Recall a time when your education and experience didn't prepare you for a situation abroad.
John: The nature of travel takes you out of your element and no matter how many places you’ve been, I feel like there are always unforeseen difficulties. That said, for me, nothing compares to my solo trip to El Salvador in March 2014.
I agreed to take a 24hr bus to San Salvador to meet my old college roommate and from the start things went wrong. By the time I arrived at 3am, the boarder taxes claimed my last bit of cash, my credit card stopped working, my phone stopped working, and the hostel canceled our reservation. On top of all of that, there were no busses out of the city for three days, so we were effectively stuck without phones, money, or lodging in one of Central America’s most dangerous cities.
Though this may sound like the beginning of a horror story, getting stuck in El Salvador was actually the most authentic experience I had in Central America. San Salvador ended up being one of the most welcoming cities I’ve ever visited, and I spent my birthday (our third day) eating tres leches cake and catching waves in Playa El Tunco. I felt privileged to spend so much time in a place many Americans don’t get the chance to see.
El Salvador was my favorite destination in Latin America, and if you can play it smart and have a good working ability with Spanish, I would recommend it wholeheartedly. Nothing I learned in the classroom ever prepared me for what I experienced down there, but I believe there are some lessons you can only learn outside of your comfort zone, and this was definitely one of them. Pro Tip: bring American cigarettes with you; you can always use them for small bribes.
What is one piece of advice you'd give future students traveling with your program?
John: If I could give one piece of advice to any traveler, it would be to really put yourself out there and try to meet new people as soon as you get to your new country. A lot of students prefer to speak primarily English and hang around other study abroad students. But if you really want to learn the language it’s critical to meet some locals and get outside of your comfort zone.
The most common misconception/excuse for not getting out of the study abroad group is that it’s awkward and you might not feel like you speak enough of the local language. To be completely honest, it is uncomfortable to meet new people, and you are going to feel a little lost in the beginning, but if you really want to learn Spanish (or whatever language), you HAVE to speak it with locals, and by the end of the program it’s really clear who has local friends and who doesn’t. Just put yourself out there; no one is going to laugh at you or judge you for not speaking the local language perfectly.
How has this experience impacted your future? (Personally, professionally, academically, etc)
John: I believe my ultimate desire to go into Foreign Service is a culmination of my life experience. Studying abroad taught me that I am independent and driven by nature, and not someone who sits and waits for opportunities to come to me.
I love being well-rounded and learning new life skills (I’ve recently picked up SCUBA, cooking, and motorcycle riding) in addition to having eclectic academic interests in everything from international law to physics. This desire for personal advancement and my inability to sit still makes Foreign Service a perfect fit, because it is a world full of unpredictability and inconsistency where no one really ever stops learning.
Do you think your program changed you as a person?
John: During the spring of 2014 I studied immersion Spanish at a study abroad consortium in collaboration with Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, I lived with a Spanish-speaking host family and traveled extensively through Central America, in addition to visiting Cuba over my Spring break.
During my time in Cuba I took notes and interviews and am compiling them into a narrative on the current US-Cuban political situation (which has recently gotten a whole lot more interesting!). Living in Costa Rica was one of the best and most influential experiences of my life. The life experience I gained while learning Spanish, traveling the region, and exploring the local culture is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.