Life-changing experiences don’t happen very often. If they did, they wouldn’t have such a profound impact on the person experiencing them. When they happen, you know they happen. You’ll look back at your previous life in disbelief, wondering how you could have ever been so unaware of this whole other realm that you now call home. For me, my life was changed when I stepped out of the plane in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
I had been anticipating this trip for a while. After studying abroad in Orizaba, Mexico for a month during the summer after my freshman year of college, I was more than excited to enhance my Spanish-speaking skills and to do some volunteer work in the Dominican Republic for the January 2014 Cultural Learning Tour sponsored by the Office of Diversity & Inclusion and the Community Service/Service Learning Office at Juniata College.
What I had not been anticipating, however, was that I would come home from this trip with a much larger and more culturally diverse extended family. Over our two-week stay in the Dominican Republic, we lived with host families in Santo Domingo and traveled 45 minutes to El Centro Cultural Guanin, an after-school program located in the rural, impoverished community of La Piedra, meaning “The Rock.”
During our first week, we went on some touristy adventures, which included a boat ride on the Atlantic Ocean to Los Haitises National Park, a day-trip to Juan Dolio beach, and a horseback ride to a beautiful waterfall known as el Salto del Limón. When I first learned about the trip to the Dominican Republic, the touristy things were honestly what I was most looking forward to, since I had never been to too many places outside of the United States, but I quickly realized that it would be the people who would have the most remarkable effect on my life. During the second week of our trip, we worked closely with the community of La Piedra where we painted houses, cemented floors, taught English, helped cook food, and played with the kids. Despite the many hardships that these people were going through, their smiles sparkled and their laughter loomed day-in and day-out.
I went on this trip hoping to make a difference in the lives of others, but I came home with a whole new perspective on my own life. I immediately started a club on campus called Amigos de Guanin, which would fundraise so that more students could travel to the Dominican Republic on the annual Cultural Learning Tour. For the next four months, I worked vigorously on a grant application through the National Society of Leadership and Success. Fortunately, I was awarded $4,000 to work on an agricultural development project in January 2015 and to travel back in March 2015 to see that the project continues.
Thankfully, I have been able to keep in close contact with my new Dominican family, and when I travel to this beautiful island, I don’t think of myself as going away anymore, but rather as going home.
As I pulled into a parking space outside of Tussey Hall, I wondered if I had made a mistake. I wasn’t sure if this was the school I really wanted to be at. I was nervous about finding friends, keeping up with my schoolwork, being so far from my friends from home, and being unable to fit in. However, Juniata College quickly proved me wrong.
I began my adventure participating in Inbound, a program that allows first-year students to arrive early to campus and do different activities that they are interested in. Wanting to enter the school year as relaxed as possible, I joined the Mind Body and Spirit course. I spent four days doing meditation, rock-climbing, yoga, and arts & crafts. Several people I met during Inbound are some of my best friends on campus now. The Inbound Program was incredibly helpful and enjoyable, and allowed me to settle into campus before all of the upperclassmen arrived.
When classes began at the end of the week, I’ll admit I was overwhelmed. The professors entrusted us with this immense amount of freedom that was almost foreign to me. This was the first time I was taking the classes I wanted to take, not courses required by my school. It took a week or two for me to completely pick up the routine of Juniata and how everything and everyone functions. Surprisingly, I have been here for a month now, but it feels like I have been here for years. I have met so many welcoming and supportive people so far and I have an amazing group of friends.
Although entering college can be intimidating, the best advice I can give is to arrive with an open mind. If you stay in your room watching Netflix and talking to friends from home instead of going out, socializing and exploring different events and groups on campus, you won’t get the full package that Juniata has to offer. This school has already showed me I made the right choice, even in a matter of weeks.
Well hello there, everyone, it’s been a while!
On August 23rd, 2013, I boarded a plane headed for Brussels International Airport. It was one of the most exciting and terrifying moments of my life, knowing that the next 10 months would be spent in a French city that was entirely foreign to me. Nine hours later, we touched down on Belgian soil and began a very stressful 3-hour journey to our final destination, Lille, France.
Starting with that first train ride from the airport to Lille, there were many moments during my past year abroad when things did not go as planned. Over the course of those 10 months, a plethora of missed stops, misunderstood sentences, frustrating encounters, and worn-out shoes rattled hard on the boundaries that had previously contained my comfort zone.
