By Bridget FitzGibbons
Where did you go to college and what initially sparked your interest in international travel?
I went to Furman University where I received my undergraduate degree in Spanish, and I went to the University of Kentucky for my Masters in Education. I have always loved traveling, experiencing new cultures, and meeting new people, so going into the field of international education seemed like the perfect fit! I studied abroad 3 times as an undergraduate at Furman. My sophomore year, I studied in Cuba. As a junior, I spent a semester in Madrid, Spain. Then, as a senior, I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. Studying abroad was always a priority for me, so I made it work with my schedule. And I still graduated in 4 years! After graduation, I lived for a few months in Quito, Ecuador. I then led my first study abroad group of students on a program to Ecuador as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky.
Why did you choose to become a study abroad advisor?
I originally went to graduate school for a PhD in Spanish because I thought I wanted to be a Spanish professor. That didn’t work out as I originally planned though! When I sat back and thought about what I enjoyed doing the most and what semesters of college I really grew as an individual, I kept returning to my abroad experiences. I knew that I loved working with students in a university setting, so I wanted to combine that with study abroad. Working as a study abroad advisor allows me to do both!
Where was the first place you ever went outside of the U.S./what was your overall impression?
My first international experience was on a mission trip to Guatemala as a high school student. I was only abroad for 2 weeks, but it was a life changing experience. The trip pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I enjoyed meeting so many new people. The experience also allowed me to practice my Spanish speaking abilities, which, at the time, were quite elementary! My experience in Guatemala was what sparked me to pursue a degree in Spanish.
How many countries have you visited so far?
I’m not sure on the exact number; probably somewhere between 35 and 40 countries. I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica.
What country or city’s culture left the greatest impact on you?
That’s a tough question! There are two countries that stick out the most to me. Cuba, for one, was truly a unique experience. When I studied there, US citizens were not allowed to travel to Cuba unless it was for a specific educational or religious reason (I did enter Cuba legally!) So when I would tell locals I was from the US, they were really interested in talking with me. All of the cars were still from the 1950s, there was a ton of pro-Castro/pro-Communism propaganda everywhere, and I felt like I was in another world altogether. However, I felt more welcome in Cuba than any other country. The people were so friendly and hospitable, and they wanted me to know that they were pro-United States and they wanted the US to lift the embargo between our two countries. The relationship between the US and Cuba has changed significantly for the better since I visited, which I am very happy about!
The other country that had a significant impact on me was India. For anyone who plans to visit India, get ready for culture shock! I like to say that I had a love-hate relationship with India. The majority of my experiences in India I absolutely loved – the food, the people, clothing, spices, beautiful landscapes. But there were also some really terrible things that I was glad to leave behind – very high levels of pollution, poverty, poor sanitation. The Indian culture is very unique, so for anyone looking for an adventure and to get out of their comfort zone, India is for you!
Favorite/least favorite cuisine abroad?
Another tough question – I’d probably say all of it! I’m a big fan of trying new foods, and I’ll eat just about anything once. I was not a fan of “cuy” in Ecuador which is guinea pig, but that was probably due to the fact that my sister has a pet guinea pig at home.
Describe the greatest/craziest experience you had while visiting another country.
One of my favorite experiences abroad was in Stockholm, Sweden. I was visiting some friends and was there for the summer solstice on June 21st. Because we were so far north, the sun never set. It just barely drifted across the horizon, so you never got tired. There was a huge party for 24 straight hours, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my entire life.
Name someone you met abroad who you will never forget.
When I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, I lived with a host family. My host dad was a middle school English teacher, so he was really interested in language acquisition. We would spend hours together, sometimes speaking in English so that he could improve his English, and sometimes speaking in Spanish so I could improve my language speaking abilities. He was so kind and proud of his country and was always helpful if I needed anything. I still keep in touch with him to this day.
Why do you think Clemson students should go abroad and what do you believe is the greatest advantage to going abroad?
An abroad experience is so unique and may be one of the only opportunities that someone has to actually live in a foreign country. And as a Clemson student, you can go abroad and pay in-state tuition, regardless if that student is in-state or out-of-state! While abroad, I think that you learn so much more about yourself and other people and cultures. The experience itself is its greatest advantage.
If you could give current/prospective students studying abroad one tip before embarking on their own adventure, what would it be?
I have two pieces of advice that I’d share with prospective students. First, before you go abroad, learn as much as possible about where you are going. Know something about the history of that country, the people, cultural practices, the language, etc. This will help you be prepared for and knowledgeable of your country before you go. Second, I recommend that while abroad, students be flexible. Things are definitely not going to go 100% as planned, but that is part of the overall experience! So be ready for changes, or ready for things to take a lot longer than they might in the US, and enjoy every minute of it!
Laura Braun and her husband in India.