When and where did you study abroad?
In December, 2011 I boarded a Boeing 747 – my next stop was Ghana, Africa.
What made you want to study abroad?
Since I was a little girl, my dream has been to travel the world. I’ve always wanted to fill my passport and have stamps from countries in all seven continents. When I decided to go abroad, there were so many countries to choose from, but I narrowed my choice to a Third World country. I knew that only during my college years would I be granted the wonderful opportunity to travel to the developing world to see it for its beauty and fortitude. I had always wanted to go to Africa, to visit the jungle, to visit different villages, and to learn about and embrace the culture.
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
It came when I arrived home from Africa. All I could talk about was Ghana: how much I had fallen in love with the country, and how much I wanted to go back, this time to do humanitarian work and be a volunteer. Ghana’s history is so rich and beautiful that I became very attached. It broke my heart to see people in poverty; but what surprised me the most was that these people were happy. They lived contented lives and were thankful for everything they received. That, in turn, made me realize how much we take for granted, and it made me more humble and more appreciative of what I have in my life.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
While in Ghana, I took nine classes. I learned about Ghanaian religion, music, politics, history, dance, folklore and writing. We learned basic African dancing steps and were able to perform what we learned. The class was very interactive, and it was especially fun for me because all I’ve done my whole life is learn ballet, jazz, salsa and tango – this was very different, but so much fun.
What made your study abroad experience abroad a success?
I knew my study abroad experience would be a success the minute I received my visa. My mother told me “Sylvia, there’s no turning back now.” Knowing myself and my character, I knew that I would enjoy being in a different culture and different surroundings. Going on trips and traveling to different locations in Ghana to experience its history first-hand was one of the things that made my trip so successful. Being able to visit slave castles where our ancestors were trapped for decades upon decades was an experience that no one will ever be able to take away from me. The second I walked in to a slave castle and could really smell Ghana’s past, it hit me: that’s when I truly realized “Wow Sylvia, we’re in Ghana.”
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
Very well. I love learning about different cultures. I am the type of person that will talk to you about your country and where you are from until you get tired of me. Learning about different countries increases your competency and is something invaluable. Not many people can say they have gone to visit Ghana, and at my young age of 22, I can say I’ve done it, and accomplished one of my dreams in the process. People in Ghana are very friendly and they were very eager to find out more about me and where I came from. The most popular question I would get is “But why would you come to Ghana? Of all the countries in the world.” My answer was always “Why not?” Ghana is a beautiful country and I was able to experience that. I learned little words here and there and, little by little, I was able to close the cultural divide. I was so eager to learn more and more that I never actually experienced much culture shock.
What was your return like?
It was very sad. I did not want to leave Ghana. Ghana had become a part of me – as cliché as that may sound. I had learned so much and had so much fun that I wanted to stay forever.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
My number one tip is: Be humble, and embrace EVERYTHING.
What did you miss most about home?
The only thing I missed about home was being in constant contact with my friends and family. I obviously couldn’t text my friend to tell her I had just seen a giraffe two inches away from me, or call my mom and tell her that I had met an Asante king – but of course I did send emails about my travels when wifi was available.
Do you plan to go abroad again?
I do have plans on returning. Ironically enough, the graduate school program I am currently in offers a social work trip to Ghana - you better believe I will be the first one signed up for that trip. Having studied abroad in Ghana I have realized that my true long-term goal is to assist in the revolution of developing nations’ progress. Witnessing great poverty in Africa and knowing that there is no set welfare system makes me want to help in the progress of a Third World country. I hope that with the two years I have left in my program I can find my niche in social welfare and continue my study of international welfare. My graduate program offers a social welfare trip to an African country, and I plan to be the first one to go. Ghana changed my life, and helped me find my career path. Life is so amazing, there are so many opportunities awaiting us. Through my study abroad experience, I've learned so much and if it weren't for battling against my mental limitations prior to my exchange, I don't think it would have been so successful overall. So to those going abroad, stay strong and most importantly - have fun!
Sylvia writes beautifully about her time abroad and the impact it had on her. She seems to have truly become immersed in Ghanaian culture, learning everything she could about it while living there – and for that we commend her! Sylvia is already planning her next trip to Ghana, and she plans to internationalize her master’s degree by studying abroad for a full year and seeking additional career-boosting internships on the side. Since Sylvia’s passion is working with developing nations, we suggest she pursue a volunteer term of at least three months with an NGO in a developing nation that she has not yet visited – perhaps in South Asia. This will give her an even more well-developed perspective on working in the field, and will be a great resume-builder for her.
- All NGOs is a resource list in the NGOs & International Development section. The list can be filtered by region and country of headquarters. Look for US and Canadian NGOs to start researching international opportunities.
- Why Volunteer Abroad? provides an introduction into one of the most inspiring and challenging ways of gaining international experience.