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Why Studying Abroad Matters — And How It Can Change You

Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office 

Studying abroad is considered to be one of the most important experiences a student can have in their academic career. Studying abroad provided me with three fundamental things which I wouldn’t have experienced anywhere else. During my study abroad semester in Uppsala, Sweden, I gained new perspectives and embarked on many adventures, befriended people from all over the world and upon my return, it even opened doors for me in my desired career path.

Studying Abroad Makes You A Global Citizen 

Taking on the challenge of immersing yourself in a different country and a different culture is no easy feat. Before I arrived in Sweden I researched the country’s culture and lifestyle and discovered it was significantly different from that of the United States. The divergence of societal gender roles, the importance of coffee (fika) breaks, and the relaxed yet independent academic atmosphere were just a few of the things I had to get used to. But, I welcomed this adjustment and soon enough I was living like a true Swede.

During my time in Uppsala, I engaged in thoughtful and stimulating conversations with my classmates which helped me gain new international perspectives. I discovered the importance of being knowledgable about other countries and their cultures, instead of only focusing on the United States. Of course, I  also taught my peers about my Dominican and American cultures, usually through food and pop culture. Recognizing how extraordinary the world is can help you — and others, see things in a completely different light.

Due to these new discoveries, I became excited about exploring Sweden and Europe as a whole. While in Europe, I traveled to 10 different countries and I had some of the most memorable adventures of my life. While on a trip to Swedish Lapland, which is above the Arctic Circle, I went dogsledding and snowmobiling in the frozen tundra, visited the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, saw the Norwegian Fjords, visited a Sami reindeer farm, went for a dip in a frozen lake and saw the Northern Lights. And that was just on one excursion. These are things I would have never dreamed of doing, but because I chose to embark on the adventure that is studying abroad, I now have a myriad of stories to tell about these one-of-a-kind experiences.

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Studying Abroad Connects You with People From All Over The World 

One of my most cherished achievements from my study abroad semester are the relationships I formed with the people I studied with. Uppsala University boasts one of the most populous student exchange programs in Sweden and welcomes 300+ exchange students per semester from all over the world. In those six months, I befriended people from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Morocco, Belgium, Singapore, Australia, Peru, the United States, Canada, France, Sweden and many other countries. Not only did these people become my friends, but they became my study abroad family. We laughed together, traveled together, cooked together and sled down snowy hills together. We got to know each other on a deeper level because we were all embarking on this international adventure together. As a group, we developed an unbreakable bond. These connections would have been unattainable to me if I hadn’t studied abroad.

Though we are unable to see each other as frequently as we used to, we Skype regularly, chat through Facebook and WhatsApp, and visit each other whenever we get the chance! It’s the people that make the experience and they have impacted me significantly because of the time we spent together in Uppsala.

Just think, of all the people you could meet while on study abroad…

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Studying Abroad Can Open New Doors In Your Desired Career 

As a political science and communication double major, culture and international relations are of special interest to me. While searching for summer internships last fall in the field of international affairs, I began to consider how I would convey my study abroad experience on my internship applications. First, I added it to the top of my resume and included a couple of bullet points about the courses I took. While writing the essays for my applications, I knew that I had to express how I had been transformed by studying abroad and how it helped shape me academically, professionally and most of all; personally. I discussed my experience in Sweden, my travels, and how learning about different cultures and their politics from my peers deepened my interest in international affairs. I firmly believe that this part of my application is what set me apart from other candidates and it’s what can set you apart when applying to your dream job or internship. Studying abroad not only demonstrates adaptability, but it shows employers that you can work successfully in a diverse environment and that you can be challenged by the unknown and still succeed.

Just like that, study abroad helped me land my DREAM internship at the United Nations in New York City.

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So, why aren’t you taking advantage of this great opportunity? Illini Go Places! The Study Abroad Office provides over 400 programs in 60+ countries, and I just know there’s one out there for you. Pay a visit to the Resource Room (112 International Studies Building) this week, chat with a Program Assistant and discover how you, too can be transformed by studying abroad in more ways than one!

Adapting to New Traditions and Feeling at Home

Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez, Program Assistant at the Study Abroad Office 

The semester I spent studying abroad at Uppsala University in Sweden gave me the opportunity to experience the Swedish culture and many of its long lasting student traditions. Uppsala University is world renowned for its strong academics, bustling student-life and other unique characteristics which arguably make it the premier student town in all of Sweden.

