Sarah studied abroad in France several times and now works as a Study Abroad Advisor at Miami University.
Where did you go to school?
Albion College – BA French
University of Michigan – MSI Human-Computer Interaction
When and where did you study abroad?
1996 – Three-week high school group experience in France
1998 – One-week freshman seminar group experience in France
2000-2001 – Academic year in Grenoble, France
2002-2003 – Teaching assistantship in Vichy, France
2004 – Internship in Pontlevoy, France
What was the BEST part about studying abroad?
I think one of the best things about a study abroad experience is that it pushes you to take advantage of every moment, every experience and every opportunity. You want to taste everything and talk to everyone and try everything. It can be overwhelming and it means that there are a lot of emotional highs and lows, but it’s also a lot more exciting than sitting at home on the couch!
What did you learn about the rest of the world from studying abroad? What did you learn about yourself from the experience?
Living in another culture gave me an entirely different perspective on the world. It gave me a better tolerance for ambiguity and helped me to understand that the world is not just black and white, but that there are a lot of relatives and grey areas to consider. What works for one person or culture might not work for another, but on the other hand, it’s worth considering that we might have things to learn from each other. In the United States, we often have an “us vs. them” mentality, but when you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you realize that “they” are striving for the same things in life that “we” are. I think that being exposed to other cultures and other ways of doing things is a great way to identify your own assumptions and come up with more creative solutions to worldwide problems.
What was your BIGGEST challenge when studying abroad?
Self-confidence and language skills were probably my two most significant challenges, and the two of them went hand-in-hand. I would often try to avoid speaking altogether for fear that I would make a mistake. My host mother picked up on this and one night at dinner she announced, “Sarah hasn’t said a word all night. So now, Sarah, you are going to tell us what you did today.” Knowing that I would be called out if I didn’t participate was just enough motivation to encourage me to speak more. And once I started speaking, I did start making mistakes and I discovered that the world wouldn’t end if I did. I learned to accept my mistakes and laugh at myself and not take myself (or my dread of other people’s opinions) so seriously.
How did studying abroad change your life?
For me, the best thing about studying abroad was that it helped me find a career that makes me happy and fulfilled and makes me feel like I’m making a difference by exposing students to all that the world has to offer. I decided somewhere in life that I did not want to be the president of the United States, but I like to think that the students I’m helping today to learn about the world and travel abroad will be leaders in the future and that they’ll be stronger and smarter ones because of me and my little role early in their lives.
What have you been doing post studying abroad?
After I studied abroad, I knew I wanted to go back to France. I spent the year after I graduated from college as a teaching assistant in a high school in Vichy. I went on to graduate school, where I worked part-time in the Overseas Opportunities Office at the University of Michigan and decided I wanted to be a study abroad advisor. I have been working at Miami University in that role for the last seven years and look forward to a long and enriching career in international education!
What’s your BEST piece of advice for a student who is thinking about studying abroad?
Go as early as you can, because once you get a taste for it, you’ll want more. If you have the opportunity to be a high school exchange student, grab it! If you’re trying to decide between studying abroad in your sophomore year or junior year of college, why wait? It could be a life-changing experience, so why not start changing your life now?
If I may be allowed two pieces of advice, my other would be to take all the advantage you can of opportunities to learn from your host culture. You need to start this when you’re still in the planning stage by searching for a program that will offer you organized opportunities for contact with locals, because the locals aren’t going to come to you. You’ll need to join clubs, take classes with locals and live with a host family or local roommate, and then you’ll need to ask questions, start conversations and put yourself out there. This can be hard for introverts, but study abroad is a great opportunity to push yourself to try new things that are scary back home. Try putting on your “extrovert costume” for a while and see how it fits!