about studying in Salamanca was all of the people I met – Salamanca is a university city, with students from all over the world studying there. In my three-month stay, I met such a wide variety of people that I can now say I have friends from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica). The continual change of perspective this offers is invaluable.
One of my favorite memories from Salamanca was an informal international dinner I went to with other students from Poland, Germany, and China. Everyone brought and shared food typical of their country and we all shared stories and taught each other about different culinary and social customs.
While only a week long, the “WCU in Cuba” program had just as strong an impact. Held this past January with Dr. Gloria Hernández, I, along with three other West Chester students, attended classes in West Chester for a week and a half before spending a week in Havana, Cuba. We studied, read, and watched movies and documentaries on the history, culture and current events in order to best prepare us for the experience. Cuba was an experience like no other. Classes continued in Havana, where we were able to meet two poets and discuss their works with them. We also had the opportunity to spend the day at Havana’s prestigious national art school, Instiuto Superior de Artes, where we met four students who gave us a tour of the school’s unique architecture and then joined us for lunch. Discussing the differences between our respective country’s education systems and politics was one of my favorite parts of this trip. The perspective I received from my time in Cuba is one of the most valuable of my life. Despite the difficulties the citizens of Cuba face, they are some of the friendliest people I have met in my travels, and were so willing to share their culture and learn about mine.
Sarah Biser, class of 2014 Spanish major, quoted British-Indian author Pico Iyer when reflecting on her experience in Salamanca, also during the fall 2013 semester. She said, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” This epitomizes the study abroad experience for a lot of students. Upon setting foot on previously unexplored foreign soil, it is easy to lose yourself in all of the new sights, sounds and smells of a new country that tantalize and take over the senses. Sarah remarks, “I loved going to Spain because I got to meet new people, experience a different culture, and improve in a foreign language. I think it’s important to visit other countries to help us realize how big the world really is and how there is so much more than just the middle-Atlantic region or even the United States as a whole. Studying abroad is the experience of a lifetime and everyone should do it.” It is also through losing yourself in a new culture that you learn new things about yourself. Whether adjusting to a new meal schedule, new foods, different living situations, or figuring out the national train schedule and city metro systems, students discover new capabilities through dealing with the unfamiliar. As your experiences grow, your mind becomes more open and you become more curious about other cultures.
Victoria Quig, class of 2015 Spanish Education major, also studied in Salamanca last fall and says an open mind is key when going abroad. “Be open to new things and remember that other cultures do things differently, which doesn’t make them wrong just because it isn’t something you are accustomed to.” She adds that study abroad is the best thing you can do in college if you have the opportunity, and that she’d do it again in a heartbeat.
One of the easiest ways to find information about programs abroad that are available to you is to go to the WCU study abroad webpage. The Center of International Programs, located in Old Library 101B, has advising hours Mondays from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. and Thursdays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. They host the study abroad fair every fall in late October, during which West Chester’s study abroad partners are available in Sykes. Also in October is IFest, a week of internationally-focused events during which the Study Abroad Symposium is held. This is a great opportunity to hear about experiences from past study abroad students.
Now the big question: How am I going to pay for these incredible experiences? First, it is important to know that if you go abroad for a semester or an entire academic year, you are able to use all of your aid towards the cost of the program. This greatly reduces the cost of many programs. Also, look into scholarships available both at West Chester University and online. Many scholarships are reserved for or give priority to students who are going to be studying abroad. There are ways to finance your experience, so ask your advisor or students who have already been abroad for more advice!
Regina is a fourth-year student majoring in Spanish with a minor in latin american studies. She can be reached at RD777987@wcupa.edu.