DSC02861 One of the most important and cherished parts of the student culture at Uppsala are the “nations.” Now, let me explain. Think of a nation as a mix between a co-ed fraternity and a student union. The nations at Uppsala are named after the thirteen different regional parts of Sweden, or what us Americans would refer to as “counties.” It is entrusted upon the nations to plan a significant portion of the social activities that happen on campus. Each nation has many features, such as a pub, restaurant, a library with study rooms, a cafe with a daily discounted lunches and snacks for students, recreational clubs such as choirs, bands, sports, ski clubs, and a “dance club” night; in which usually the library of the nation building is transformed into a disco. DSC08700 Once you become a member of a nation, you receive a student ID card which gets you into all of the perks your nation has to offer. You might think “hm… that could be exclusive, because what if your friends are in nations different than yours?” But the great thing is, that though you might be a member of a specific nation, you are still allowed to attend any other nation’s club, pub, brunch, or other events. Membership is not mandatory for students, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t join one of these great organizations!

I joined Södermanlands-Nerikes nation (SNerikes, for short), which is the oldest of the thirteen nations and medium in size, hosting around 2,000 members. My nation was quite popular amongst international students, and offered exciting perks such as a cozy pub, a photo club and a dance club on Tuesday nights. Unlike other nations, SNerikes is the only nation at Uppsala University in which the member, if of Swedish descent or nationality, must have a direct bloodline from that region to join! SNerikes was often referred to as “The Pink Castle” — because it truly looked like a pink castle.

During my time in Sweden, SNerikes provided me with many opportunities to get involved. I was even able to work as a waitress in their restaurant, which allowed me to become acquainted with more Swedish students and helped me strengthen intercultural skills when serving patrons. Joining this nation also let me experience a wide range of Swedish traditions and let me make some long lasting friendships. Essentially, being at SNerikes, made me feel at home. No matter what study abroad program you choose, rest assured that there will be plenty of opportunities for you to get involved with the local traditions, culture, and people of the host country. The important thing is to take advantage of those opportunities and deeply immerse yourself. I hope that discovering these qualities during your study abroad experience will also help make you feel at home.

Overcoming and Learning from Challenges Abroad

Guest Blogger: Cristina Valdez 

Before leaving for my study abroad journey to Sweden, I was feeling like any other student: excited for the new adventures and yet a little nervous for what was to come. My itinerary had two connections, the latter was at Heathrow Airport in London, U.K. After landing at Heathrow, I would take a direct flight to Stockholm which would finally deliver me to my host country. But, things didn’t go exactly as planned.

We landed early in the morning in London, and I woke to see the airport runways covered with snow. I could sense the panic in the travelers around me. Something was definitely wrong. I exited the plane and hurried through to find my gate, but once I arrived I was told that ALL European connecting flights were cancelled. This meant that over 400 flights were scrapped because of one fluffy inch of snow. It was unbelievable!

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At this moment, I knew that I would have to face this unexpected challenge head on. I found an airport agent who told me I had to go to the 5th floor re-booking center so I could be put on a new flight. When I got there, I was astonished. There were hundreds of people waiting in line, and the line wrapped around the entire floor.

Then, I remembered some words I was told during my Study Abroad Pre-Departure orientation: “things may not always turn out as planned, but you can do your best to have a rewarding experience while abroad.” This motivated me, and I got in line, hoping for the chance to get on a flight to Sweden.

The day passed slowly, and it was nearing closing hours. I was one person away from the front of the line when it was announced that the re-booking center would be closing until 5am the next morning. I was extremely disappointed, but I had to look at the bright side of things. The airline provided me and fellow passengers with mats and blankets, dinner, and free internet, so I took the opportunity to contact my family via Skype. Hearing their comforting words helped me renew my self confidence.

Despite the circumstances, I encouraged myself and I had a certain faith that I would be in Sweden the next morning. Night passed quickly, and by 8am I was finally re-booked on a flight directly to Stockholm. I made it to the Stockholm airport just in time to catch a bus to the Uppsala city center. There, I randomly met two other Danish exchange students who showed me around and took me to the housing office where I picked up the keys to my room.

Upon my arrival, I had a moment of realization. I had the opportunity to live in a different country and experience its language and culture to the fullest. After two long days, and countless hours of jet lag, I was finally in Uppsala and I was finally studying abroad.

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Now, I look back on those first two days and feel grateful. Though the circumstances weren’t ideal, they taught me that if I could overcome those challenges and uncertainties, I could tackle anything my study abroad semester threw at me.

Perseverance, confidence and support through uncertainty are important qualities that are developed and reinforced while studying abroad. Now, I am always confident that no matter what flight gets cancelled, or where I have to spend the night, I can remain calm, encourage myself and know that I survived that night on a yoga mat at Heathrow airport and everything turned out just fine.