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4 Ways to Help You Get Started Studying Abroad

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Guest Blogger: Alicia Daniels, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office

Here at the Illinois Study Abroad Office we get an array of questions ranging from “what schools are most similar to the University of Illinois” to “what city has the best student life?” However, one of our most frequent inquires is the age old question “how do I even get started trying to study abroad!?” Well you are in luck, from the comfort of your own couch I will tell you four ways that helped me plan my international abroad experience!

  • Decide what you want out of your academic experience.

Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime experience. You meet people from around the world, visit breathtaking monuments, and (depending on your location) can travel to other countries as well. However, we must remember the study in study abroad. You don’t want to end up at an institution you don’t like for 4-6 months just because it is in Italy! Figure out how studying abroad fits in with your academic goals. Ask yourself, do you want to take general education classes or fulfill major requirements? Does your college restrict you from taking certain classes away from campus? Thinking about your academic future can definitely help you narrow down your choices for which program you would like to apply to.

  •  Speak to your advisor.

Your home university advisor is not around to just send you pesky e-mails about class registration! Use their guidance to help you decide which classes you can take abroad and how this will affect you once you return from overseas. Here at the University of Illinois we have a specific set of advisors in each department that specialize in helping students choose classes that will keep their academic career going. Click here to see this great resource and contact your Study Abroad 299 advisor today!

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  • Where do you want to live?

The study abroad experience allows students to enjoy a variety of locations in over 60 different countries. So many options can provide a variety of living experiences. Think of what type of environment you want to live in abroad. Do you prefer something similar to your home university? Would you like to be in a small rural city or large city? How comfortable you are with figuring out public transportation? Would a host family or dorm life be a better fit for what you want out of your study abroad program? Questions like these helped me choose my perfect host university!

  • Visit your Study Abroad Office!

It is true that the study abroad experience is a lot of independent research and decision making; however, your Study Abroad Office is always here to help you! One of the best ways to get started is visiting your local SAO advisors and staff. Sometimes talking to someone is the best way to figure out what you really want in regards to leaving the country. Program Assistants at the Illinois Study Abroad Office are students just like you who needed guidance on how to study abroad and now we look forward to helping you out in the same way! Please come visit to talk about your study abroad experience today!

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Explore The World Like No One Is Watching

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Guest Blogger: Alicia Daniels, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office 

“We should come home from adventures, perils, and discoveries every day with new experience and character.” –Henry David Thoreau

Before I stepped a toe into any airport to fly solo to the United Kingdom, I spent months combing over blogs, government sites, and even Pinterest – I’m ashamed to reveal that last source – in failed attempts to piece together clues about what my study abroad experience may look like. Although I have lived in several countries in Europe before I never visited the city my program was being held. I was finally bursting out of the “campus-life” bubble and, even though that feeling was invigorating, the idea of not being around familiar surroundings was terrifying!

However…I made it sixth months “across the pond” and returned home –for the most part- unscathed (sorry for those impromptu ear piercings in France, Mom and Dad)! The most rewarding moments I had abroad were the times that I traveled off the beaten path and explored the cities I was so fortunate enough to be in. Here are three tips that helped me make the most of my time outside of the classroom:

Talk to the locals. “But what if they realize I’m a foreigner?” Well you are, so embrace it! Don’t worry if you think a native will judge you; chances are they will find you to be a novelty and will want to know more about you too. Plus, you may even pick up a few new friends along the way. Locals are a great resource to understand a city’s public transportation system, the best eateries, and the coolest places to blow off steam after long nights of studying.

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Don’t be afraid to look like a tourist. Grab a map, your camera, and just go! Your study abroad program will go by much quicker than you think. Before school starts and things really pick up try to map out some tourist locations you would love to visit around town. You may think you’ll have 4-6 months to see it all but between finals, making friends, and traveling you may miss out on some hidden gems located in the city of your host university.Huff Post Stock Image - Blog Post

Travel light on the weekends. If you study in Europe, you’ll soon find out that historic towns with cobblestone streets – although completely gorgeous – are not great for rolling around luggage. If you are taking weekend trips to a neighboring city try limiting yourself to a backpack. You really only need the essentials and it will be much easier to carry if you have to wait for a train or need to pass time outdoors until your hostel room is ready.The Abroad Guide Stock Photo - Blog Post

Fear of the unknown is absolutely normal but don’t let that deter you from exploring something new! Let’s be honest, you’re most likely going to get lost at one point during your journey but you’re also going to come back with memorable experiences and tons of pictures that will make all of your Instagram followers terribly jealous.

Unique & Unknown: Highlighting the Reasons to Consider Non-Traditional Locations

Guest Blogger: Matt Boyce, Program Assistant at the Study Abroad Office 

One morning, at the ripe young age of eleven, I waltzed into my family’s kitchen after reading an article in National Geographic for Kids and announced to my parents that I would one day bungee jump and study red pandas in the Australian outback. My mom, in all likeliness, gave me the “oh, that’s nice” treatment, and my dad distractedly pointed out that red pandas do not live in Australia, but kangaroos and wombats do, probably while drinking his coffee and working on the Chicago Tribune crossword puzzle. But that didn’t matter. For the rest of my preteen and teenage years the idea of me going to Australia in college captivated my mind. Despite me not knowing what I wanted to study in college, let alone where I wanted to go, whatever major and school I inevitably decided on would also have to be in Sydney, Melbourne, or Perth.

