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A-broad Spectrum of Variables

Time January 25th, 2016 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars, Mexico | 1 Comment by

A lot of variables go into choosing the right study abroad program for you. Here are some things you should think about before studying abroad. Some things might seem obvious but taking a minute to think about them might effect the type of experience you will have.

 

Scholarships & Cost: Abroad Funding

The thing that students have to think about the most when considering study abroad is the money.

  1. I would choose a place in the world that people don’t normally visit and with a great exchange rate. There is more funding to go to places that are less typical for study abroad students. These countries tend to be in the developing world. These countries also make living expenses very affordable.
  2. Choose a program that most closely reflects your goals, your major or academic interests, or your professional goals. It easier and more authentic to write scholarship essays over these topics than to say that you just really want to run with the bulls in Spain – can I have money please?

Side note – more on finding your authentic voice: I found ways to weaved my personal story into my scholarships essays to make a convincing argument about why I choose the abroad program that I did. I’m a double major in International Relations and Sociology with a minor in Latin American Studies. The United States relationship with Mexico is extremely important in terms of the economy, trade and national security. Growing up in Texas, bordering northern Mexico makes the country and cultural connections 10X more relevant to my life. I’m Mexican American – that makes Mexico, cultural, linguistically and historically 100X more significant to my life. Understanding all of these things help me cultivate my own narrative of linguistic identity that was taken from my family through generations of assimilation. I studied in Mexico to regain a sense of cultural identity that has been white-washed from the collective memory of many Mexican-American families through ethnic oppression. Not only that, the region is of important significance to my field of study in international relations and diplomacy given the amount of trade openness we have advocated and migration patterns. Finally, in the future I hope to be a leader with great cross-cultural competence able to live and work abroad in my professional future. All of these reasons helped me tell a story about who I am and why my abroad program was important to my life. Try looking for these connections in your life, in your coursework and in how study abroad helps your future goals.

  1. Search and research scholarships. I found out about a lot of the scholarships I applied for through my study abroad advising office and at study abroad fairs. Talking to my study abroad advisor on what the application and selection process is like and how I can seem more competitive really made a difference in my essay writing. Search high and low for a lot of scholarships and research their organizations goals for funding the scholarship. This makes it easier to cultivate an essay that fits their vision and your own. Reframe these essays in your mind. You are writing to convince a panel of people you have never met to INVEST in your brainpower and potential.
  2. Budget. Get a budget sheet. Keep an excel document current of what money you have from scholarships, loans and from personal savings. Don’t get carried away by the excellent exchange rate and forget you want to eat more than Ramen Noodles when you get back to the U.S.

 

Language: English-only, full linguistic immersion or mixed?

I would recommend full foreign language immersion programs. Many students worry that they will not being able to handle it but that is exactly what pushes you out of your comfort zone. It’s a great feeling to start out the underdog in a language and see what great results you will have after so many months living abroad. Also, since IFSA programs are with other US students, you will most likely have the opportunity to speak English with them on group trips.

 

Program size: 50 or 7 students?

Summer 2015 I went on a Maymester trip through UT-Austin to Beijing, China. This program was led and taught by two UT professors and graduate students. In order to make the month in China cost-effective, there were 50+ students and faculty that went on the trip. It was an amazing experience and I got a fantastic chance to bond and meet more people from my alma mater. However, there were various challenges that arise when traveling in a large homogenous group of Americans. One of these challenges was not getting enough time or space to practice Chinese. Very few of us studied Chinese, but there was always a friend in the group who spoke better than all of us and would feel the need order dinner for everyone. It was easy to rely on him, but that didn’t leave enough time or spaces for you to practice your own Chinese. Also traveling through the Beijing subway system in a large crowd is VERY DIFFICULT.

It was very interesting comparing my Maymester in China to that of my fall semester in Merida. The Mexico program had a total of 7 students from all over the U.S. (although two were from Los Angeles and two were from Washington, D.C. – I’m seeing some need for better recruitment efforts in others parts of the nation). The small group made things more intimate – for better or worse. It was difficult to avoid people you didn’t get along with in such a small program.

 

Housing: Second Mom vs. Roommate

In Beijing, we stayed in double-occupancy dorms. It was a lot of fun and convenient to always be near someone you knew and trusted. Coming home after going out was always easier since everyone lived in the same place and there was a lot of time for bonding.

However, that program was very insular to UT students. If your goal is to learn another language – well – the best option is to live in a home stay. Ask for the most talkative host mom who loves to cook. Ask her about your opinions, stories, what growing up was like, when she got married, etc. Your host family is a wealth of knowledge. Every chat over coffee in the morning or at night is a learning experience. I left Merida with a very heavy heart when I had to leave, my host mom, Mama Rebeca. Besides my program director and a few friends, my main reason to return to Merida, would be for her. Learning about her insights and knowledge through our conversations, not only made me better at Spanish, they gave me a relationship that I will cherish forever.

