Thoughts from Tutors

Study Abroad: A Different Kind of Education

By Kirsten Smith, Tutor 

If you’re like me, you are probably starting to make summer plans, such as looking at what classes to take, internship opportunities, and planning that epic summer vacation! There is one option that you may or may not have considered . . . study abroad!

Hey everyone! I’m Kirsten Smith and this my third semester as a tutor with the TECHniques Center. Currently, I am finishing up my last semester at Texas Tech with a Bachelor’s of Science in Natural Resources Management with an emphasis in Conservation Science. Before you ask, Natural Resource Management is a multidisciplinary field combining biology with environmental science. We study or work with anything pertaining to the atmosphere, soils, wildlife, and water. We help the government, businesses, and land owners make informed decisions about the environmental impacts that their projects or buildings will have on the area. I am blessed to have found a major where my passions and interests align but it wasn’t always that way. Looking back at the past four years, I would not have made that discovery without my study abroad experiences.

Texas Tech offers a large variety of programs available for all majors. These range from three-week faculty-led courses to entire semesters abroad. I would strongly encourage you to visit the study abroad website and see if there is a program that sparks your interest. I have done some crazy things in my life, but nothing like spending three weeks in both my study abroad countries.

Yes, you read that correctly; I have studied abroad twice! The first time was to Zimbabwe, Africa and the second was to Costa Rica. These trips are fun however, they are not vacations. Studying abroad is a different kind of education than what you may experience here in Lubbock, Texas. My classroom changed daily from cities to beaches to the African savannah, while my professors were the local people, businesses, and tour guides we encountered at each destination.

The list of positive outcomes from studying abroad could go on forever but I’ll tell you about my top three reasons I think everybody should study abroad! The best part is most of these lessons directly relate to the things that are taught and encouraged here at the TECHniques Center!

After you come home from a study abroad trip you’ll notice that your view of the world has changed. This experience looks different for everybody, but for me I learned to appreciate the small things. While in Africa I spent one week in an area where water conservation was crucial. Water use in this area is limited to the amount of rainfall they receive and how high the local river is at that time. This of course meant that our water use was limited to a certain amount each day! It is easy to talk about conservation in a classroom, it’s completely different to rely on it. As I stated earlier it was the little things that impacted me the most. For example, after returning home I began to notice how much our society wastes basic needs like food and water. How many of you went to a restaurant today and did not finish that glass of water your waiter refilled three times? In addition, I noticed changes to my own personal habits and routines such as taking a shorter shower, or denying that drink refill. At the same time, studying abroad immerses you into a culture that is entirely different from ours. We live in such a fast paced and busy environment, that transitioning from our “American” mindset to a laid-back Africa or Costa Rican way of life was a bigger challenge than it might appear. We were lucky if our hotel or restaurant had internet to contact our family, and never mind Facebook and Twitter. Before you know it, you’ve gone a week without checking social media and forgot why it was even important in the first place. As hard as it was to immerse into their societies, it was even harder to come back into mine. I started craving their unplugged, carefree lifestyles that I had come to enjoy! Study abroad taught me to fully appreciate the diversity and challenges in the world around me, but more importantly I learned how to relate to these people or ideas.

Secondly, you will experience lots of personal growth. Costa Rica challenged me in every way possible. The last week of our trip was spent on a designated research island and wildlife preserve. While there, we completed our final course requirement which was to design our own research project. Students had to independently design, collect data, summarize and present two research questions all in one week. Naturally, I had done these things during my basic biology lab but never without having the research question asked for me and the data supplied. Not to mention we were venturing out into the rainforest alone, usually in the pouring rain! (Disclaimer, we were completely safe, sort of). Ask me about the time monkeys chased me off my research trail . . . yeah, that was an adventure! Costa Rica also showed me that I have no interest in conducting research in the tropics. I grew up in a desert and despite this I thought I could handle the moist climate . . . I was wrong. This was a simple but important lesson that has been critical to my search for jobs or graduate research positions. It was great for three weeks, but not for the extended periods of time that would be expected while conducting research.

Finally, studying abroad fosters independence and skyrockets your value as a future graduate student or employee. You never know what to expect on an experience like study abroad. A typical college class involves a syllabus and step by step plan for the semester without room for changes. Some study abroad courses might be like that however, mine were not. I didn’t even give my parents the schedule because we had been forewarned there would be deviations. In fact, most of my favorite memories come from those unplanned events! Employers are looking for people that can work independently, handle conflicts, and overcome them; all of which are learned on a study abroad trip.

A sunset in Africa

Both Africa and Costa Rica held their own unique set of challenges that forced me to step outside my comfort zone and overcome several fears. This took courage and a lot of strength. When traveling, it’s inevitable things will go wrong, and I am the type of person who really hates when things don’t go according to plan. However, every challenge helped me discover how I handle conflicts, and more importantly how I overcome these conflicts.

Now I know what you may be thinking . . . studying abroad is expensive, or I could never be away from home that long. Yes, it can be expensive, and yes it will push you out of your comfort zone, but Texas Tech has so many programs to offer I have no doubt you can find exactly what you need. You might have to write a few essays, but there are tons of scholarship and financial aid options offered both through the university and through third party organizations. If you decide to take the plunge, I promise it will be the best investment in your education you could ever make and it will be worth every penny you spend! Now, to answer some of my favorite questions.

Why did you decide to study abroad?

For as long as I could remember I had dreamt of traveling to Africa, but I only cared about two things: watch the sun set, and see a lion. As a kid my love for wildlife and nature grew from shows on Animal Planet or Discovery Channel. The sunsets on these shows were some of the most beautiful I had ever seen, and I knew if I ever took a trip to Africa I had to experience one (it was even better in person). During my sophomore year, that dream became a reality. A professor in the Natural Resource Management department announced he was teaching a summer course in Africa. This trip was three weeks and I would earn six credits. So just to recap Tech was offering me a chance to achieve my dream and help me graduate faster how could I say no? I worked hard, saved money, begged my parents and before I knew it, I was on a plane with 12 other TTU students headed to Africa! One year later that same professor was taking students to Costa Rica and I said yes!

What is your favorite memory from studying abroad?

This is a really hard question to answer because so many incredible things happened during those trips, but I’ll share one from each adventure. My last week in Africa was spent out in the savannah in a place called Hwange National Park. Wildlife was everywhere! Our tour guide decided he would teach us how they track wildlife, so our goal for that day was to find the nearby herd of Cape Buffalo. It took all morning and we hiked through some rough terrain but finally we found them! There is no better feeling then standing ten feet from an animal like that in the wild!

My favorite memory from Costa Rica is quite similar. It was complete luck but our tour guide happened to run into a colleague who invited our group to help sea turtle researchers count eggs during a natural phenomenon known as Arribadas. This is one week in July where tens of thousands of sea turtles come to lay eggs on this particular beach in Costa Rica. I pulled one the best all-nighters of my life and witnessed an incredible display of nature that some people can only dream of! It’s a sight that can’t really be put into words!

If I haven’t convinced you to study abroad yet, then I’ll leave you with my favorite quote.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”  – Mark Twain

Like all things in life, take a chance and say yes! You never know what opportunities will stem from that three letter word!

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