Now, flash forward 8 years. I am sitting next to a crackling bonfire on a beach, s’more stick in hand. My legs are sore after swimming against the strong afternoon currents that rip through pristine coral reefs a short boat ride away. The sounds of friends laughing and waves gently washing ashore surround me, and give the salty air a certain aesthetic ambiance. Several hours later I will retire to my makeshift bed, a yoga mat with a sweatshirt as a pillow, and fall asleep on the cool sand looking up at what seems like an infinite number of stars.

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But am I in the country that marsupials and Aussies call home? No. I am on South Caicos Island, the seventh largest of the Turks & Caicos Islands, an island archipelago lying southeast of the Bahamas. South Caicos, or more simply South (as the locals call it), is an island approximately 368,500 times smaller than the one that mesmerized my mind from the ages of twelve through nineteen. There are no opportunities to bungee jump, there is no outback, and there are no kangaroos. So what happened? Why did I change my mind? And more importantly, why did I “settle” for another experience?

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Studying abroad anywhere is something to be regarded highly. It takes a special kind of person to say, “yes, I want to leave all my friends and family behind and spend a significant amount of time in a different culture that I may or may not know anything about.” The mere thought terrifies some. But of the courageous students who do ultimately choose to study abroad, many do so in “traditional” locations: the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, and Australia. Despite this,  “non-traditional” regions like Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East present students with the chance to experience more meaningful interactions with communities and more personal growth. This was why I elected to go to South instead of Australia.

During my time on South Caicos I was able to conduct my own research, completely immerse myself in another culture, and grow immensely as an individual. When talking with friends back home who studied abroad, almost none of them can say that they bathed in the ocean due to a lack of fresh drinking water, caught sharks and turtles, or went cliff jumping. Still, even fewer can say that they explored a landing craft boat used in the Allied Forces D-Day invasion, got chased daily by wild dogs on morning runs, or accumulated 70+ mosquito bites in a single night. And none can claim to have befriended men that go by the names of “Juice” and  “Baby Blue,” go out in a nightlife culture dominated by the game of dominoes, or get invited into a home to enjoy a dinner of fried conch. As a result of my decision I was able to get exactly what I wanted from my study abroad experience: something unique and meaningful.

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So, without further ado, my (short list) of reasons to consider the non-traditional:

  1. Non-traditional destinations tend to provide unparalleled opportunities to accomplish academic, linguistic, professional goals, and encourage the development of unique skill sets.
  2. Students often have deeper, more comprehensive, appreciations for the local community they experience.
  3. Living in non-western cultures demands larger changes in attitude, perspective, and problem solving skills as a result of (generally) larger culture shock.
  4. There are considerable amounts of financial aid designated specifically to studying in non-traditional regions.
  5. Having studied abroad in a non-traditional location, students will stand out that much more in future interviews and applications as a result of their unconventional experience.

It is because of the above reasons that I don’t view my experience as “settling” at all. Honestly, I feel that had I done anything else I would have been “settling.” But then again, that is just me. I would like to emphasize that I don’t think a bad study abroad experience exists. And if you want to go backpacking through central Europe, or are majoring in Italian linguistics, then maybe a traditional experience would be better for you. But I would like to encourage you to stop and really think about what you want from your study abroad experience. I have a feeling that eleven-year-old me would be ok with replacing bungee jumping, the outback, and red pandas with cliff jumping, coral reefs, and green sea turtles.

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How Strangers Become Family: Cross-Cultural Connection

Guest Blogger: Alissa Dappas

When it comes to learning a new language, there is only so much a student can get out of lectures and exams.  To truly become proficient, conversation practice is essential.  As a Spanish minor, I knew that my study abroad experience had to include as much language immersion as possible if I ever wanted to become a confident Spanish speaker.  To achieve maximum language immersion, I decided to attend the study abroad program in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica because of its approved Illinois Spanish-credit classes and most importantly, because all students in the program had to live with a host family.  Although I was extremely nervous about the concept of moving in with strangers for four months, I now consider my relationship with my host family to be the most rewarding aspect of my semester in Costa Rica.

