I would like to tell you that studying abroad is always an incredible and uplifting experience...and for the most part, that's absolutely true. However, one of the unavoidable side effects of traveling is comparing your own country to the one that you are in. Of course, making these comparisons isn't always a bad thing because it can make you more grateful for the freedoms and opportunities you're afforded in the United States, as that's where most of us studying here call home. Sometimes, though, visiting another country can make you doubt the practices and standards of your own.
Now more than ever, travelers from the United States are met with an automatic disdain or at the very least, a detectable uneasiness because we now represent Trump's America...which is not commonly thought of as particularly welcoming or safe for many of those who reside in the countries we so love to explore. After voters declared Trump the 45th president of the United States in November 2016, many countries were in a collective shock. Even now, only 22 percent of 37 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2017 expressed confidence in President Trump to do the right thing regarding international affairs.
Mexico, in particular, has been a prominent and reoccurring topic discussed during President Trump's campaign, and the people of Mexico know it. During my time there, I made many lifetime friends who I begged to come and visit me once I left Merida and was disheartened to learn just how fearful they were of our president and our country in general. To be clear, I am not here to tell anyone who to vote for or how to think, but I am here to share some advice on how to handle the political differences and preconceptions you will face while studying abroad.
It Starts With Language:
Political intelligence is a valuable skill that becomes a necessity when living in another country and it starts with the language. Language is universal, but can also be exceedingly different depending on your geographic location. So, when you visit another country in which the chief language is not your own, don't assume you'll be able to find anyone that speaks it. You should prepare accordingly prior to your trip by studying commonly used phrases or at the very least equipping yourself with an English-Spanish dictionary. It's okay if you stumble on some words and it's understandable if you need a native speaker to slow down...but you must always try.
Another important rule of thumb is avoiding the use of curse words in your new language...especially when talking about politics or other sensitive subjects. No matter how close you become with your host family, locals you've met or even with your own group of exchange students, these words should not be used. Unless you've been invited to speak on a political or controversial topic and are in a safe circle of friends, you've automatically forfeited your right to curse or speak crudely about politics or political figures by thrusting yourself into someone else's culture. That's not to say you cannot express your opinion, but rather being "politically correct" is no longer optional.
In today's world where a majority of political conversations occur online, it's important to remember that what's posted online carries a significant amount of weight. That weight increases when traveling in a different country where legislation regarding net neutrality and technological freedom is not akin to that of the US. Recently, The Department of Homeland Security reported that they will soon be collecting social media data from all immigrants entering the United States, so it's safe to assume your social media activity is being closely monitored in countries outside of the US. Practice discretion online as you would in person because seemingly innocent online activity can mean an entirely different thing in your host country and in some of those countries, they can jail you for it.
When you travel to a country like Mexico where many inhabitants have already determined your social status and political mindset, it's important to remember that you must allow your true ideals to become evident primarily through your actions. This sometimes means overcompensating. Be overly kind and overly courteous, and never assume that you are better off than someone just because they may not have the same luxuries that you do in the US. Be careful to not flash your wealth (an American dollar is worth about twenty of theirs) and tip well, but don't be ostentatious.
During your time abroad, you may feel inspired to volunteer, donate or even purchase a special gift for a new friend you've made in your host country. While all of these are wonderful notions, they must be executed with finesse and tact. I was moved by the humble spirit of a local I met in Mexico and my classmates and I purchased him a brand new bicycle because it was one of his greatest desires. However, I made sure that it was something he would be comfortable accepting prior to my purchase.
My classmates and I also volunteered during our time abroad in a section of a hospital in Mexico that housed relatives of the sick and injured with extended hospital stays. Ultimately, there were students that got more out of that experience because they made a conscious effort to relate to those they were serving. Never behave as if your presence is a privilege to those you are trying to help. Once these actions become habits, they don't feel like overcompensating...they feel like fulfillment.
Although I would hope the inkling to be sensitive to the political views and ideals of others would be ingrained into the minds of most Americans, that's simply not the reality. There's a reason that 54 percent of 16 countries also surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2016 associated Americans with arrogance above all other traits.
