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Applying Study Abroad to Life After Graduation

June 14, 2013
by CEA CAPA Content Creator
The month of May is always packed full of graduation ceremonies. As many of my friends and family members graduate from college back in the United States and I inquire about their plans after college, I begin to wonder where I will be 12 months from now when I am accepting my diploma and moving the tassel from one side of my graduation cap to the other. I look back on the past 21 years and wonder where all my life decisions will take me and if I have prepared enough for life after graduation. I hope that I will not regret the path I took to get to where I am today. 

However, I have never needed to ask myself if I made the right decision to study abroad because I know the growth I have experienced so far and the changes that I will experience, will continue to affect the way I view the world long after I return to the United States. To me, it seems obvious that I will return home with much more than memories and friendships that will last a lifetime; I will return with an entirely new perspective on life. But to friends, family, college professors and future employers, those experiences and life changes won’t be so obvious. I am forced to put this semester into words beyond “great”, “unforgettable”, “life-changing”, and other such clichés that are so often used to describe the indescribable semester abroad.

Throughout the past two and a half months, I have learned how to handle feeling ignorant and making mistakes. Parents and teachers encourage their children and students to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes beginning at a very young age. However, I have always been afraid to make mistakes for fear of the consequences that would follow. Studying abroad has provided me with a unique opportunity to experience life in a different way. I have truly been encouraged to make mistakes in order to learn. Becoming immersed in a different culture removes the pressure to maintain perfection in all aspects of life. In fact, foreigners are almost expected to make mistakes!  My Chilean host family constantly tells me to speak in Spanish to practice because it is the only way to learn the language. I no longer feel embarrassed when I have to ask someone to slow down and repeat what they said, nor when people correct my speech because it helps me apply the grammar lessons I learn in the classroom to everyday conversations. 

My host family members always answer any questions I have about Chilean culture, politics, history, or any observations I make while I am gallivanting around the country. These questions allow me to understand why things are the way they are and provide me with a new perspective rather than simply observing the what. After graduating, especially in internships or entry-level jobs, asking the why and the how questions will not only allow me to learn from the tasks that would otherwise lack meaning and context, but they will show my employers that I have a desire to understand how seemingly insignificant tasks contribute to the larger picture. These critical thinking skills that I have gained from studying abroad are extremely important skills to have, and will allow me to stand out when compared to other interns and entry-level workers after graduating from college. Employers will also appreciate being able to make suggestions and corrections without their employee getting frustrated and defensive because I have already become comfortable with making mistakes and turning those mistakes into opportunities from which I can learn and improve.

Another important skill I have acquired during my time abroad is cultural awareness. Living with a host family, taking all my classes in Spanish, learning about Chilean culture and the history of South America in my courses, and taking advantage of all of the cultural excursions available through CEA and the Universidad de Viña del Mar Spanish Center have allowed me to develop a worldview from which I can better understand global relationships and how various cultures interact with one another. The inimitable total cultural immersion that I have been able to achieve through study abroad has made me much more confident in working and communicating with people from all different backgrounds. I am studying abroad with students from all over the United States as well as from Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Germany, France and different parts of Chile, and I have learned so much about all of these different cultures. This knowledge and understanding of cultures around the world has allowed me to become extremely accepting of different backgrounds and open to viewing situations from new perspectives. I hope to pursue a career in marketing and communications, so being able to look at the world from different perspectives, understand how other people view situations, and then communicate with various groups of people in order to have the largest impact are invaluable skills to have going into that line of work.
Study abroad has also made me a much better problem solver. I have encountered many situations in which I am faced with a task only to realize that I can’t follow the same process to which I am accustomed in order to complete the task. In these situations, I have learned the importance of approaching problems from different directions and asking or observing how other people go about solving the problem. And when that doesn’t work, there’s always trial and error! These real-life problem-solving situations exemplify what it means to work in a team to develop a strategy and carry out that strategy to get the desired outcome. 

I have learned to be open to trying new strategies and approaches, and I have found that, often times, approaching a problem from a different angle yields better results and/or I am able to learn something new about the process or the situation that I would never have realized through my usual process. My openness to testing different approaches, ability to evaluate the results, and desire to look at situations from other perspectives are all qualities and skills upon which I have improved throughout my time studying abroad in Chile.

The opportunities for independence and responsibility that studying abroad provides lead to numerous situations that require collaboration with other individuals in order to achieve a mutual goal. The differences between the independence, responsibility, and collaboration that I developed when I first went to college and those that I have developed since beginning my study abroad program come from the fact that I am forced into uncomfortable situations everyday that I must work through. This adaptability to new situations comes from my ability to look at situations from various perspectives and to problem solve in order to accomplish what needs to get done. I have learned how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and to embrace the challenges that come with the new situations that I encounter every day.
Study abroad has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to grow in more ways than one. I am certain that the experiences I have had and will continue to have this semester will be instrumental in my final year of college and in my pursuits after graduation.
Emily Shaw is the Spring 2013 CEA MOJO for Viña del Mar, Chile

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