When and where did you learn a language abroad?
I spent an academic year on exchange at the Tec de Monterrey campus in Guadalajara, Mexico. My focus while in Mexico was to improve my Spanish, as it was a key element of my degree back home, so most of my classes were Spanish language or literature, although I also took some history, sociology and Mexican culture courses.
What made you want to learn a language abroad?
I was privileged enough to travel a lot as a child and I’ve always had a strong desire to immerse myself in other cultures. My choice to go on exchange, however, was due largely to the fact that I needed to improve my Spanish for my academic program and going abroad seemed to be the best way to do so.
What was the biggest surprise about your language learning experience?
I think the biggest surprise was discovering that I was not only moving between cultures, but between classes. Only upper class Mexicans have access to post-secondary education (or even secondary education) and, while I knew this before leaving, I wasn’t expecting the level of wealth I was faced with. Many of my friends drove BMWs, had several family homes, or booked overseas vacations on a whim. I was surprised to discover that I was better able to judge my own safety in Mexico than they were, as most of them had grown up in gated communities and never spent much time outside those walls.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I took a ballroom dance class offered by the university, which gave me a great opportunity to meet locals; however, the best extra-curricular activity I took part in was volunteering at a local primary school for blind children. I helped out with their dance classes once a week, which was a good challenge for my Spanish (no hand motions when talking to the blind!) and gave me an opportunity to step outside the upper-class world I was living in. I would highly suggest volunteering to any exchange students heading to Latin America or another region of the developing world: it's an amazing way to see the country from a different perspective.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
I managed to get a lot of money through scholarships and bursaries, which covered everything my parents and savings didn’t, including a trip to El Salvador during the university break. I got an automatic scholarship through the exchange office at my university, but also got a bursary, which I had to apply for through my department. Being in Mexico, however, budgeting wasn’t a big deal as most things were very cheap.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
If you’re going on exchange to learn the language, then make a real point of speaking it right from the time you arrive. Most of the world speaks English and if you fall into the trap of speaking it until you’re comfortable with the host language, you’ll never get comfortable and you’ll only grow used to speaking English with everyone around you. If you have a base in the language, insist on using it right away: I did and I was able to skip a level of Spanish between terms, something most of the exchange students weren’t able to do. If you don’t already have a base in the language of the country you’re going to, learn as much as you can before you leave: it not only helps you to speak to people with limited to no English (who you will come across), but it’s also your gateway into the hearts of the people.
What did you miss most about home?
I would like to say family and friends, but honestly, I made such good friends in Mexico that that just wasn’t the case! I think the thing I missed the most was the academic level at home. In Mexico it was more about reiterating what the professor said. I even had a fourth year lit prof tell me that we weren’t meant to think about the books, simply to read them! I missed the intellectual engagement of my home school!
Describe an experience from your time abroad that made a particularly strong impression on you.
I went to Michoacán for the Day of the Dead with a couple of other exchange students and my friend’s Mexican boyfriend. We drove out in the afternoon, in time to check out the local pyramids, wander through the graveyard by daylight and grab some food before dark. The bulk of the celebration, however, happened overnight. During the night, we took a walking tour of the town, watched a live performance of Don Juan, and wandered through the graveyard where the locals camped out by the graves of their loved ones for the night. The celebration is so unlike anything back home and so culturally rich that it made a real impact on me. The fact that it is celebrated only a day after Halloween only marks the contrast between our North American fear of the dead and the indigenous Mexican celebration of the dead. It was wonderful to see them building shrines around their loved ones' graves rather than carving jack-o-lanterns to scare away the spirits of the dead.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I’m already abroad again, this time in Australia where I’m currently on a working holiday visa. While I have yet to finalize my career plans, I am currently leaning towards teaching with English and Spanish as teachable areas and am considering an exchange to Chile during my next degree and/or a master’s program in Spain to continue working on my Spanish.
Heather provides great insights into how to maximize the cross-cultural experience element of living in a foreign country, and she offers numerous examples of how she managed to integrate successfully. She warns those embarking on a similar trek abroad to avoid falling into patterns of compliance, and supports the approach of reaching beyond one’s comfort zone in order to learn more about all aspects of a host culture. Integrating successfully while abroad requires a level of courage, but also high levels of curiosity and a willingness to engage with the unfamiliar. See the links below to explore more about the exciting prospects of adapting and striving in a foreign culture.
- Skills for Succeeding Abroad and What Is Your International IQ? are both articles exploring the specific skills needed to succeed abroad.
- Living Overseas is a section containing seven articles about the various joys and tribulations of living abroad.
- Women Living & Working Overseas is a section that explores the particular hurdles facing women living and working abroad. This is especially important since evidence seems to suggest that over 70% of the US and Canadian students going abroad are women.
- Teaching Abroad As A Licensed Teacher is an excellent section for those who plan to be teachers and want to teach abroad as professionals (which is something slightly different from simply teaching English abroad for a year or two). Most of these teachers work for international schools in major cities (and in some cases remote sites) around the world.