Study Abroad: So Good, But So Hard

By Liz Scholz

Molly Brown (Environmental Studies, Anthropology) from Portsmouth, NH, (pictured on the left) and roommate Claire Vincent (Sociology, Geography) from Evanston, Ill., and Iowa City, Iowa, have lived in one of the apartments above Cat-Man-Do since June. They discussed adjusting to life studying abroad and their return to the United States, a journey that, while difficult, has been ultimately rewarding and eye-opening as they face graduation and life beyond.TMW: When and how did you meet and decide to live together?

Molly Brown: Well. The meeting is sort of a cute story. We both did Macward Bound, and we were driving back. Claire did canoing and I did hiking, and we were driving back and Claire was sitting in the middle of the aisle, talking to everyone, making friends, and so that’s how we first met. And somehow we got onto the topic of how I didn’t have any shampoo because I flew out and my parents were driving out with all my stuff so I only had a pair of sheets and some sports bras for hiking. So I didn’t have any shampoo, so I told Claire this. And she’s like, “Well that’s ok! I’ve got shampoo!” So she, when we got back, lent me her shampoo and it was Dove, which is the same kind that I had! It was so cute. And then we were friends.

TMW: So tell me about your kooky landlord.

Claire Vincent: Molly met him first, I met him a week after. I just came back from the gym, he knocks on the door, it’s like four in the afternoon, and he said, “Hey.’re living here?” I said, “Yeah. I am.” And he said, “Well, uh, I don’t know if you guys are, like, into this, but I’m having a party tonight. I’ve got a keg of Premium, and some jello shots”- three hundred jello shots-“Bring your friends!”

MB: Also wasn’t it like a Tuesday?
CV: “And then we’re going to go to this party afterwards, so you guys should come and bring your friends.” And he’s in his 30s. I don’t know…

MB: Needless to say we did not go. He’s just a weird guy.

CV: Bumping techno all hours of the day.

MB: Sometimes techno Christmas music. Which makes no sense.

TMW: Where did you study abroad and what programs did you do?

MB: I was in Nicaragua. Also known as the belly button of the Americas. If the Americas were to be a body, Nicaragua is right where the belly button would be.

CV: Oh, I’ve never heard that.
MB: You didn’t study abroad there.

CV: I was in Quito, Ecuador.

MB: Mine was SIT so it was focusing on peace and conflict studies and revolution and civil society. And then we had an independent study part.

CV: Mine was through HECUA. I did an internship and independent study and classes in Quito. I worked on the south end of the city. I worked in markets with little kids that either worked there or their parents worked there and hung out with them and sang songs and did art projects.

TMW: So then you both speak Spanish?

MB: Mas o menos. It got better, I’ll say that.

TMW: So can you tell me about a culture shock experience when you first went to Nicaragua and Quito respectively?

CV: I know that my reaction to getting whistled at changed. I think when I first got there I was really defensive about it, it was kind of like I wanted to respond. I sort of realized, at the six week point, you don’t really hear it anymore, you just sort of get used to it.

MB: Except for that time I was getting on a bus to go to school or something, go to classes, and I was wearing a skirt which was stupid. But the guy behind me, I was waiting to pay, reached up with both hands and just grabbed my ass. I was just like “Oh no! Machismo is too much!” … Under my skirt!
CV: Oh god! That is bad.

MB: I kicked him in the balls.

CV: No you didn’t!
MB: I just kicked my foot up. I was on the step. And there’s all mothers and children around me. I would say that was for sure a culture shock moment. I mean it’s just a reality of culture. It’s just part of it.

TMW: So then, conversely, returning to the United States, what was something that caught you off-guard?

MB: It was hard to come back at Christmas time. Just to come back, adjust to a totally different economy, totally different way of life and try to see the middle . in the United States, just really try to find it but not be able to because it’s Christmas and you have to buy everything for everyone.

CV: I came back three days before Christmas, and I got my iPod stolen and so my parents, for Christmas, bought me a new one. I opened it and was in tears. “I don’t need this! This isn’t necessary in my life!” And I had a big break down, I felt guilty, my parents felt guilty, nobody knew what to do. Well anyway, so coming back at Christmas was hard.

TMW: Are you in touch with your host families still?

MB: A little bit. I wasn’t for a while because I was pretty insecure about my Spanish. It was always sort of a running joke, with them while I was there, like, “Oh hahaha, la Molly, her Spanish sucks.” So I was nervous to write back to them, but sometimes I Facebook chatted with my uncle that I lived with. So finally I wrote to my sister, through e-mail, and I had this huge outpouring, like “I’m so sorry I haven’t written, please don’t think it’s because I don’t think about you, I miss you guys, and I’m so appreciative of everything. Thank you so much, I really miss you.” And then she replied like two days later or something with two lines, “Molly, we miss you too. All is well here. Love, Kelly.” I was like, okay. Nevermind. But it was good because then I didn’t feel guilty anymore about not writing to them.

TMW: What is one of the biggest things you anticipate for senior year based on your past experiences with study abroad?

CV: I don’t know how to put this very eloquently. . I can do a lot more here than I can do abroad. Working domestically in my own culture, I really underestimated that before. And going to another culture, trying to understand it and make change there was really, really different. I learned to appreciate being here and trying to do that.

MB: Yeah. I don’t know, I certainly agree with that. There’s the very strong argument that there’s so much to be done here that why travel away for just like the exoticism of it or whatever. Certainly I subscribe to that, but I didn’t experience that in such a real way that you [Vincent] did. I don’t know.
CV: I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t. It’s just my personal experience. Because my Spanish wasn’t as strong as a lot of the people in my program, and I was in a different part of the city than other people were.

TMW: What, do you think, about instigating that change was so difficult?

CV: The markets that I worked at, our worlds were so far apart it was hard to find any common ground. And I think that was the fault of the organization that I worked for.

MB: And I think that complicated positionality with really nasty historical relationships between the US and, I know my country was in particular. It’s hard. I found it hard sometimes to get past that and like connect as human beings. I feel like I always felt really uncomfortable about that. “Well, shit, sorry about that-what my country did to you. Sorry that our national economies are so messed up because of all this.” I don’t know, I think it’s really-it can be really arrogant to go into a different country and find out what’s supposed to be going on, what’s best for you, and that’s just terribly problematic. But, I think working in your own culture is certainly easier on you and as a result, more effective in the long run. But I don’t know.
CV: I also think we both had really hard experiences. I wanted to come home for more than half of it. I mean way more than half of it. I was in tears like every day. My friend that was staying here, he was like, “You’re going to finish that? You can eat something?” Because I was so sick the whole time. So to talk to us about study abroad is just like-it was so good but also so hard.
MB: And I learned so much in so many diff
erent ways. That was totally valuable. Also I was like deeply unhappy for a lot of it.

CV: And you learn a lot from being in that position.

TMW: And what are you guys going to do next year? What are your plans?

MB: I am going to take a year and take classes and eventually go to nursing school. I would like to live in Minneapolis. And beyond that I don’t know.

CV: I don’t know. I’d like to travel. I’d really like to go back-I really like Quito, but I really liked the traveling outside of it too. I would like to do that for a couple months anyway and then beyond that I got no plans. Maybe grad school. Grad school eventually.

MB: Not for me. Forget grad school. Forget it. I don’t want to do that!