This blog highlights the study abroad experiences of Alexis L. and provides tips for young people with experience in foster care to explore study abroad programs!
Planning for Study Abroad
To prepare for a study abroad program, I always recommend starting your planning process as soon as possible. The prime time to study abroad is typically in your sophomore year because you most likely still have some general education and/or elective credits to fulfill. This allows you more flexibility in which study abroad program(s) you can choose from as you’re not limited to your program of study.
When I transferred to Western Michigan University and I was exposed to study abroad, I began my planning process. I’ve been able to fit in 7 study abroad programs into my undergraduate career and one (with almost a full scholarship) right after graduation! All of my programs have been covered by scholarships except my first one because of poor planning on my part (you live and learn!).
A way to help you is to look at your graduation plan and see where you have pockets of time available. It’s usually easier to study abroad over the summer when classes are out, but there are programs that run over spring break and Christmas/winter break. I recommend longer study abroad programs because whether you’re going for a couple weeks or a semester, usually the biggest expense is the flight. If you’re paying for that either way, why not stay longer? If you stay in a country for a semester, you have the opportunity to become immersed and assimilated into the culture. I did a short-term program before I ever thought about doing a semester program because the idea of leaving the country, even on a faculty-led program, terrified me.
By this time, I’ve already been living on my own for a couple years and thought I was independent. Once I went on that first program, it gave me the courage to dream bigger. I have to mention that I only decided to do a semester-long program after consulting with several professors and received a lot of encouragement to help overcome my nerves. Not to mention that I extended the deadline on my application twice until they told me that I had to decide.
Deciding to study abroad for a semester in South Africa was the best decision I’ve ever made because this was a choice for me. Too often, we aren’t allowed to make our own choices because there are others making them for us. This opened the door to new perspectives, lifelong friendships and now I am going back to South Africa for an internship!
Taking the time to plan ahead, consult professors and advisors, talk to students who’ve been on previous programs will help you narrow down which program is best for you. Your college/university should have a study abroad office and/or website. I went through every single program offered at my school and wrote down which ones interested me and why. Once I had a few that I was excited about, I visited the study abroad office and went to the study abroad fair. I believe that knowledge is power and having all of the information in front of you can help you decide which program(s) best fit you!
Expanding World Views
As a current or former foster child, there is always the dream of getting away, traveling, seeing something beyond the circumstances that you are in and you have no control over. It can be understood that foster children have to learn to be independent and resilient in order to survive. Despite this, actually carrying out these dreams and aspirations can be very difficult for those individuals who feel that those things are out of our reach and impossible to accomplish. The dreams of foster children often remain just a dream.
We can learn from the news, movies, and books but without living and studying in another region of the world and being immersed in the livelihood of the locals there is no true appreciation for other cultures, languages, and regions. Growing up in the United States, specifically Michigan, I had a very narrow understanding of what the world was like. For me, there was no better opportunity to discover new ideas, perspectives, and opinions than to partake in a study abroad opportunity and a homestay, especially one where I would be studying side-by-side with locals and individuals from around the world.
There are many different perspectives to one problem and how to solve it. Learning from other cultures and people helped me think more creatively and see that there are many correct ethical ways to handle certain situations that are common to all humanity. There are so many issues that are faced on a global scale. When we live among and with people from other countries and have conversations about life, we realize they are people too. They possess hopes, dreams, challenges and emotions, just like ourselves. This gives us a more unified view of humanity and of how we need to help one another in addition to working together and making change within our generation.
Homestays can provide a more authentic cultural experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to live with a host family in Ecuador and in Senegal. This helped me speak Spanish and learn more about Senegalese culture in a low-stakes setting. The number one complaint I hear from people is that they wish they would have done more in college. Take advantage of study abroad to learn more about the world! There is a program that fits you and there are scholarships available!
Alexis L. graduated from Western Michigan University in 2019 with a BBA in Entrepreneurship and a BA in Global and International Studies, a certificate in Nonprofit Leadership, and a minor in Political Science. She has studied abroad 6 times and is completing programs in Senegal and Hong Kong over the 2019 summer. In 2017, Alexis was selected as her university’s sole nomination for the 2017 Newman Civic Fellowship. From this, she was one of only two students to receive a full scholarship from the Ronald Reagan Foundation to participate in the Leadership and the American Presidency program in D.C. She was inducted into the Lee Honors College, the National Society of Leadership and Success and Phi Beta Kappa; she received scholarships from the Seita Scholars Program, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, and the Horatio Alger Association. She was awarded the Presidential Scholar Award from the Management and the Global Studies department at WMU. Alexis is a TNFC Ambassador and aspires to be a positive example to other foster youth and seeks an international career.
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