 

Anxiety

I had a headache and cried after the first day of class. I didn’t know anything any of my professors were saying. Classes were two hours long each. Imagine not knowing anything that is going on for two hours. Then go to another class for two hours and not know anything there either. That was four whole hours of feeling like a total dummy and lost. However, this experience was important for me. It broke down an identity I had been building for myself all my life as the “intelligent-good-student”. I would be willing to bet it’s in 60% of all university students. We have been taught to base our self-value on the numerical evaluations you get from professors and the nods of parental approval. When your main source of validation is in this form, it’s like a shock to the system when you suddenly feel so lost in a space that you once excelled. That is a shock that not everyone can handle. I thought about my old college roommate who suffered from anxiety a lot during this trip. I wondered if she could handle the mental stress associated with being totally lost in another language or country. I would not suggest that you let it hold you back. Let me repeat. I would not suggest that your stress levels or anxiety hold you back from studying abroad. Just know you might need to mentally prepare a little more.

 

-M3

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Advice for First Time Travelers

Time November 9th, 2015 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars, Mexico | 2 Comments by

I took my first international trip this past June when I travelled to Beijing, China with a university-led study abroad program. The actual planning for this trip started the in Fall of 2014! Currently, I’m in Merida, Mexico studying for all of Fall semester. I think most students like the idea of studying abroad but don’t always know the work that comes with that. Between application essays, scholarship deadlines, safety/security meetings, bank notices, and packing – you are tired before your trip even beings. At the end of the day, it’s all worth it. For first time travellers it’s important to remember that

 

Pack light. No really….

There is a rule that you should lay out everything you want to bring when you go abroad on your bed then only take half. I tried to do this and I still ended up paying for extra baggage fees. And you will hate extra baggage fees. You will buy things when you get there. If you have a big family and lots of friends, you will buy a lot of things when you get where you are going. Especially, if you are going to a country where the dollar is stronger than that currency. Trust me you want the extra room. The longer you stay the most you will buy.

 

Ditch the University Sweats

You will definitely have access to some type of method to wash your clothes, do don’t bring so many of them. Before you go research the climate of where you are going and perhaps fashion trends of that culture. When I went to China I realized I should have brought more summer/spring dresses and wedges. I felt like I was sticking out or under dressed when I wore workout shorts and UT t-shirt. Yes bring your university t-shirts but I would forgo the workout shorts. And only bring yoga pants that can be dressed up with a casual top and non-athletic shoes. Before Merida, I had no idea what tropical climate really meant. I just packed a lot of shorts and hoped for the best. When I got to my university I was surprised to find that a lot of the students wore blue jeans and t-shirts. However, after feeling under dressed the whole time in China, I packed all of my nice, cutesy blouses. Now I feel over dressed here. Eventually, I hope to find a balance. Pack a rain jacket. Consider it an investment in your future.

 

Learn about yourself

When you travel, you are put into situations that are out of your comfort zone. Take time to reflect on those situations or interactions and understand yourself a little better. I’m an unapologetically type-A person (work in progress on the unapologetic part). This means that since I was a child I’ve been called bossy for being comfortable in leadership positions and for wanting to plan everything in advanced. However, while traveling I learned that I’m more of a follower than I thought. I enjoyed more when others planned places to how and how we would get there. I enjoyed more going on an aimless walk rather than planning a route. I enjoyed not having a plan some days. It’s important for travellers to take a back seat sometimes and just listen to others. Travelling taught me how to navigate ambiguous situations and know that in the end everything is going to work out.

 

Tune Out while Tunning In, #NoWIFI

You’ll find in international cities or tourist cities, that there is free WIFI n restaurants, public parks or cafes. Don’t always log into the WIFI. If you are only studying abroad for a short amount of time, I would suggest not getting on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram as often as you do when you are in the U.S. Not only is social media a time suck, you can get so involved in what is going on in the lives of your friends back home rather than being invested in the country you are at in that moment. If you are looking at your screen to read a Buzzfeed article your friend posted, you are not seeing the people and place you are currently.

It’s always nice to Skype with mom or What’sApp text with your significant other when you are homesick. But don’t make it a habit. If you and your family are really close, I would suggest preparing them for a little bit of absence in communication while you are abroad. It’s the same idea as the social media piece. If you are always talking to people who are in another country, you are less focused on the people in the country you are currently in.

