When and where did you study abroad?
I participated in a study abroad program through my university called We Build. It was a four-week program in Southern India.
What made you want to study abroad?
As a freshman in college, I was making plenty of new discoveries about life and myself in general. Adjusting to college life made me realize just how many opportunities are best taken advantage of during one's college years. I promised myself that I would immerse myself in every aspect of the school experience, so that I'd graduate fulfilled, with no regrets. With no definite plans for my first summer, I decided to visit the study abroad office to evaluate my options. At first I thought studying abroad would not be feasible because of the cost. But to my surprise there were plenty of study abroad programs that were extremely affordable.
How did you search for programs? What made you select your program?
When searching for programs, I thought it was important to have an open mind in terms of location. Any country inhabited by human beings was fair game! With so many different programs to choose from, I saw how the selection process could potentially become overwhelming. So, I evaluated each program based on cost to quality ratio, duration, and relevance to my academic coursework. We Build offered a unique combination of lectures, course work and experiential learning. When I heard that I would be part of a group tasked with building an actual house from the ground up, I was sold. It seemed like the perfect fit because I would also be able to work towards four liberal arts credits, all for a reasonable price!
Do you have any tips on writing applications and preparing for a study abroad term? What was your application process like?
I took the application-writing process as an opportunity to make a first impression on the people I would be working with while abroad. I had fun with the essays, and tried to reflect my personality in them. Just as I hoped, the staff of We Build remembered my writing sample and when I got there, and the story I'd told in it served as a great icebreaker for conversation. I even got a small scholarship! My application process was not too overwhelming. I made several appointments with the study abroad office to address the questions and concerns I had. I was also in contact with the staff of the program via email. They were very helpful and willing to walk me through the process.
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
The biggest surprise of my study abroad experience was the impact my presence had on those I encountered in my travels. Before I left, I could only think about the experience I would have, and how I would feel about it. The Indians I worked with were so thrilled to meet a heritage student from an American family that still keeps its cultural roots intact. The children of the Living Hope Children's Home were remarkably polite, courteous, and grateful for our time and effort. The village that the building project took place in was full of people who did not speak any English, but still communicated with us and made sure we were taken care of while in their homes. They were extremely grateful for our service and excited to welcome us.
What made your study abroad experience abroad a success?
My experience was successful for a number of reasons. I was faced with character-building experiences that changed my life forever. There were instances along the way where I really had to reach deep down inside for the courage to work through and finish the program; but never once did I think about giving up. I came to the realization that when times are hard, we must learn how to adapt and find solutions. I met people who I had only read about in books. Never again will I walk into an exam room without being prepared to ace the exam, because I met children who would thank their lucky stars for the simple opportunity to be educated. I'll never take my air conditioned home for granted again, because I spent 10 days building a simple, four-wall structure the size of my bedroom for a family of ten. My life's paradigm has been completely shifted for the better.
How did you deal with the cultural divide?
For me the cultural divide was different, as compared to my schoolmates' experiences. I am an American of Indo-Guyanese descent, with Indian roots. My family is very culturally aware, and some of that culture traces back to India, which was my study abroad destination. In some cases, I was more familiar with the culture than the other Americans, but at other times, it was just as new to me. It was important to be mindful that cultures are different, and to be respectful of that. When a cultural difference was encountered, I just kept calm and respected that difference. There will always be divides and differences between cultures, so we must accept them and look past them. In time you'll realize that most people you encounter are more similar to you than they are different.
What was your return like?
Upon leaving to study abroad, I thought my biggest concern upon returning would be the jet lag. But that just goes to show how studying abroad changes a person. When I returned, I could not have been happier to see my family, but I genuinely missed life in India. After being culture shocked, and then forced to adjust, I felt like I belonged there. The first thing I did was throw my clothes in the washing machine, and open up my laptop to upload pictures. I could not help but remember the people I'd spent the last month with, and how content they were with four basic walls, and shelter from the rain. Indian girls my age were watching their children joyfully chasing tires with sticks around the village. I returned from studying abroad with a new and improved outlook on life, and I could not be more grateful for the experience, or for anything else granted me in life for that matter! Should I come across another enriching opportunity like We Build, I'm on the next flight out!
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Although studying abroad may be a little intimidating at first, it is worth it. Living in a different country and being forced to disregard everything you define as "normal" is something everyone should do at some point in life. It exposes you to the reality that there is no single definition of that word, and there are people across the world who live such different lives but are still so similar. But don't be satisfied by taking my word for it; go out there and experience it yourself. It will definitely be worth your while!
Do you have any final reflections on your time abroad?
Don't wait until later on in your academic career to study abroad. Do it while you are too naive to realize that at some point, you'll have to start worrying about post-graduate tuition, a career, a ferocious job market, money, and the less fun things in life. There are programs available out there for students of all academic backgrounds and financial means. If you don't find a program through your university, speak to someone who can advise you on reaching out to inter-university programs, and programs that are just out there doing great things. Be proactive, and find a way to make it work for you! You will come out of this, as a deeper person and you'll be very proud of yourself for doing so!
With the world becoming increasingly interconnected, it is important to develop cross-cultural skills. I would still like to develop the ability to understand and converse about world issues comfortably. My experience abroad has taught me that although people are very similar, it is important not to neglect the cultural differences between us. It is somewhat disrespectful and pompous to assume that all other cultures are familiar with the ways of one's own. A respectful bond is the key to success in any interaction, especially a cross-cultural one.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
My future plans for going abroad are more relevant after college. In my case, my undergraduate work needs to be taken very seriously, in an effort to pursue law school. I certainly plan to look further into some volunteer programs in Third World countries, or paid internships in Europe at some point over the course of the next few years. My plans are specific to my academic goals at this point.
Ariana is turning her attention to her studies in order to keep her marks up, as she intends to apply for law school after graduation. While it's very important to prioritize academic success, don't underestimate the value of international skill-building while you study. We recommend that Ariana undertake some cross-cultural extra-curricular activities on her home campus, or that she consider pursuing an internationally-oriented minor as part of her degree. After applying for law school, she might consider specializing in an area of international law, or taking time off to travel, volunteer, work or intern for three months or more in a foreign country.