When and where did you study abroad?
I studied in Alaska’s Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve over the summer of 2009.
What made you want to study abroad?
My primary motivation for studying in Alaska was my deep passion for the environment. At the time, I was in my second year of undergrad, majoring in environment and resource studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Although I was enjoying my classes on campus, I felt that experiencing some of the environmental issues discussed in lectures first-hand would provide a much more enriching learning experience. For example, climate change was a constant theme in class material, but having the opportunity to measure and observe glacier retreat in person proved that the changes were real, not just content in a course.
How did you search for programs? What made you select your program?
A few years ago I stumbled upon a website for a program called Wildlands Studies. Although they are technically a private company, students can earn transfer credits through California State University. Wildlands Studies offers the opportunity for students to join research teams in the field while earning academic credit. Their projects are listed by season and are offered in all corners of world, from Peru to Africa. I chose the Alaska project because of its unique and complex geological, ecological and cultural elements. I wanted to experience first-hand the threats and concerns facing their wildlife, glaciers, and land management, while contributing to research on a particular topic.
Do you have any tips on writing applications and preparing for a study abroad term? What was your application process like?
My application process was fairly straightforward and required a short essay outlining some of my reasons for applying and how I could contribute to the project. My advice to anyone applying to travel abroad, whether for study or work, is to be completely honest about yourself. It’s highly important to create a real picture of yourself so that instructors and organizers can match you with people who have similar personalities, as well as varied weaknesses and strengths.
What was the biggest surprise about your study abroad experience?
The biggest surprise about my study abroad experience was the relationships with my fellow students and professors. They grew into some of the most meaningful friendships I have ever experienced. Although I was the only Canadian on the program, I’ve been able to maintain close with many of participants, even traveling to Hawaii and Banff with them.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
The program was based in a very small town called McCarthy, which has only roughly 40 year-round residents. Being a remote town, we were extremely dependent on the land around us for heat, food, and water. Many of our “extra-curricular” activities included chopping wood for fire, tending to the local garden, and turning the large compost pit. We were also encouraged to practice poetry, read, cook, and use field guides to identify species in our free time. The ultimate difference between these social and extracurricular activities was the closeness to nature we all felt. Looking to our surroundings for things to do and enjoy helped reconnect us to nature. Instead of spending time on the computer at home, I was looking for trails to hike and species to identify.
What made your study abroad experience abroad a success?
My study abroad experience was a success because of the instructors and leaders that organized the program. They were extremely knowledgeable and trustworthy. Their positive attitudes and energy were inspirational. I would not have thrived and grown as much intellectually without their support and encouragement.
What was your return like?
Although I had been gone almost an entire summer, I dreaded the last few days of the trip knowing that I had to return home. Of course I missed my family and friends, but my experience was so enriching and eye opening, that I really would have been content to stay longer. I experienced a huge culture shock when I returned home. After sleeping in a tent every night and using a compostable outhouse, everything from listening to the radio in the car, to shopping at a grocery store felt new again. Eventually, I had to accept that Ontario was not Alaska, and I had to learn to adapt back to my own lifestyle as much as I had adapted to the Last Frontier’s.
Do you have any final thoughts on your experience?
Overall, I strongly suggest that every individual at any age takes the opportunity to travel. There are obvious risks to leaving the comforts of your home, but they are well worth it, in my opinion. It has never been easier to travel, and the people you can meet and the places you can see might change your life.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
After graduating in June, I spent the summer traveling throughout the UK. I reconnected with a friend who I had met in China the previous summer and stayed with him for two weeks in Scotland. It was wonderful traveling again and having to overcome some of the obstacles and challenges associated with travel. In just over a month, I had visited every country within the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland. I was extremely low on funds when I returned in August, therefore I initiated the official job search. Within three weeks, I was hired with a company called Holcim Canada. They are a concrete manufacturing company of aggregrate and ready-mix products. At Holcim, I am responsible for providing support in the approvals and licensing process for pits and quarries, as well as helping develop and eventually implement a biodiversity action plan for sites with ecological sensitivity and species at risk. I have a one year contract with Holcim, and so far I am loving my position. It's very possible that I will want to continue growing with the company. My passion for merging the environment and travel will never cease to exist, therefore I may even decide to partake in some more travelling abroad. We will see where the road will take me!
Suzanne’s excellent perspective on international travel shines through in her response. Seeing challenges and obstacles as opportunities is one of the key traits of the most successful international people. Although Suzanne is now working with a Canadian-based company, she can still build international skills, either by arranging short-term international intern or volunteer placements during her vacation time, or by participating in cross-cultural extra-curricular activities and language learning in her current home town. Staying connected to your “international self” while in your home country is crucial to continued personal growth. Read travel blogs, keep up with world news, follow the international trends in your field of focus and network with cross-cultural professionals and social contacts in your town.
- Check out our list of Working Vacation Resources to start finding temporary, short-term working opportunities abroad. The International Volunteer Opportunities list also offers a large number of links to short-term programs abroad.
- See the “Experience Outside Of University” sub-section in 24 Ways to Go International .
- Keep up with world news and inspiring travel writing by visiting The World Online .