 

Money & Finances 

I applied to a lot of scholarships and thankfully got my study abroad trips fully funded. I would suggest you start the scholarship application process immediately after you get notified you’ve been accepted to your program. There is more money out there than you think. (Stay tuned: more on scholarships and cost in my next post.) Those scholarships helped me set a budget for my trip. SET A BUDGET. Or you will come back with know money. I have seen friends do that. Make sure to call your bank to tell them you are going abroad before you leave the United States. This will avoid getting your card declined when your card is used in another country. Look into bank fees associated with using your Debt or Credit Card abroad. I found it much easier just to open an account with Charles Schwab before leaving. They rebate you ATM fees when you are abroad and all of their services are online, making them easy and accessible.

M3

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What Yucatan Has Taught Me: Relationships

Time October 29th, 2015 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars, Mexico | No Comments by

  1. To value relationship, friendships and the people in your life.

One day, in my class on the Social History of Written Culture, we were talking about letters written by popular classes. The professor asked me if I had ever written a letter. I said yes. When I was a kid I wrote letters to my grandmother on my Dad’s side who lives in Indiana and to this day I still haven’t met. One of the other U.S. girls from my program also told a similar story. My professor noted that it was interesting that we only wrote to people of the older generation, since of course letter writing was more common during their time. Then my classmate presented a golden cultural teaching moment. She said how strange it was to write a letter to your abuelo/abuela, as they probably wouldn’t read it.

In Yucatan, and Mexico in general, a letter is just words on a piece of paper. What is more important is your presence in the lives of your relatives. It would be more effective to call your grandparents or to go visit them. If you just spend time writing a letter it has less cultural significance than spending time with the person to whom the letter is addressed.

The family is an important cultural unit within Mexican society. Every Sunday, there are 15 people at my host family’s house. All of the children and grandchildren, and even a niece or two will come to eat and spend time together at my host-parents house almost without fail every weekend. More so, the family is deeply intertwined in the daily lives of my host family. One of her daughter’s is a psychologist and has her office inside her parents home where she see’s patients weekly. My host mom also takes care of her grandchildren and is very involved in the lives of her children.

As the class continued, my friend from Washington, D.C., commented that letters play a role in maintaining a familial relationship since often families in the U.S. live very far away from each other. This friend also attends a university outside of the state in which her family lives.

In that moment, based on the commentary from someone who represented Mexican culture and someone who represented mainstream white culture in the U.S., I navigated my own identity and reality as a Mexican American from Texas. I realized the legacy that my mother culture had played in my life and affected the decisions I had made. I had chosen to go to The University of Texas at Austin because it was both far enough away from home (2.5 hours between Houston, my hometown, and Austin) but also close enough to come back home easily. I wanted to be close to my family and to see my niece and nephews grow up. Since I’m the first in my family to attend university, it was a big adjustment for my mom that I was moving away from the home. And to this day, I have to deal with the small pains of guilt when I don’t go back home enough to visit them – any amount of text messages and phone conversations does not fill the void of your absence at the dinner table.

-M3

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Identity & Diversity

Time September 21st, 2015 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars, Mexico | No Comments by

The first week in Merida and at Universidad de Yucatan was less than ideal. On the small end of the scale: a machine ate my credit card, the phone chip I bought didn’t work in my phone and I couldn’t return it, there was an alacran, a non-poisonous scorpion, in my room. These were only small issues compared to the social anxiety I felt during my first week in classes.

It had been a year and a half since I had taken a Spanish language class and therefore I felt (and continue to feel) behind my peers. Out of a small program of seven, there are two native speakers of Spanish, and two whom had already undertaken a study abroad in the Latin America. The two native speakers are Chicanos from the West coast and the rest of us were North American and learned Spanish only in school. Being the only Southerner, the only Latina, and the only one who identifies as a Mexican-American or Tejano, not Chicana, who is not a native speaker has felt very alienating among my peers. In Texas, a state I’m very prideful to have been raised in, identifying as a Chicano or being called a Chicano is not as readily accepted. Persons of Latin American origin who live in Texas are much more likely to identify as Latino, Hispanic, and commonly Mexican-American.

Spending time with other Latinos from around the U.S. has been a learning experience that I’m glad to have undertaken. It has confirmed something I knew to be true – that despite the fact that Latinos in the United States are often homogenized in the discourse of the media, we represent a wide variety of opinions, cultures, values, and colors.

The diversity of Latinos we see in the United States is also true of the diversity of people and cultures that exist in México. My program is hosted in the state of Yucatan in the capital of Mérida. Similar to Texas, many people from here identify as yucatecos rather than mexicanos. In 1823, the Yucatan Peninsula actually was it’s own independent republic for seven years this was actually 13 years before the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed. I find anywhere I travel I can find a way to connect the culture or history to my state. In my classes here on Mesoamerica, the culture of the Mayas, and racism in indigenous communities, I’m learning that the pre-Hispanic cultures represent an even greater among of diversity than the current post-Hispanic population has to offer.