My experience of living in a different country taught me countless things about myself and other people, but one of the most important lessons I now realize I learned was how to become comfortable with living uncomfortably. Now, of course, I don’t mean that my rented room was literally uncomfortable (I quite liked my 9-square-meter space). But, by default, existing in an environment where many things are out of your control and do not go as planned means that you will have those awkward encounters with strangers, those stressful conversations with the bank and immigration office, or perhaps the frustrating exchange with the residence office insisting that you have indeed already paid your rent for the past two months, thank you very much (true story). Personally, I had to learn to adjust my expectations and focus on goals as opposed to achieving them smoothly. Sometimes, you just have to walk in blindly with fingers crossed.
It would be impossible to write a summary of my year in Lille that would accurately express everything that I experienced and saw, but I can say that I am so entirely grateful for those moments of being uncomfortable. As individuals, we do not have power over how everything goes in our life. Sometimes, you have to fight for what you want in a language that you still aren’t 100% fluent in with someone who is treating you rudely when you’re exhausted. It happens. And you will get through it.
Ultimately, I couldn’t be happier that I was lucky enough to study abroad. All of those stressful moments were more than worth it, and I wouldn’t take back any of them for a second.
It was May 20th, 2014 at 6:05am. I was sitting in seat 25D of a Delta flight headed for Atlanta and, later, Mexico City. I had just finished my freshman year of college a week prior and now here I was on my way to Mexico for a 10 week adventure. That’s right I was headed to Mexico for 2 ½ months. I was there primarily for academic purposes; I took classes at the local university for a month and did an internship for the last 6 weeks. Of course, that wasn’t all I was going to do- traveling, eating tacos, and taking siestas were all on my very long “Must Do in Mexico” list. Now that I’m back, I can tell you that my “What I did in Mexico” list is far more amazing. I traveled, ate tacos, and took siestas but I also went ziplining, visited incredible Zapotec ruins at Monte Albán, and watched the sun rise over the tallest mountain in Mexico as I hiked up it. And the whole trip, 10 week trip, was free.
That’s right, I went to Mexico all summer and the only things I paid for were things I chose to buy, like artisan market souvenirs and delicious street food. When I applied to Juniata College, I received a scholarship called the Eagles Abroad scholarship, which covered the cost of the summer in Mexico. In the spring of my senior year of high school, my Juniata admission counselor let me know that I was being considered for the scholarship because of the level of Spanish I’d had in high school. I, along with many of my peers, interviewed on campus (partly in English, partly in Spanish) for one of a few scholarships. I remember the cold April day I got the call that I’d gotten the scholarship. I was excited, but I had no idea just how much this opportunity would change my life.
After the first four weeks of classes, some of the people on the trip went home. Me and two of my peers stayed for the optional six week internship. We were set up with an internship that was related to our POE; since I’m an Early Childhood and Special Education POE, I was interning at a private school for four weeks and a social work agency for the last two weeks. At the school, I started out just observing the teachers and helping individual students; by the end, I was teaching full time and designing my own curriculum for the two week English intensive summer course. At DIF, the social work agency, I helped plan and run workshops for a week-long summer day camp for over 100 children and adolescents. On the weekends, I attended fiestas, traveled, and explored the outdoors (ziplining, hiking, etc.). By the time the ten weeks was up, I felt very attached to the city and so confidently independent that I didn’t want to leave.
But rosy retrospection is very real and the Mexico I like now is the same Mexico I sometimes hated when I was there. The earthquake we experienced the first night there didn’t help the homesickness and culture shock at all. If anything, it made them worse. There were moments when I got really annoyed with Mexican culture and just wanted to live in a place where I felt 100% comfortable and safe (a.k.a. Juniata). I felt horribly guilty that I didn’t get to watch my sister perform in her dance recital (this was made worse by the fact that I had danced with her at that studio for 10 years and this was my first recital as an alum). I didn’t spend the summer at Girl Scout Camp like I have every summer since I was six. I missed my best friend like crazy.
Overall, though, I’m so glad I did it and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Leaving the comforts of life in the US and, more specifically, my normal life was really scary. But the friendships and memories made there made it all worth it! Plus, my Spanish was pretty bueno before I left but now it’s fantástico!