So, the takeaway is this-we need to do better, and we as a new generation have the power to influence that change. It's important to remember that we each represent our country whilst abroad and can alter false perceptions through our actions and words. Although changing the general mindset of an entire country is a dauntingly large task, changing the mind of an individual is sometimes as simple as making a new friend abroad.
Okay, I know what you're all thinking. What a cliché, right? A young college girl travels out of the country for the first time and falls deeply, hopelessly in love. It sounds an awful lot like the tired plot of a bad romance movie, but I can promise you the reality is entirely different from the glitzy scenes you've seen play out on the big screen.
Yes, I fell in love while studying abroad. Actually, I fell in love twice! Have I lost you yet?
Well, for those of you still reading, allow me to explain. I've had a job since I was sixteen years old, and more often than not, I've had two or three at the same time. Prior to participating in my study abroad program, I had never been out of the country, and there hadn't been a whole lot of moments in my life where I was able to exist in a world free of financial worry where traveling was even a remote possibility.
I didn't think going abroad was possible for someone like me. Going abroad was for those kids whose parents put them through college and the kids who traveled to exotic places literally every summer because they didn't have to worry about paying rent or retaining a job. Travel of that magnitude was meant for students who could easily afford it...or so what I thought.
That's not to say the lives of these students were never hard, just different. Different enough, though, that when the study abroad director presented the trip to my Spanish class, a majority of the students' eyes lit up while my eyes remained fixated on the floor. I knew I couldn't go. I couldn't risk losing my job. How would I pay for my apartment if I wasn't making any money and was in a different country? Who would take care of my pets? Would I even be able to find another job upon my return if I did go?
My eyes remained unmoved, but the director slid a pamphlet across my desk anyway. Six months later, I landed in Mexico ready to embark on the experience of a lifetime. Now for the love story. I had no idea what to expect when I signed up for this crazy adventure. All I knew was that I didn't want to waste a single minute worrying about things back home.
Number One: The Dedicated Student
Ever academically minded, this student will be sure to remind you and your fellow classmates of every deadline and project that was assigned in class…because you definitely weren’t listening. They’ll be the first one to show up to the bus stop in the morning for class trips hauling a bag full of snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, chapstick, extra clothes, shoes and a foreign language dictionary just in case. This person is also likely to assume the role of class mom or dad. Ultimately, The Dedicated Student makes your study abroad experience way better considering they’ve thoroughly researched all the best local attractions and kept you from getting the worst sunburn of your life. They're also very generous and witty.
Number Two: The Charismatic Chameleon
This student is usually a natural at speaking to locals and is incredibly charming. When you do see them, they’ll likely introduce you to a ton of their new local friends that they just happened to meet at the local salsa joint…which by the way, they’re also a natural at. In class, they’re usually sitting up front eagerly asking questions about the local culture and by the end of the trip will have learned how to flirt, curse and converse flawlessly in the native language. The Charismatic Chameleon will push you out of your comfort zone at every given opportunity, but hey-when in Rome, right?
Number Three: The Guru
The Guru is the student who has likely already traveled all over the world and is always talking about some higher purpose or awakening. Their yoga mat was the first thing they packed with psychedelics being the second. In the first week, they’ve somehow located a local medicine man and a yoga studio within walking distance of their host home. The Guru is incredibly interested in local religious practices and can be found being blessed with sage outside the city cathedral or researching similar practices in the local library. This student is integral to your study abroad experience because they’ll open your eyes to new perspectives. They also tend to know exactly where to find the best espresso.
Number Four: The Drinker
This is the student that sends a one word text message to the group chat at nine in the morning just naming an alcohol. They will have established a favorite local drinking spot within 24 hours of their arrival and is the life of the party. They speak just enough of the local language to ask for their favorite beverage and will likely be out of money a week before the trip ends from buying drinks for everyone at the bar too many nights in a row. The Drinker is the last one to leave the party every night, but somehow pulls off straight A’s in all their early morning classes. We have no idea how they do it, but we all love The Drinker.
Number Five: The Quiet One
No one even hears The Quiet One talk until a few weeks into the trip. They can usually be found exploring the city solo or spending time with their host family, but The Quiet One is not to be underestimated...as soon as they’ve learned enough about everyone on the trip from listening closely those first few weeks, a savage sense of humor emerges. As the trip continues, The Quiet One gets less and less quiet, cracking jokes at every opportunity and speaking the local language like a pro. This person is musically talented and an awesome dancer. This student is probably everyone’s favorite by the end of the trip.
