Leah is an Ambassador who studied abroad in India
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?
I have wanted to study abroad ever since I can remember and it was a large part of why I chose St. Ben's. There's something about the idea of exploring new places, being away from home for a substantial amount of time, fully immersing myself in a new culture, and challenging myself in a way no other experience could that I found incredibly appealing.
I decided on India because it fit everything I was looking for in a trip. I was not looking for a semester vacation, I wanted a life changing experience that I could learn from and take with me on my travels. In order to do that I started looking for programs that had volunteering possibilities, non-English speaking communities, a host family, and an adventurous component to it. India fit that description perfectly. I knew I would get to Europe some day, but India? When else would I get an opportunity like that? As an added bonus I found out the India program typically has a smaller number of students going and it is very financially viable.
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
My 45 minute journey to school everyday was a cultural experience in of itself. Before leaving the apartment, I would have to ask my housekeeper (who did not speak one word of English) to unlock the door to leave. The sidewalks would consist of men sewing clothes, making tea, cooking breakfast, and giving haircuts. I would see "Mishti Dada," every morning; he is the owner of a local sweet shop who loved to talk to me about being vegetarian. Many days I would see the same blind man with a sign and I would often hand him a piece of fruit. Upon finally reaching the metro, that is a separate story unto itself. Just imagine a city of 13.5 million people, all having places to go, all covered from head to toe in 100 degree weather, and very limited space. The look, smell, and feeling of touching and sweating on people I have never met is something I'll never forget.
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
It was by far the most rewarding 5 months of my life. I have learned more about the world and than I ever though possible. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I cannot think of a better way to learn about a culture, people, religions, and still have that much fun. Waking up every morning is an adventure and I never knew what was going to happen.
Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?
Going abroad for a month is just an exciting trip, but going abroad for a semester is a journey. It may not be ALL excitement, but by the end of it I called it home. The benefit of spending a semester in India specifically is the kind of independence I walked away with. I can't imagine a place in the world I would be scared to travel to now. I feel prepared and ready for what the world could throw at me. One benefit I was not expecting was how much I learned simply from the cultural immersion aspect. I learned more from walking down the street in a day than I did from sitting in a classroom. Before leaving, I could maybe write a paragraph about what I knew about India as a whole. Now, give me a topic (religion, food, language, family life, street life) and I will write an essay on the spot. That being said, there is still so much more to learn! Kolkata is only one small part of the world. There is still more to explore even within India itself.
Upon returning back to the states, there are a lot of ways in which I realized India still affects my life every day. After spending months on end surrounded by people I have learned to really value my alone time. I have continued to journal every day (something I have never done before), and I am now more interested in current events, different cultures, and learning about the world in general. I am tenfold more flexible and open minded than when I left. I value my education system immensely. I understand how lucky I am to have professors that value both my time, and my opinions. Overall, India probably contributed most to my professional development. Going in to the trip I was determined to work with non-profits the rest of my life. After spending an entire semester volunteering and working with a non-profit, it's not for me. I have even bigger dreams now, and had I never gotten out of St. Joe I may have not realized that.
What advice can you offer for CSB|SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?
Do your research before going! Don't choose a program because of your friends or it sounds like a cool place to go. Really know what you're getting yourself into. What classes will you be taking? What language do they speak? Where will you be living? Know what you want to get out of your semester, and find the program that is going to do that for you.