Anyone who’s ever heard anything about study abroad probably heard it from the perspective of an excited student who was either about to depart for an extended international experience or just returned.
But how often does one hear the opposite perspective? What do you know about the daily duties, struggles, rewarding experiences, and thoughts of program directors or site coordinators?
| Leo Durán, CEA San José Academic Director (back left),
Maggie Banchs, CEA San José Program Director (back
center), and Macey Hallstedt, CEA Alumni Ambassador
Intern (back right).
I’d be willing to bet the answer is somewhere around minimal. Even when I was a CEA San José study abroad student, I saw how hard Maggie (CEA San José Program Director) and Leo (CEA San José Academic Director) worked, but I never realized how all-encompassing their duties were and exactly what expertise these duties required. Now that I am an onsite Ambassador intern for CEA San José, Costa Rica, I am learning that what goes on here is more than I ever could have thought possible at one time. And they manage to achieve it all with flair and gusto, still making time for the fluke surprises and random crises that come with hosting so many college students abroad. Compared to the testimonials and experiences of students, there is a vast under representation of who and what goes on behind the scenes. I am here to rectify this situation.
The Many Roles of Study Abroad Onsite Staff
On any given day, a study abroad director must fill a myriad of different roles. These roles include, but are not limited to: guidance counselor, arbitrator, travel agent, tour guide, social media expert, crisis resolution guru, photographer, navigator, cultural expert, and all around people-pleaser. Any study abroad experience is usually emotionally and intellectually trying for students, and it is the job of the directors to be able to swoop in, advise, and help fix any major problem students might have while being so far away from home. These duties begin before a student has even arrived on-site, with pre-departure information including everything a student might need, including how to navigate the airport seamlessly. After the study abroad experience, the directors are also still available for any post-immersion questions and difficulties. The support is very thorough.
On top of helping to make daily life smooth for students, the directors are also in charge of planning trips and cultural excursions. It is in this realm that the majority of my duties lay. When I studied abroad in Costa Rica with CEA a year and a half ago, I was too enveloped in my own goals and travel plans to notice the efforts made by CEA staff to plan and organize excursions for students.
A Taste of These Roles as an Intern Abroad: Challenges & Realities
Now that one of my functions as an intern is helping plan events and excursions, I am not only realizing some of the challenges that come with interning abroad, but I’m also finding a new appreciation for the onsite staff’s behind-the-scenes efforts now that I’m helping with some of them. Spanish is my second language and navigating around San José and Costa Rica is not instinctual yet. I also sometimes find myself thwarted by a characteristic Costa Rican lack of efficiency. Perhaps due to my businesslike, northern United States mentality, I quickly become frustrated and annoyed when I cannot find necessary information on a business’s website or an outdated phone number is listed. I always do my best to solve the puzzle of finding the right information or speaking to the right people, but sometimes I have to ask for help from the experts. Maggie and Leo are both native Ticos (Costa Ricans), so I assume they will have all the answers when it comes to my confusion. Sometimes they are just as confused as I am. While it is annoying to be mutually frustrated, it is comforting to know that I am not alone in my cultural awareness struggles and that we can put our heads together to overcome any cultural trial.
Along with planning cultural activities and excursions, another part of my job is to act as a kind of antenna for students’ feedback about school, their homestays, and their overall experiences. Because my own study abroad experience was a whole semester, I had much more time to learn the city and orient myself. The summer students participating in month-long programs obviously don’t have that luxury. As a result, my goal is to help provide them with all the resources, cultural happenings, and attractions available so that they can spend less time planning and more time doing to make the most of their San José study abroad experience
After all, that is what any study abroad experience is about: learning by being uncomfortable, immersing, and doing. In a pleasantly surprising way, my tenure as an intern here at CEA is once more teaching me that diving in headfirst is the best way to learn. Much like when I was a student here, I can be unsure and confused, but the practice of having to figure it out is rewarding and sure to help me succeed in any future career.
Macey Hallstedt is a Winter 2013 CEA San José alumna, CEA Senior Alumni Ambassador at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and currently a summer 2014 CEA Alumni Ambassador intern in San José. Don’t miss her next post about what goes on behind the scenes at CEA San José!
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