Number Six: The Magician
This student is called The Magician because they’re always disappearing. They’ll make an appearance at every group outing but will somehow end up on the roof of the museum or the inside of some ruin. The strangest thing is there’s no in between...they’re either in the group or up in a tree…and literally no one knows how they got up there. During nights out, you’ll draw straws to see who is assigned to supervising The Magician, although they’ll probably still disappear at some point in the night. The Magician keeps everyone on their toes, views the world with a childlike innocence and is friends with everyone. No one can hate the Magician.
Number Seven: The Saint
The Saint is that person that operates on a higher level than everyone else on the trip…or at least that’s how they feel. Rarely will you see this student out past nine o’clock and never will you see them drinking. They can usually be found reading or journaling and are usually the first ones to suggest an educational outing. This is the person you go to when you need advice and the person you avoid when you’ve failed a test. Everyone needs The Saint when studying abroad. The Saint is empathetic, honest to a fault and reminds us all to give back every now and then.
Number Eight: The Chill
The Chill is the person that could literally be anywhere in the world and look like they have it all figured it out. They don’t even need to learn the language. Usually seen sporting some killer shades and an outfit to match, this student can be found hitting up the local tattoo parlor or blogging about an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant their Uber driver recommended. Did I mention they only use UberLUX? The Chill is definitely a good friend to have while studying abroad because they somehow already have connections and can get you into practically any event. They also take the most amazing selfies.
Number Nine: The Go-Go
The Go-Go is always on the move. From scoping out the best cultural events in the city to participating in an all night dance marathon, this student is up for anything…and I mean anything. They’re at every event and every excursion with a huge smile on their face accompanied by a contagious positive energy. The Go-Go somehow always finds the perfect balance between studious and adventurous and could just as easily help you with your Spanish homework as they could participate in the world’s longest bar crawl. Perpetually playful and genuine, The Go-Go is everyone’s best friend.
Number Ten: The Chainsmoker
The Chainsmoker is the student that's always blitzed. They usually hang out on the back of the bus during group trips and disappear once you’ve reached your destination, returning with a goofy smile on their face and story to tell. They have so many local friends and know so much slang in the native language that people start to think they’re a local just tagging along with your group. If you ask The Chainsmoker how they’re doing, they will always respond with the phrase, “I’m soooo good, man. Life is good.” The Chainsmoker is the best person to have deep conversations with and shares absolutely everything.
In the end, you learn just as much from the classmates you're traveling with as you do from the locals and your classes. Enjoy the company and all the personalities while you can because even if they drive you nuts, you're going to miss them.
When you travel to another country for the first time, whether it be Mexico or any other country, you’re going to stand out. There will be customs you don’t know, languages you don’t understand and times you’ll feel so lost you’ll want to give up. However, I can tell you right now that standing out isn’t always a bad thing and that it may just be your greatest learning aid. Before I went to Mexico, I dyed my usually dark brown locks bright red (although it faded after so much sun and swimming). I saw the trip not only as an opportunity to learn but a chance to be someone new and exciting for five weeks. My newly red hair turned out to be a great conversation starter with the locals and I still haven’t gone back to my natural color!
I met my dear friend Gabriel in a cafe in downtown Merida my first week abroad. We still joke about how my bright red hair was what first caught his attention in Cafetería Pop that day. Gabriel introduced himself to my classmate and I and began to tell us all about the wonders of his city. In the brief conversation we had with Gabriel, we learned that he was trilingual, loved to salsa and that one of his biggest dreams was to own a bicycle. Before we parted ways, he invited our whole group to a local club that offered salsa lessons.
Come Wednesday, we all arrived at “La Fundacion Mezcaleria” and Gabriel was there to welcome us all. We made complete fools of ourselves all night. We laughed, danced (some of us better than others) and stayed out way too late, but when I look back on the experiences I had in Mexico, this one stands out as one of my favorites. We returned to Mezcaleria every Wednesday after that.
