Study abroad taught me how to be resourceful, confident, and fiercely independent. I learned how to listen to the sounds of the world around me—the people, the nature, the machines, the factories, the pollutants, and the animals and to sit with those sounds in the comfort of my own silence.
I learned how to be content being alone, a stranger amidst millions of people in cities such as London, Cairo and Delhi, a wanderer passing through villages in the Himalayas, and a practitioner meditating in temples in Bodh Gaya. I learned to accept what was given to me and in return to give of myself to the fullest extent, graciously welcoming and returning the love that I received from the communities around me.
Currently, I am the PowerSchool Coordinator at Immaculate Conception Academy, a Cristo Rey high school in the Dominican tradition in San Francisco’s Mission District. I also work afterschool with middle school students at Convent of the Sacred Heart and Sacred Heart School for Boys in San Francisco.
Study abroad was as much an experience to explore myself as it was an experience to explore the world.
The night before I was to board my flight for study abroad, I remember laying on my bedroom floor crying, surrounded by too-heavy suitcases and trying to remember why it was that I wanted to do this crazy thing and leave everything familiar for four months. I didn't know the semester that lay ahead of me was to be transformative in my life in every way.
Study abroad opened my eyes to the millions of fractals of possible lives that lay all around me undiscovered. I saw just a glimpse of all the worlds constantly around me all the time, humming along without me, and for the first time began to think about my place in them. Study abroad is the first time I felt that voracious hunger to roam, to discover, to explore. Study abroad gave me confidence to go alone like a pinball into the world. Study abroad showed me beauty and wonder that I'd hoped was out there, but until that point hadn't experienced for myself.
I took Rab Hatfield's upper-level art history seminar on Michelangelo, and over the course of the semester I got to stand in front of a high percentage of his works in all mediums—painting, sculpture, architecture, sketches. I came to know him in a way I never thought I'd understand a man who lived and died five centuries before I even existed. The teaching format of the class was based around student lectures in-situ, so my favorite memory of my time abroad is presenting confidently for 40 minutes in the Medici Chapel on Michelangelo’s sculptures of Dusk and Dawn personified, and the architecture which surrounded them. I remember standing back from the experience after it was over and wondering who that girl was that was able to do that, in front of that piece of stunning art.
After working for five years for SCU International Programs, I now am the coordinator of off-campus study at Colorado College, and am pursuing my Masters in Intercultural Relations. I told you that study abroad was transformative to my life.
It is not an exaggeration to say that my study abroad experience with Casa in El Salvador has influenced nearly every facet of my life. Staring with my return to SCU, it gave me new eyes to see the campus and community.
During my semester at Casa I had the opportunity to study Liberation Theology and witness the faith of the martyrs. These experiences deepened my spirituality and gave me a new way of embracing my Catholic faith. The Casa encouraged me to reflect on my life and gave me tools for discernment. It taught me the importance of intentional community living and stretched my imagination of who was my "neighbor."
One of the stories that will always remain with me from my time abroad begins with a weeklong experience in the rural part of the country. I remember being extremely nervous to spend the week alone with a host family who I did not know. My family, especially the children, were even more nervous than I was to have their first white visitor in their home. The five children spent most of the first few days inside the house, occasionally peaking out to catch a glimpse of me. Finally, we broke the ice through playing marbles. The children had a small handful of marbles, most likely their only toy, and we would play for hours in the dirt dodging chicken poop and pebbles. Out of all the marbles, there were two special marbles—a black one we named el novio and a white one we named la novia (boyfriend and girlfriend). These were the most sought after in the game and the most precious. Goodbyes were difficult to say at the end of the week. I felt deep gratitude for the opportunity to have spent the week together, forgetting I had felt nervous at the start.
A month after returning to our community in the capital a small worn envelope arrived addressed to "Heidi, who studies at the UCA." Along with a note, the two marbles, el novio and la novia were inside. I was moved to tears. This gift was the most precious and selfless I have ever received. The children had given me their favorite toy. I will always remember those children and their gift of love.
My semester in El Salvador was influential in my decision to join JVI-Peru post graduation. In graduate school, the Casa alum network connected me with a community of passionate and engaged students, who like me were in search of a community that put their education in service of those on the margins. Today, the Casa continues to influence my life in the Philippines, where I have the privilege of accompanying students during their semester abroad with USF's Casa Bayanihan in Manila, Philippines.
Those 112 days shaped the person I am today, the life I lead, and the lives I have touched.
My trip abroad led me to Rome, a year in France, travelling throughout Europe and settling in the cradle of the Renaissance—Florence, Italy—where I call home today. I speak comfortably four languages and interact all day with hundreds of people from all over the world.
I recall (thanks to my journals that I kept) showing an elderly couple the Pantheon in Rome from the notes I was studying while sitting in the pews. I wrote that day "I think it would be great to be a tour guide for American tourists", I was 19—over 20 years ago—and today I am an authorized guide and have toured the late Senator Ted Kennedy and his family, members of President Obama's cabinet and many other dignitaries and academic leaders.
I went on to complete two degrees in Art History concentrating on the Italian Renaissance. In 1995, my research for my Master's Degree was in Florence, Italy where I have resided ever since. I am a lecturer for American Studies Abroad programs, an authorized tour guide for Florence, and I also have a full-time job as a Fraud Analyst and Customer Care Manager at a fashion company (www.fashionis.com). I own a home here with my husband, who is from Florence, and we have a son (8).
I was recently nominated to be a member of the Advisory Board in Rome at the John Felice Rome Center this year! Now it has gone full circle—don't you think?
I believe it was the best experience ever. I feel I grew emotionally by about six years. I had come from a small town and I did not know much about the world around me. I had a very narrow and limited view of the world, until my experience abroad helped me to be more open about the world, different cultures, and people. I do not believe I would have become the professional, businesswoman, scholar, etc. that I am today without that experience.
Walking around Japan pretending that I spoke another language with my classmate. We were embarrassed because everyone around us could speak English and at least two other languages. So one day on the subway, Rick (my classmate) and I decided to pretend as if we were speaking something else. We figured people around us wouldn’t know.
Today, I am a therapist in private practice. I teach graduate school for Marriage and Family Therapist. I also teach and train students who are preparing for their certification in drug and alcohol counseling. I work with a bariatric surgeon preparing people for weight loss surgery and assisting them with their adjustments after surgery. I also do workshops and seminars in a variety of areas that affect the human condition. I also do critical incident debriefing/response counseling.
I just wish every young person could have an experience like this. I know that my time in Japan shaped me in ways that would never had happened if I had not gone. My husband (boyfriend at the time) got accepted to go to Rome and since I was a sophomore, I was not allowed to go. There were too many juniors who had applied and they got priority. Then SCU started this program in Japan for sophomores. Chester (my husband) talked me into going. Although I went begrudgingly, it was one of the better decisions of my life.