 

-M3

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Linguistic Blow

Time September 21st, 2015 in 2015 Fall, College Study Abroad, First Generation Scholars, Mexico | 1 Comment by

After the first week of classes at the University of Yucatan, I had so much more respect for English as Second Language students and international students in the U.S. Sitting in a class for two hours and not understanding anything the professor is saying is nerve wrecking and leaves you feeling defeated.

Going into this program, I assumed that I would be judged a little harsher for being a Latina who doesn’t know how to speak Spanish. Surprisingly, the local students have not been acutely surprised or disappointed that I have less than the best Spanish speaking abilities. They are very kind and help me out when I’m missing words from my vocabulary or can’t finish a complete thought. Many of the students were speak or know a little bit of English so they are able to help here and there. They understand that you are a foreign student and need a little help.

On the contrary, I feel more self-conscious speaking among the other peers in my program group. They are much quicker to correct my mistakes and because of their greater fluency they tend to dominate conversations with local students when we spend time in a group. It can feel very exclusionary when you are just sitting there quietly and everyone else is participating in a conversation. These are all blows to your linguistic confidence. As time goes on that confidence will grow.

Having been here about a month now, I already feel like it has grown a lot. I owe a lot of my linguistic confidence to the chats over coffee I have with my host mom. She is one of the few people I feel completely secure in speaking Spanish with. She allows me to speak as I know how and express my thoughts fully. She corrects me and teaches me new words often but always after I’ve finished talking. When I speak with her I don’t feel bad about myself when she corrects me.

By this fact, I think it’s a cultural norm in the U.S. among college students, to want to be perceived as smart by your peers. Often we hear friends say that they didn’t ask a question in class because they don’t want to sounding stupid or make the wrong comment. At my home university, I’m usually the first to offer my opinion or ask questions in class. School is my source of confidence. Here at UADY I’m learning what it feels like to not be at the top of my class, among the locals or other U.S. students. Although, it has been hard thus far, a mentor of mine back home reminded me that this learning experience is challenging me more than any course could at UT.

 

-M3

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A Quick Turn Around! (Pre-Departure)

Time August 13th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This summer I have had incredible opportunities to experience the world. Being a Texas native, the idea of traveling could simply mean taking a 6-9 hour road trip to another city in our state, like venturing to the beach at South Padre Island or to the mountains of El Paso. This summer I spent way more than 9 hours traveling.

I’ve left hours and hours of my life in airports, on airplanes, train stations and taxis. In June, I participated in a month long study abroad program with fifty other University of Texas students in Beijing, China. During this program we also visited, Shanghai, Cuan Di Xia Village, and stayed overnight on the Great Wall of China. After that, for two weeks in July, I was in Uzbekistan visiting a dear friend and mentor of mine. I got to travel to Tashkent and Samarkand and physically see ancient history in front of me as I witnessed the largest Koran ever made in the 12th century on deer skin paper and an ancient astronomical observatory carved out of the ground.

After a grueling spring semester, the joy I got while traveling became the fruit of all of my labor. However, these experiences did not lend themselves well to rest and relaxation. I have only been back in the great state of Texas for a mere four weeks and three days – which is split time between my hometown of Houston and my apartment in Austin. It’s been a world wind: one week in Houston. Two weeks in Austin. Taking my nephew to visit UT and go kayaking in Austin. Move out of my apartment and move back to Houston.

Between visiting with friends, salsa dancing, and binge watching the Disney TV show “Jessie” with my four nieces and nephews, I can say that this trip to Merida, Mexico seems like a quick turn around. I truly loved my time abroad and traveling but my heart still wants to be here with my family. To see my oldest nephew enter middle school and my youngest nephew finally crawl across the living room.

Homesickness or longing for home is a very new feeling for me. Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to travel and leave home to go to college. Once I got to UT Fall of 2012, I adapted to Austin quickly and loved the university life. I excelled in my classes and loved talking to my professors. It was a chore to go back to Houston since UT and Austin was becoming my home. I usually kept my trips home short – I’m ready to go back to Austin within a few days. Since after my freshman year, I’ve spent each summer in Austin working and volunteering.

For the first time, I’m not ready to leave. If I haven’t gotten tired of my family after 2 weeks of being home, something seems off balance here. Hahah My family is very supportive of me studying abroad – mostly because they know I’ll be brining back souvenirs again. I’m just glad I’ll be in the same time zone and my flight will only last two hours! I’m very excited to live abroad for these next four months. I can’t wait to meet my host family and immerse myself in Merida. I only hope that the last Spanish class I took a year and a half ago comes back quickly!!!

-M3

Megan Marie Maldonado

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