My College Story: Expanding a Study Abroad Experience

Gwen Elise talks about study abroad in Argentina and participating in fellowships abroad.

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Gwen Elise graduated from Vassar College in 2012 with two bachelor's degrees: one in English and the other in Hispanic Studies. While at Vassar, she spent a year living and learning in South America, enjoying her study abroad in Argentina. While there, Gwen lived with a host family, and to this day still keeps in touch with her host mom. After returning from Argentina and finishing up her senior year at Vassar, Gwen worked for a nonprofit agency and then joined the staff at Student Caffé.

Q. What is your current occupation and how did you find yourself here?

For the three years following college graduation, I dabbled. I worked at a summer camp in Ecuador, held an internship at a publishing house, took a fellowship year in Argentina, and managed a grant for a nonprofit. In other words, I switched from the Spanish language to the English language, Spanish to English, like a pinball.

In October 2015, I began writing and editing for Student Caffé. I will soon begin translating site content into Spanish as well. I couldn’t be happier to work a job that lets me use both of my languages.

Q. Did you take any alternative routes (e.g., special programs, study abroad, volunteer work, internships) that moved your education forward?

I was one of the few students who arrived at a liberal arts college already knowing what she wanted to major in. My two favorite (and best) subjects have always been English and Spanish. I got involved in both departments early, so I was able to take all of my first-choice classes. I also had time to study abroad.

I picked Argentina because I wanted to experience South America. Buenos Aires is a cultural hub with easy access to beautiful wilderness. I took a bus over mountains to Chile and a ferry to Uruguay. I drank wine in Mendoza, trekked through Patagonia, ate seafood in Rosario, saw the waterfalls of Iguazú, and paddled a boat through the swamps of Iberá.

My Spanish was advanced enough for me to take classes at local universities with local students. I organized my schedule with the help of an established study abroad program through IFSA-Butler. It helped me pick literature classes, taught in Spanish, that transferred back to Vassar as credits toward my English major. The program also helped me find an internship at an Argentine publishing house.

I’d originally planned to stay a semester, but once I arrived, I didn’t want to leave. Vassar worked with me to extend my time in Argentina to a year. My financial aid package applied, and I drew up an academic plan with my English advisor to clarify how I would finish up my degree requirements once I got back to campus.

Q. How did you manage to feel at home while abroad? Did you live in a home or share a dorm?

My study abroad program required that I live with a host family, and I was happy to immerse myself in the language and culture. My host family consisted of a mother, a daughter, and an ancient beagle named Felipe. We had dinner together every night at 9 p.m.

Many of my college friends were put off by the idea of staying with a host family after spending a couple of years in the dorms. I loved it. I didn’t have a curfew and I was allowed to have friends over, so I never felt like I lost my freedom. I actually felt more secure. When I came down with a monstrous throat infection, my host mother arranged for her doctor to make a house call. When I had essays due for class, she read them for grammar.

She and I are still friends, and I visited her often when I moved back to Argentina after college. Now, we send each other emails twice a year: every Mother’s Day. The United States celebrates in May, and Argentina, in October.

Q. Did you find ways to keep traveling after your study abroad year was over?

Yes. During my junior year in Argentina, I heard that a fellow Vassar student, a senior named Emma, had received fellowship funding to start a summer camp in Ecuador. She was setting out to create a culturally-relevant camp which taught art, theater, music, and language (Spanish, Kichwa, and English). She was using her funding to buy supplies and pay local workshop instructors, but she needed volunteers.

I had never met Emma before, but our interests aligned. I reached out to her via email from Argentina, and she encouraged me to work remotely with Vassar’s Fellowship Office to find funding for my summer of volunteer work. At that point, I was a fellowship newbie. I didn’t really know what they were, but I did know that I couldn’t afford to go to Ecuador without financial sponsorship.

I’ve since learned that “fellowship” is a fancy word for funding opportunity. It’s usually similar to a merit-based scholarship. Many fellowships require that you write proposals that detail exactly how you will be using the money if you receive the award.

I applied for an undergraduate summer fellowship and received an award that covered my personal and project expenses. After my finals, I said goodbye to Argentina and flew to Ecuador for the summer before my senior year.

Q. Did you apply to other fellowships?

Yes. My summer in Ecuador let me travel, collaborate, work a nontraditional job, and define my own strengths and tasks. I loved the idea of pursuing another fellowship after college graduation. It seemed more exciting than working a nine-to-five job.

I met with Vassar’s Fellowship Office during my senior year about funding opportunities for graduates. We found three fellowships that fit my goals: Each one offered funding to select students who designed a yearlong project abroad. For my application to be competitive, it had to be specific and well researched. Because I had spent so much time in Argentina—and loved it—it was most realistic for me to design a project that took me back to expand on my study abroad experiences.

The application was extensive and tedious. I created a proposal, wrote a personal essay, drew up a budget, and requested three letters of recommendation. My efforts paid off. Literally. I was awarded a fellowship that funded an entire year, including roundtrip airfare, housing, meals, tuition, books, transportation, and a supplemental writing workshop. I was also able to defer my loan repayment during the entirety of my fellowship year.

Q. Do you have advice for other students following a similar path?

Look for the free money. It’s out there.

My alma mater is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive in the country, but the financial aid package it offered me was more generous than any other school’s. My private education at Vassar, after federal and school-based financial aid, was just as affordable as my public university options. When you are applying to colleges, always check out overall tuition and fees, but don’t be afraid to look at private colleges that meet their students’ full financial need. If you receive financial aid, take advantage of it. Your aid package just might help you study abroad.

And that’s just the need-based money out there.

Stop by your school’s scholarship and fellowship offices early. They are underused resources with lists of merit-based scholarships and grants that might be up your alley. Love to travel? Want to design your own volunteer work or internship? Get funded for it.

Q. What was the greatest lesson you learned from your education?

In college and on my study abroad trip, I realized the extent of my privilege. I’ve always worked and studied hard, but I’ve also benefited from systems solely because I am white, straight, cisgender, English-speaking, and from the United States. At Vassar and during my college travels, I could look around and see peers who were working and studying as hard as I was—or harder—and being recognized for less. My education gave me the time and resources to recognize how much I don’t know and won’t know unless I listen to voices that sound different from my own.

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