From Seville, Dubai, And Puerto Rico To Penn State: The Unique Experiences Of Three Students Studying Away From Home
Penn State is notorious for its hundreds of study abroad programs as well as its diverse student population. Whether you’re a student who’s hoping to get away to a different country for a semester or studying at Penn State from a foreign land, you’re most likely hoping to step out of your comfort zone and experience new places and cultures.
We spoke to three students who were able to see the world with a new perspective – a Penn State student who studied abroad, and two students who moved to the United States to attend Penn State.
Rachel Casey (pictured above), a senior majoring in supply chain management, studied abroad the summer after her sophomore year in Seville, Spain, although her experience was far from typical. She was sick with mono for the entire three months she was abroad and struggled with the decision of whether or not to return home. She persisted through the rest of her time abroad with the help of her CIEE program and host mom.
Casey has studied Spanish since she was in elementary school and is currently minoring in Spanish as well as International business. She chose to study abroad in Spain to deepen her understanding of the language and culture.
Aishwarya Satish is a junior petroleum engineering major who is originally from Dubai and first moved to the United States for her freshman year at Penn State. “Penn State was the first college I applied to and was the first college that sent me an acceptance letter,” Satish said. “I was a little bit scared when I first came in the beginning, but after a few days it felt like home because everyone was really welcoming.” Satish chose to attend Penn State because of its successful engineering program.
Gabi Rojo is a U.S. citizen but was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She also moved to America for the first time when she turned 18 to attend Penn State to study architecture. Moving to Pennsylvania was a big change for her because Puerto Rico is such a small island where she felt as though she knew most of the people. “I like that it’s a completely new environment,” Rojo said. “It’s nice getting out of your comfort zone.”
Rojo is bilingual since she spoke Spanish at home with her family and learned English in school, which helped her adjust to life at Penn State more easily. Rojo chose to attend Penn State for its acclaimed architecture program, since the programs in Puerto Rico aren’t as advanced.
Although each student has had wildly different experiences immersing themselves into the culture of another country, they were all faced with similar challenges and lessons. All three students agree that the biggest challenge of living in a foreign country was connecting with the native people and adapting to the culture shock.
“There’s no one who can tell you exactly what it’s going to be like,” Casey said. “I had taken international trips with my family before, but I wondered, ‘can I do this without my mom?’ It teaches you to keep your wits about you but also teaches you how to immerse yourself into a culture. It takes you out of your comfort zone and teaches you to be a good traveler.”
Satish also felt nervous about navigating an unfamiliar place for the first time. “In the beginning, the school was really big and for the few days I walked around with a map. I didn’t care how funny I looked!” Satish said. “But over time, it became smaller.”
Satish was originally nervous to speak to people who were outside of her culture, but she eventually broke the barrier she set for herself. “After coming here I’ve met so many people of so many different cultures, and when I came here I was by myself. It was really scary but I needed to come out of my shell,” Satish said.
She also felt pressure to dress a certain way because she had an idea in her head of what Americans would dress like. “Once I saw people showing up to their 8 a.m.’s in pajamas I didn’t feel that pressure anymore,” Satish said.
Rojo had a difficult time meeting people from Puerto Rico during her freshman year. “I had so much work that I felt like I couldn’t get out and do anything else the first year,” Rojo said. She also had difficulty escaping stereotypes. “An interesting observation I’ve made is how people perceive Puerto Ricans at Penn State. There are two different comments I’ve frequently gotten since living here. One is ‘You look Puerto Rican,’ and the other is, ‘but you speak English so well!’ What exactly does a Puerto Rican look like?”
Although Rojo finds that a familiar face is hard to come by, she says that she learned just how prideful Puerto Ricans really are. “When I do meet someone else from Puerto Rico it’s totally an ‘oh my God’ moment. It’s really cool,” Rojo said.
Satish also experienced a different kind of cultural barrier. She found that when she opened up to others about her own culture, they were willing to reciprocate. “I was open to everyone and talked to a lot of people without restraining myself,” Satish said. “I learned to not judge a book by its cover. I was an introvert but I’m becoming more of an extrovert now. I’m learning a lot about myself and learning how to communicate with people. In the beginning, it was a little difficult to meet friends but as I met more and more people over time my circle of friends expanded. I don’t think I would be surviving college without these friends,” Satish said.
As far as making lifelong friends goes, Casey had no problem while she was studying abroad. “Everyone is in the same situation,” Casey said. “I made friends immediately because they put us in little groups until we became more acclimated. You’ll find a lot of Penn State students abroad and they are able to single each other out and go out together. I made close connections in Seville, and my host mom told me I always have a place to stay when I go back.” However, she mentioned that it’s difficult to keep in touch once you’re back home in the states.
Satish intends to keep in touch with the friends she made at Penn State after graduation. “I have a tight group of three or four people who would be impossible not to keep in touch with,” Satish said. “They are like family now. Distance can’t break that.”
Rojo learned how important theater was to her after arriving at Penn State, and found a home in Penn State Thespians as a performer and set designer. She was also able to meet some Puerto Ricans through Thespians. “My first year I didn’t have much time to do other things, but this year joining theater was so great,” Rojo said. “It’s a great time to meet new people and try things you’ve never tried before.”
Rojo plans to keep in touch with the friends she’s made here whether or not she moves back to Puerto Rico after graduating. “I don’t think I’ve ever connected with people on such a deep level before,” Rojo said.
Casey’s favorite part of studying abroad was interacting with the native people and taking small trips outside of Seville in between classes. She learned many lessons about living in another country, but also learned important lessons about herself.
“The experience really changed me,” Casey said. “It really teaches you what you’re capable of. I didn’t know that I was capable of going and living in a country by myself. When I came back I felt so much more confident speaking to people that speak a different language and felt comfortable sharing my own culture with them.”
Satish believes she changed exponentially since coming to Penn State for school. She isn’t sure if she’s going to stay in America or go back to Dubai after graduation, but she is considering getting her masters and will see where the job takes her from there. She mentioned that she would consider moving to the United States permanently. “It’s an unfamiliar place but I’ve really liked my time here,” Satish said.
Rojo also isn’t sure where she wants to live after graduation, but it depends on what opportunities present themselves. “I’d like to live in the states for a little while since it seems like there’s more opportunities over here for what I specifically want.”
Rojo wants to combine her two passions, theater and architecture, to become a theater architect and set designer. “Penn State pushes me to think more creatively,” Rojo said. “If I do return to Puerto Rico I would like to push for arts education in schools because that’s something I find incredibly important.”
Finally, the three travelers shared some of the most valuable wisdom they learned while exploring other nations.
“Be prepared. Everyone has their own experience abroad, and even if you feel the culture shock and homesickness, experience everything you can. Don’t blink for a second because it goes by ridiculously fast,” Casey said.
“Always be open to people and don’t keep to yourself. Take that step. It’s scary, but that’s how you get to know people and make those really strong connections. It’s also important not to stereotype people,” Satish said.
“Travel, because it made me a lot more independent. I gained a lot of confidence and it forced me to make decisions for myself,” Rojo said.