Gabriel also introduced us to the Spanish English library. This library hosted an event every week that allowed people to practice other languages with native speakers of that language. Gabriel spoke Spanish, Mayan and English and loved to share his knowledge. He now works at the library, teaching local children how to use computers and how to speak English.
Gabriel became not only my friend, but my guide and my teacher. I learned so much about Merida, the language and the locals. Ultimately though, the most important thing I learned from Gabriel was how to live a life of gratitude. We move so fast all the time here in the United States. We are always multitasking; always climbing the invisible ladder of success that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. People get so caught up in preparing for their future that they miss out on the sweetness of the moment they are in.
I became fully aware of this while I was in Mexico. I tried to think of the last time I had just allowed myself to exist…to live without worrying about a bill or a deadline or about fitting in. Gabriel worried about none of these. Gabriel didn’t worry about whether he had a nice car or the best clothing or newest phone, and he didn’t worry about being different. He just wanted to live free. When we first spoke he mentioned that having a bicycle was one of his biggest dreams because whenever he rode a bicycle…he felt free.
Near the end of our trip, all the students pitched in and bought Gabriel a bicycle. It was our way of thanking him for his hospitality and friendship, and although it may seem like a simple gesture to many living in the United States, to Gabriel it meant the world.
For those of you who may be on the fence about traveling or studying abroad, just take that leap and eliminate the words “what if” from your vocabulary. Live in the moment. You don’t have to dye your hair a crazy color and you don’t have to buy gifts for all the locals, but just remember that there are seven billion people out there. That’s seven billion different perspectives and seven billion new opportunities to grow and to learn.
Either way, I encourage you to live like Gabriel. Being an outlier isn’t always easy and it may not be a bicycle that makes you feel free. Maybe it’s a song or even a memory. Whatever it is, ride that bicycle every morning. Listen to that song every day. Meditate on that memory, be different and live for the now because tomorrow is not a guarantee and you may just miss the opportunity of a lifetime.
I was packed for my study abroad program to Mexico two weeks in advance. Ready to head off with the ASU: Spanish Language and Mayan Culture in Yucatan Summer program to further my Spanish minor.
I had separated all my things into neat little labeled baggies and printed a few lists of the places I wanted to see and the things I wanted to do when I got there. I was ready, but I had to get there first. When the day finally came, I missed my first flight. My classmates and my instructor were halfway to Houston for the connecting flight we were supposed to catch together and I was still in one hundred and ten-degree weather. Unfortunately, there were no more flights to Houston that day, so I caught the five o’clock flight to California and then from there, to the Mexico City International Airport.
Fast forward to the Mexico City International Airport, which my instructor had explicitly mandated that I not leave for my own safety. Needless to say, I spent about six hours waiting for my next flight while scanning the terminal in paranoia. At some point, I had stopped scanning and dozed off to sleep. I had missed my second flight…and this time, no one spoke my language. What was I supposed to do? How was I going to convey that I had missed my flight and needed another? Did I look as lost and hopeless as I felt?
I’ll admit that at this point, my Spanish was pretty limited. The whole reason for this trip was to improve my Spanish skills, but I figured I was already in Mexico and was just getting an early start!
So I blinked back my tears, fixed my makeup, said a little prayer and struggled my way through the airport for two more hours as I ran back and forth from terminal to terminal. I finally made my way onto my new flight that would take me to the next big adventure, and breathed a sigh of relief.
Landing in Merida and meeting my host family was almost as incredible as the flight there. I met a new friend on the plane I wasn’t supposed to be on, in a seat that I wasn’t supposed to sit in. His name was Gilberto and he was traveling to Merida for a new job. He practiced his English while I practiced my Spanish the whole way to Merida. I landed and saw my host family waiting for me and practically fell into their arms out of both exhaustion and excitement. At that point, I couldn’t stop speaking Spanish! I raved about my crazy airport adventure all the way home and my host parents were very impressed.
When I got to my new temporary home, my host mom asked if I wanted to go to El Centro, the popular town square and my soon-to-be favorite place in Merida.
I had hardly slept or eaten in the last ten hours, but I didn’t want to stop! We ended up meeting some other students and exploring the beautiful city of Merida and I could not have been more excited for the next five weeks in Mexico. The moral of this story is that being prepared is important, but that being open and determined is what will make or break your experience abroad.