Throughout my time spent abroad, my host family was my strongest and always-available support system.  No matter what the situation or question, they were the people I turned to for help or guidance.  I was lucky to live with a very caring host mom, Patricia, host dad, Ronald, and two younger host sisters, Diana and Priscila.  Each member of my family took time to get to know me personally and as the semester went on, I began to realize that I really did consider them to be part of my own family.  There was never one specific moment that made me come to this realization; I think it was simply a bunch of small things that built on top of each other.  For instance, my host mom and I were normally the only ones around for breakfast, so every morning, I would begin my day by having a conversation with her while helping prepare the food, eating or cleaning the dishes. hostfam1 When my host sisters came back from school, we would play cards together or I would teach them how to do cartwheels in the backyard.  We often bonded by talking about things we had in common (a mutual Harry Potter obsession was a hot topic) and laughing at my funny pronunciations of some words.  After dinner, my host dad was my go-to person when I wanted to learn more about the Costa Rican government or general Latin American politics.  He always seemed to know a bit about both sides of any story and usually knew more about the events or debates going on in the United States than I knew myself.  So within this one family unit, I came to know each person as an individual and because of this, I learned more than I ever previously imagined I would.  Besides being able to practice my Spanish with a group of people I was comfortable with, I was also able to create lifelong bonds and gain family members that belong to a culture different from my own.

host fam            Looking back, all four months with my Costa Rican family summed up to one huge lesson on the importance of time spent together as a family.  Culturally, this is where I saw the greatest difference between the United States and Costa Rica.  Although many people would argue that the idea of a strong family unit is still very important to most Americans, it would be hard to deny that the family dynamic in the United States is not influenced by parents’ work schedules, sports practices, tutoring, videogames, fast food dinners, etc.  In Costa Rica, time spent together comes before most other obligations.  And from what I’ve heard and read, it seems like this importance on family time is a central part of Latin American culture as a whole, and not just in Costa Rica.  No matter my host parents’ schedules, they always made time each day to make a meal together and sit down as a family for dinner.  Most days, the dinner was usually followed by a game played together or a conversation that carried over from the main meal to dessert or coffee.  host sisterIt was during these dinners and late-night conversations that we would discuss our days, hear about any problems my sisters were having at school or learn news about the extended family (who happened to live in all of the surrounding houses).  During these moments, I learned more about life and the values of Costa Ricans and my family was able to learn about my life in the United States.

Slowly but surely, my new family impacted me in such a way that I now actively try to apply their family-centered, peaceful mentalities to my own life back in the United States.  Not only did my Spanish conversation ability improve, but living with a host family also reopened my eyes to the more important things in life and that above all, the relationships that we have with our friends and family should come before everything else.

First Place Photo Contest Winners

Michael Bojda
“Buen Camino”
Personal Connection
Program: College of Media in Pampalona, Spain, 2013
Location of photo: El Perdon Mountain Range

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El Camino de Santiago has been portrayed in many movies and TV shows as the “spiritual journey” that will change your life forever. For Alex, Tom, and I, it was a way to get away from the world and get to know each other a little better. With no hiking experience (and no hiking gear on top of it), we embarked on a 15-mile climb to reach the Alto del Perdon. The statue pictured is dedicated to the pilgrims who walk the Camino, and offers a panoramic view of Northern Navarra. My roommates and I decided to join the metal pilgrims and animals in triumph, posing for a self-timed photo as my camera lay on the ground. The trip brought us closer as students in Pamplona and linked us together for years to come. We set out to climb a mountain, with no prior experience, and succeeded. The 10 hours of bonding that went along with it, with no computers, cell phones, or TVs to interrupt, was more of a summit, because the walls between us went down and the three of us returned brothers.

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Lauren Colby
“Lumbisi and UIUC”
Career Connection
Program: SAO – GLBL 298, development and education in Ecuador
Location of photo: Quito, Ecuador

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One of my favorite things that I was able to do in Ecuador was to help improve the educational lives of children in a rural community by organizing, teaching, and leading a day camp.  While our group often had to confront struggles and adversity while planning our lessons, we were ultimately able to deliver an unforgettable experience to the children in the camp.  We were also able to leave a lasting legacy of our summer camp in the form of a mural for the students to enjoy.  We created, designed, and painted this mural for our students, and one by one, each student put their handprint on the branches of the tree to act as leaves.  In this photo, my classmate Mayumi is just putting the finishing touches of the fantastic mural we collectively created, complete with names to correspond with handprints.  I believe that the lasting impact that we made on the children by being there as mentors and role models is reflected in this mural.  The students were able to understand that with our combined efforts put together, we are a part of a bigger picture.  I think of the students often, and hope that this mural reminds them of the experiences we enjoyed together.

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Rachel Rosenberger
“Experiencing Traditional Moroccan Dress”
Academic Connection
Program: SAO Spanish Studies in Granada, 2012
Location of photo: Tangier, Morocco

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In this photo, you can see one of my classmates dressed up in traditional Moroccan women’s clothing. I think it’s a great representation of the kinds of academic experiences study abroad students can have outside of the classroom. How often do American students consider the traditional clothing of Islamic cultures? The majority of us, American (college) women, get up, shower, put on sweat pants or shorts, a T-shirt, and go to class. However, in Morocco, there are symbols for every article of women’s clothing. Each article is put on with attention to detail, without any thought about wearing these many layers under the hot Moroccan sun all day. These are the kind of mentally transforming experiences study abroad students can have abroad.