Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Lessons From Abroad...

As I begin my final year of college, I have found myself reflecting more and more on how my education has changed me. While the social and academic transformations I’ve experienced have shaped me a great deal, a huge part of the woman I see myself as now was shaped by my experiences abroad.
My first trip abroad with Maryville College was part of a class focused on global child welfare and exceptional children during the spring of 2015. Our group travelled to Switzerland where we were immersed in a culture very similar, yet very different, than the place we had come from. We spent time at the UN, WHO, UNICEF, and countless other organizations that strive to better the world we live in. We spent time at schools for exceptional children, even learned about gravitational particles from a 12 year old. If that’s not mind-boggling, I don’t know what is. We also examined other educational programs as we went through the country, all while learning about Swiss culture and making some incredible memories.
My trip to Costa Rica the following May was with the school’s Bonner Scholars program and the focus there was to immerse ourselves in a small community and serve however necessary. We were placed at a facility that housed boys 7-17 that had had some sort of run-in with the law and were working to better themselves and get out of the situations they were in. We spent our off-days exploring the country and getting to know our host families.
My most recent trip abroad was this spring, studying Tropical Ecology in Bonaire. On this trip, 5 senior studies were completed, countless SCUBA dives were logged, and we spent time at a research center that was focusing a great deal of work on the invasive lion fish problem. We explored national parks, ate some amazing food, and learned a great deal about conservation and diversity.
So now that you know where I’ve been and have a skimmed idea of what we did abroad, I’d like to hit on some amazing ways that studying abroad changed my life.

1.   I strive to get out of the box.
By studying abroad, I learned to adapt to things that were not my “normal” and learned to speak with respect, but also listen to differing perspectives and examine things from multiple angles. I experienced the Swiss educational system on a very surface level, but seeing the students’ focus and their joy when it came to learning was something I hadn’t experienced much of. Those students were not bound by numbers and expectations, but freed by the ability to learn from each other and express their talents in ways that don’t follow the “normal” path. In addition to that, the focus of the program I was with in Costa Rica was to break the normalcy of life and culture in that area. Treat others with respect, have the intentionality and initiative to go beyond what you’re required to do, and celebrate everything. In Bonaire, we learned a great deal about man’s effect on ecology and how small efforts can make big changes.

Standing on the Hilma Hooker, an iconic Bonaire dive site, about 60' under

2.   I think I know what I’m doing with my life… and if I don’t, that’s okay.
No, I didn’t have this epiphany moment of, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up!” Instead, I found the ability to take a passion for something and turn it into my own version of great. I was able to see the health disparities around me while abroad, and then find them in my community at home and plug in. Seeing organizations like UNICEF and WHO made me take a hard look at what I am passionate about and explore how to turn that passion into a career. I’m now headed for dental school, if all goes as planned! I have a great deal of interest in public health and education, also, so who knows? I learned about a world (literally) full of opportunities, none with a direct “Pass Go and Collect $200” option. It’s all relative. If I have interest in something, then nothing should stop me from looking into it.

On a hill overlooking Bern, Switzerland

3.   I am not afraid of making mistakes or things not working out as expected.
I love food. Whether it’s Croquettes (pronounced like the game, not like "crock-et"… the chef got a kick out of that one!) or gelato in Bonaire, Casado in Costa Rica, or Swiss chocolate. All is good and well until those menus are in French, German, Dutch, or Spanish… I might know a few words, but I am by no means multilingual functionally. You know what, though? Food is great everywhere, so order what looks cool, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and keep an open mind. Try new things! Disclaimer: I’m now spoiled to Swiss chocolate, Costa Rican fruit juice, and gelato from Bonaire… life will never be the same.

The Airport Olympians
I ran full-tilt-boogie through an airport trying to catch our flight to Switzerland, only to miss the plane by minutes. Our airport obstacle course included yells of “Vote Maryville College the Top Outdoor School!”, with people hurdling over suitcases, sliding around corners, and dodging small children- If the 2020 Olympics include Airport Obstacle Courses, you’ll know where it originated. Our group spent that night in a hotel stateside, eating massive pieces of pizza and laughing into the wee hours of the morning. 

The Culprit

I swam to a sand bar off the little beach we sat on in Costa Rica and got my lunch stolen by a monkey while I was swimming back. I literally watched him open my bag, look each direction, and scurry up a tree with my food. If I was afraid of the long swim, I might have had my lunch, but not a cool story about being teased by a monkey that ate an entire box of granola bars and dropped the wrappers down to me. 

The Coordinated Ones + Me

I agreed to go out with my host family one night in Costa Rice, despite my mounting exhaustion. Next thing I knew, I was in an indoor soccer complex, kicking balls around (trying to) with my host family and some professional Costa Rican soccer players. 

On a dive in Bonaire, waters were choppier than expected and we almost dreaded this legendary dive we had been so looking forward to. On that dive alone, I got pictures of 3 sea turtles. 

Life passes by and you never know the great things you could miss if you try to glue yourself to expectations or perfection. Study abroad taught me to accept the unexpected and have a great time with it. 
My study abroad experiences have affected me most through the way that I perceive myself and the situations I face. These adventures have been an incredible addition to my college experience and life and I cannot wait to see what the future holds!

Happy travels! ~Alyssa