Kate Kirk

Kate with her second grade class on her last day of school in Honduras.

Kate with her second grade class on her last day of school in Honduras.

Kate studied abroad in France, Hungary, Italy and Ghana. She now works at Melibee Global Education Consulting.

Where did you go to school?

Northern Arizona University, Master’s
Valdosta State University, Bachelor’s

When and where did you study abroad?

Summer, 2005 in Paris, France with the European Council of GA Study Abroad Program
Spring, 2007 in Eger, Hungary at Eszterházy Károly College
Summer, 2008 in Fidenza, Italy with NAU’s opera program
Summer, 2010 in Ghana with a Music/Culture Workshop

What was the BEST part about studying abroad?

The first thought that comes to mind is my initial experience abroad, though it was through travel, and not study. When I was twelve I recall seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral and, with palpable force my worldview was grabbed and immediately stretched exponentially. Who knew that such all-encompassing reaction was possible?! To me, an expanded worldview is a treasured gift that study – and travel – abroad both have the potential to offer.

During my actual studies abroad, my worldview continued to expand, though not as instantaneously or with such force as the initial experience. In its place, however, I learned other values due to an expanded worldview. I found great reward in my self-reliance, particularly when it came to navigating rural Hungary, where the closest language to English is German. I cherished growing friendships with Erasmus and local students, and enjoyed learning about their cultures. Through these experiences, I humbled myself in the knowledge that this world is so much greater than my childhood lens of the Deep South. In this realization, I became a life-long learner.

What did you learn about the rest of the world from studying abroad? What did you learn about yourself from the experience?

From studying in Hungary to fieldwork in Ghana, I found that many of the amenities that we as Americans take for granted are scarce in other countries. Even the simplest things, like a coat hanger in a bathroom stall, free toilet paper, or free-of-charge bathrooms at gas stations, are luxuries that some countries lack. At the risk of over-generalizing, I noticed that Europeans are more conscientious of the space they take up, and tend to make a concerted effort to minimize this. In France, Hungary, and Italy, I found that people tend use resources wisely, lest they be wasteful.

Due to America’s size, we don’t really have to worry about being conscientious or taking up space, unless we’re in a big city. It seems like our resources are unlimited, so much though that I fear we’re in danger of being wasteful. Through my experiences abroad, I learned to be more aware of how I use products, space, and time. I found humility learning what other countries taught me and gratitude for the things I do have.

What was your BIGGEST challenge when studying abroad?

During my exchange in Hungary, I found a new aspect of my identity that I’d previously taken for granted. I was the token American, the first one to ever study at the school. While I became increasingly conscious of my “American-ness”, I also became aware of how individuals in other countries sometimes view Americans and my country. Some of the Erasmus students from West Europe had experienced droves of loud Americans in their home countries, and had therefore developed a bad taste in their mouths of our culture. To amplify this, American media seemed to permeate even the small Hungarian town of Eger. Seeing how American media seems to be so accessible, advertising materialism, lack of responsibility, etc, it’s understandable that Hungarians, or an other Europeans, would be upset. Heck, I was put out to find that, upon entering a wine cellar in Eger’s famous wine valley Szépasszonyvölgy, lo and behold Britney Spears was on the radio! I didn’t cross an ocean only to be confronted with American pop music!

What I found from my interactions was that Hungarians or other Europeans weren’t so much put out by Americans as they were by our country’s polices and media. In many cases, I was the first American they’d ever met. By exchanging in open dialogue and empathy, I found that often both parties left with the feeling that people are people, no matter where you go. From these challenging, fulfilling dialogues, I became a friend, a classmate, and a traveler again, but one that just happened to be American.

How did studying abroad change your life?

Throughout these experiences, I learned two valuable lessons. First, I found that study abroad, or experiencing another culture, is one of the most valuable, elevating experiences one can have. Realizing its importance, I knew I wanted to share it with others. Second, I realized the reality that often the most valuable learning experiences actually occur outside the classroom. From experiencing culture outside the classroom, to engaging in dialogue with locals, I came to truly understand what it means to be an active global learner. I learned self-reliance, empathy, and humility all without cracking a textbook or jotting down a note (OK, so maybe I jotted down one or two). These traits, though admirable in general, are particularly valuable to the education abroad professional, who often conducts study abroad programs that require individuals with personal drive and empathy and humility while engaged with other cultures.

What have you been doing post studying abroad?

My experiences have helped me to find my calling: international education. I had worked at VSU’s international office during my undergraduate work, so I interned with them twice upon graduating to gain further experience and knowledge. In the fall of 2012, I charted course for Honduras and taught at a bilingual school, which furthered my insight into cross-cultural dialogue and global citizenship. Though I’m back in the States now, I still recruit for the school and also fund-raise for a local charity called the Eternal Family Project. I currently work for Melibee Global Education Consulting, an amazing company offering resources and training for international education professionals and study abroad students.

What’s your BEST piece of advice for a student who is thinking about studying abroad?

My advice would be two-fold. I’d suggest you find a program that offers an internship, community work, or other form of social engagement that would allow for more cultural integration and immersion than the average summer study program usually offers. Not only with this allow you to step outside your comfort zone and enhance your language skills, it will allow for personal, intellectual, and professional growth.

When you’ve picked a program, prepare yourself mentally during your pre-departure stage and upon re-entry. It’s hard to comprehend how big of a deal culture shock and reverse culture shock are until you’re actually experiencing it yourself! Here are some great exercises that’ll help you truly prepare for an amazing experience: UKY’s Study Abroad Toolkit and Melibee’s Re-entry Tool.

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