Katherine is an Ambassador who studied abroad in Guatemala
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?
I chose to study abroad in Guatemala mainly because of the one-on-one language instruction and service component that are integral parts of the Guatemala program. However, when I chose to study abroad in Guatemala, I had no idea how the trip would ultimately change my perspective of the world and of my own life.
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
One day excursion my CSB/SJU group went on was to a Mayan family's home. This family processed their own wool and eventually wove the wool into blankets, ponchos, rugs, and many other products. After explaining the steps of the process, the family offered to show us how to do each step of the process. Since this excursion was at the beginning of the semester, our Spanish was not very good yet. As a result, we were taught by touch - for example, while spinning the wool, the father of the family took hold of my hand and showed me the right tension I needed to maintain by pulling the wool to spin it into string. After we learned about their trade, they invited us to have a small meal of tortillas, guacamole, beans and tea. The mother of the family taught us how to make tortillas, a staple in every Guatemalan's diet. At the same time, we answered questions about our lives back in the United States. I left that day with more than a blanket and a stomach full of authentic Guatemalan food; I left with the fulfilling feeling that an amazing cultural exchange took place that day.
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
Where do I begin? My amazing language instructors, the natural beauty of Guatemala witnessed from the highest peak in Central America, my host mom's thoughtfulness, playing basketball on Sunday mornings with Guatemaltecos, planting baby trees at a reforestation project... I, we, experienced so much, too much, to even begin writing about. However, if I could describe the experience in a phrase, it would have to be: life-changing.
Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?
The transition from living, working and studying in rural Minnesota to communicating in a foreign language, adapting to a new culture and navigating in a large, unfamiliar city was initially overwhelming. During the first week in Guatemala, I was required to develop coping skills quickly. By initially bonding with other members of my group, we were able to share our experiences and help each other learn how to live in this new environment. As my confidence in Spanish improved, I was able to communicate better with my language teachers and host family. As the semester progressed and my control of the Spanish language improved, I gained the confidence to travel throughout Guatemala with a small group of peers, and these adventures rarely held a dull moment; the public transportation system was a series of renovated school buses, termed "chicken buses" by foreigners. The buses don't have a set schedule or route; rather the later two important details are dependent on the rider's hurried instructions as he hops on the bus. At first, using these buses was confusing, and we often ended up at the wrong destination. However, these experiences taught me flexibility and comfort with uncertainty, important lessons I will be able to put in place as I begin graduate school in a new and unfamiliar place.
What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?
Embrace the unknown and the uncertainty of your study abroad experience! It will be scary and uncomfortable at first, which is expected - no matter how much preparation you put into the months before you travel, you are going to experience situations that you have never heard about. Openness is key to learning about, living in, and appreciating the new culture you will be experiencing.