Alumni Spotlight: Emma Shenton

Hello world! My name is Emma Shenton. I am eighteen years old, and I currently live in Big Rapids, Michigan. This fall (2015), I will be entering the University of Pennsylvania with my major being a massive “completely undecided”. I would personally like to study a bit of everything, and, to be perfectly honest, decisions are absolutely overrated.

Meet Emma

Why did you pick this program?

Emma: To start with, I chose to take a gap year in general because I was completely and utterly burnt out from the pressures of school and I desired more than anything to take an adventure before embarking on another four or more years of schooling. Thinking Beyond Borders initially intrigued me because it seemed to have a bit of everything that I was looking for. It covered seven countries in seven months, so it was far more expansive in the travel regard than other programs I came across which tended to be semester programs rather than yearlong programs.

The in depth academics with reading, documentaries, and seminars drew me in instantly; I have never been a huge fan of school, but I have always loved learning, so it was nice to come across a program that fostered learning without the added pressure of tests and grades. In addition to this, the program provided cultural immersion with homestay families and work experience, a chance to be independent in travel and decision-making, and a place to build a community with those you travel with. How could I possibly say no to all of this?

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

Closing Ceremony in Ecuador

Emma: It is quite hard to put into words exactly what I learned because it was so extensive, in depth, and even abstract at times. Yes, I learned about environmental issues, sustainable agriculture, the public health system, and problems within the education system during the daily field work experiences. These are the obvious bits of information that I absorbed, but far from being the most important.

I learned about development practices, oppression, dehumanization, and higher level empathy. I learned how to question authority while being my own source of truth. I became more confident in advocating for myself. I was given the opportunity to learn purely for the sake of learning, rather than the sake of achievement. I was able to see how simple, and yet so complex the world truly is. Ultimately I learned how to become part of a community, and how to be who I am as an individual.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

Emma: I would tell my friends that there is nothing else quite like going abroad; there is no substitute for it if you choose to stay home. It is human nature to get caught up in our own lives, in the bubbles we create for ourselves, but when we do that we miss out on the beauty in the world.

Staying in one place often leads to ignorance because how can we as humans truly and wholeheartedly understand or empathize with the rest of the world until we see some of it with our own eyes? What is the point in staying in one place for the remainder of our lives? There is an entire world out there for us to explore and learn about, so why turn that opportunity down? We are part of this world, and isn’t it important to explore every part of who we are to understand a bit more of everything?

Bungee Jumping in South Africa

What was the hardest part about going abroad?

Emma: There wasn’t too much that I particularly struggled with when I was abroad because I have always been moderately independent and never really been the homesick type. The hardest part for me was more the anticipation of the trip in regard to the social aspect. I have never been the “social butterfly” type in any group; rather it usually takes me a while to warm up to people and I tend to enjoy my alone time. This made me nervous because I was going to be travelling the world with the same twenty people for seven months, and I wanted to engage with them, but I did not know how I would go about doing that.

I ended up just taking things at my own pace, and not forcing myself to do anything that wasn’t me. It all turned out great in the end; everyone warmed up to one another in their own time and the dynamics of the group constantly changed throughout. It was almost like a family dynamic towards the end, which definitely heightened the experience.