Maritza Torres is a Doctoral student at Florida State University and Graduate Assistant in the Center for Leadership and Social Change. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In May of 2016, I was excited to participate in my first study abroad experience as a participant the Insights in Higher Education trip to London, England at Florida State University. As a first-generation Latina, I could not fathom study abroad as a legitimate option in undergrad due to financial hardship. So clearly, this experience was a huge deal for me and I wanted to fully embrace this opportunity as a doctoral student.
During our study abroad experience, we had the opportunity to visit four schools and one foundation: The University of Reading, University College London, Oxford University, Leighton Park (a secondary school), and the Foundation for International Education. Our visits to the universities gave us the opportunity to speak to administrators about issues in Higher Education in the United Kingdom and to learn more about their campus life. At Leighton Park, we were able to learn about the secondary school system in London and what the transition from secondary school to university entailed. We had lunch with students, and I had the opportunity to have lunch with two young women from Russia. The Foundation for International Education is a nonprofit educational organization that provides a London based curriculum for students who want to study abroad in London.
Both the master’s cohort and the doctoral cohorts had group and individual projects that they worked on that ranged from tuition costs to international student services. The doctoral cohort studied the differences and similarities between student activism in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
We also explored the city of London. During our week there, we visited the Tower of London, took a tour of Parliament, visited museums and saw theatrical performances—just to name a few. From the doctoral student perspective, I found this experience incredibly valuable. I was able to expand my knowledge of higher education internationally and become more aware of the issues and topics influencing their college campuses. London was truly our classroom.
Below are some key takeaways I qualify as lessons during my study abroad experience because they have played an impact in how I discover and understand my latinidad and the role in challenging my way of thinking and preconceived notions of identity development.
- Be vulnerable. I had moments in which I had to “find my voice” and put away my introverted self for a while. Being in a new country definitely puts your vulnerability to the test. Having to ask for directions, ask general questions, or start up conversations with people is something that does not come very easily to me. However, during these moments, I was able to connect with people and learn about their experiences and backgrounds. From the really sweet barista at the local coffee shop that I visited daily to the lovely Uber driver who batted the London traffic to get a friend and I to the train station—it was fascinating to hear people’s stories!
- Identity development has no age limit. Latino identity development is one of areas of study that I am very interested in. As a Student Affairs professional and current doctoral student, I thought I was pretty secure about my identity as a Latina. However, there were instances in London in which I felt like my identity was challenged. I noticed the lack of “people that looked like me” in various places, how White colleagues and peers were addressed directly by others when I was not (and the subsequent perception that they were being treated better than me), and learning to identify myself as “American.” The last piece is new to me. Usually when I’m asked how I identify, I always say I am Puerto Rican, and, for some reason, keep out the American part of my identity. All of these experiences have taught me aspects of my identity need to further explore and how intersectionality truly plays a role in my identity, especially in a different country.
- Stay woke, Brown girl. The doctoral student project was focused on student activism. Learning about social justice from a global perspective made me realize that higher education as a whole deals with similar issues. While our systems and titles may be different, higher education professionals have a genuine care and concern for students and are working to find ways to support them. Taking the time to learn about issues in the United Kingdom opened up my eyes to the different types of issues students are fighting and how they have a common underlying theme of justice, fairness, and the power of voice.
I wanted to share this experience to show lifelong learners and my fellow Latinx colleagues that it is never too late to take advantage of study abroad opportunities and learn new aspects of your identity. I would encourage any of you whom are interested in a similar experience to connect with your respective institutions and see what is offered. For graduate students, I would recommend connecting with your International Studies office and see if they offer internships for graduate students. Another option would be to talk to faculty members or the program coordinator of an academic department and ask if you can serve as a teaching assistant or if there are study abroad opportunities for graduate students. If you are planning to start a graduate program, and study abroad opportunities are important to you, I would recommend asking if your program has study abroad option. For full-time professionals, I recommend asking your department about short-term trips with students or how one can develop such an opportunity. I have truly found this experience incredibly valuable to my own personal and professional development and hope that many of you are able to participate in a similar experience.