Thirty years into a successful telecommunications career, I began to question to what greater good my career served. The conclusions led to a lot of soul-searching and exploration of options. Consultations with career advisors and batteries of tests revealed a strong inclination to the field of law, a notion I had for many years. I knew the journey to a new career would be long and complex but I gave myself no choice other than to move forward and figured out the next steps.
Fueled by a long-time interest in politics and world affairs, I solidified my new career plans – I would advocate for greater social responsibility and justice in our country’s foreign policy, particularly toward Mexico. I knew I’d need, among many things, a higher level of understanding of Mexico as well as a view of the U.S. from Mexican eyes. These would become two distinct goals for my exchange experience. As part of my new degree program, I secured an exchange at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), a private, non-profit university located in Puebla, Mexico. To say that my exchange experience exceeded my preconceived notions would be a gross understatement.
My name is Steve Handy. I am a senior at UAS, graduating spring 2016. After stopping by the Study Abroad fair tables set up outside the Egan library in fall of 2013, I began following the not-so-difficult path to an ISEP Exchange. Starting with a visit to the Exchanges & Study Abroad office, I received help from staff and faculty who were excited to help. Soon I was packing for a semester in Mexico’s third largest city!
To gain the most from the experience, I knew that I would need to keep my two main goals in front of me every day and night of the semester abroad. Keeping myself focused on them allowed me to view the local community culture as a subpart of a larger municipal, regional, and national culture.
During my program, I explored the city on my own and with my new friends, took advantage of excursions made available through student specials, used the local transportation systems, enjoyed the restaurants and nightlife, attended civic events, and other forms of just “living” there. I learned how to ride a horse and rode the hills and valleys around the base of an active volcano. I climbed a dead volcano up to over 14,000 feet. I found out I’m a fan of lucha libre! And I won’t even start on the food! Having previous work and leisure travel experiences in Mexico and Central America as well as being half Latino by blood, I was able to link much of these experiences together. This conscious pairing of the exchange experiences to previous ones allowed me to meet and exceed the goal of gaining as much of an understanding of Mexico as I could in 5 months.
Addressing my second goal of understanding how Poblanos view the U.S. and Americans was a priceless experience (Poblano is a nickname deriving from the chili pepper originating from the area and adopted by citizens of Puebla). I spoke with my professors and fellow students about their views and was treated to their stories, their impressions of what they’ve heard and seen from personal experiences and media. I was even lucky enough to find a graduate-level class titled “North American Studies”, a study of forces and dynamics between Mexico, U.S., and Canada. The professor of this class was a German-born, U.S.-schooled and accomplished attorney who has lived, practiced and taught in Mexico for nearly 20 years.
I wasn’t just there to gain information; I was also just “there”; I bonded with people who had lives, experiences, customs, trials and rewards, social dynamics, and politics so incredibly disparate from mine. This laid the responsibility of representing my town, region, state and country squarely on my shoulders. I needed to remember that Poblanos might judge my country and culture by how they viewed me.
I believe every person should travel abroad and explore “real” places outside our borders, not just the tourist destinations. The experience of actually meeting people of completely different backgrounds not only shows us how pleasant and exciting such differences can be; it also shows us how similar we all are as humans. The relentless and accelerating advancements in communication technologies and transportation are in effect shrinking our planet. This has peace-spreading effects of being able to understand or view a culture on their own terms. On the other hand, depending on the country you visit, you may be lucky enough to get a view of the effects of foreign policy and the real outcomes of Globalization. Regardless of your opinion or politics, the consequence of living among other cultures is more than eye-opening. The experience is, in itself, an awakening to what is really happening in the world outside our borders.
Student exchange gives the opportunity to receive college credit for travel and adventure. You will make many new friends and connections. You may even find a new passion, be it a sport, a hobby, an epicurean style, or a person! Do it for the lessons you can’t otherwise purchase. Most of all, do it because it’s fun and exciting!
When asked the question “how do you think the experience will benefit you in the future?’, I respond with a question: How will it not? I relive the experiences through re-reading logs, looking at and sharing pictures, and just telling my stories. As long as I live I will have reminders of the lessons I learned about the host culture as well what it learned from me and how I can be a better person.
In management roles in a tech company, I always gave high regard to someone with international living experience. To me that experience revealed a person’s open-mindedness and broader understanding of the world. It told me that they could take responsibility for themselves and, therefore, everything under their charge. It told me they were, perhaps, more aware and insightful then others.
My Suggested Tips for Future Study Away Participants
- Assimilate. Consciously disconnect your sense of identity from all groups of which you’re a member to maximize potential for assimilation. When our social groups become our identity it is manifested in our behaviors which, consequentially, may force others to cling harder to theirs. Be a good representative but be yourself.
- Home-stay: Know if you’re an extrovert or extravert and make sure you’re paired appropriately. Be candid when completing paperwork. The application is your chance to better try to specify your living situation abroad.
- Academics: Pick out classes at your host institution early and maintain communication with professors and the program coordinator(s). Course structures - language, format, etc. change more than most Americans may be used to. Be flexible.
- Read Everything: Pay close attention to and take advice given in all the documentation. For example, secure a power of attorney BEFORE you depart. You can never be certain of what will transpire in your absence and getting a power of attorney abroad may be extremely different and much more expensive. Or consider the pre-program language session. And figure out visa requirements. Information is out there but you have to act.