Adventures Abroad


Claudia Roldan '09 and An Tran '09.

More students now study for a semester at a foreign university or travel during January Term to experience the culture and history of other countries. They develop self-confidence as they move outside their comfort zones, adapting not just to another language or cuisine, but to different kinds of people, lifestyles and social systems. Many find it an unforgettable experience.

Saint Mary's students can study abroad for a semester in 12 cities in eight countries around the world, from Aix-en-Provence, France, to Sydney, Australia, Tokyo, London and Mexico City. SMC students may also enroll in study abroad programs offered by the other five U.S. Lasallian colleges and universities or enroll in non-SMC programs.

The number of Saint Mary's students studying abroad for a full semester was 150 in the past two years; 82 are studying abroad this fall. The most popular location is Rome. Some 36.8 percent of SMC undergraduates study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education, making it 30th in its category.

Ports of Call

Esther Montoya-Taylor '09

Esther Montoya-Taylor '09 (far left).

Spending a semester at sea circumnavigating the globe and immersing ourselves in vastly different cultures and historical sites was monumental. After encountering so much of the world, my shipmates and I will never see things in the same way.
As we embarked on our journey from the Bahamas, I wondered if everyone was as nervous as me, especially knowing we would not see land until we arrived in Brazil eight days later.

We went from Brazil, which teemed with culture, to Namibia, which was still trying to form a national identity with newly gained independence. While there, I ate the most delicious exotic food — zebra and crocodile.

In South Africa, I swam with sharks in the depths of the Atlantic and hiked to the clouds atop Table Mountain. I was honored when Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed us onboard the MV Explorer; his words inspired us all.

Almost every night on the ship we advanced our clocks an hour as we changed time zones. When I reached 12 hours difference from California, I knew that I was then heading home.

It took 11 days to get from South Africa to India; we were told we would smell it before we saw it. I left India with a 101 fever, but it was my favorite port. Although the majority of the population lives in substantial poverty, they are the kindest people. I could not fathom how, in the midst of such struggle, we were greeted with the biggest smiles. Many times a simple handshake and photo were all that we were asked for.

The Taj Mahal was so stunning; I could not believe my eyes. One night, we met with local college students and they helped dress me in a sari I bought. The 15 feet of material made it very heavy, yet comfortable to wear. It was so perfectly wrapped I did not want to take it off.

As an American, it was difficult to visit war sites in Vietnam. In the Chu Chi tunnels we learned of "American Killer Heroes;" at the "American War" museum, amputated vets greeted us.

China was still excited about hosting the Summer Olympics. I could see that the country, home to one-fifth the world's population, is clearly rising in power, while maintaining traditions and monuments. Most people did not speak English but were excited that we wanted to visit their ancient Great Wall and Tiananmen Square.

Japan was so clean and efficient. I wondered why can't America be like that? Time went by so fast. I didn't want the experience to end. Study abroad allows you to not only achieve an education, but also to have valuable life experiences.

Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa?
Casey O'Brien '10

Casey O'Brien '10.

One night I was talking with a writer at a birreria named Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa, which I walked past daily. I asked him to translate the name, and with a laugh he said, "So what are you doing here?"

Every morning after that conversation, I asked myself, "What are you doing here in Rome?" Looking back, I see how each month was a different stage of assimilation. During January, I was a sightseer spending days and nights discovering the Eternal City. I sat in front of the Pantheon, constructed in the second century and still untarnished, and watched workers scurry through the Piazza della Rotunda. In February, I witnessed the unbridled pride that Romans have for their city when I attended a Roma vs. Palermo game at Olympic Stadium. When Roma won two-nil, tumult erupted. Flags were waved, fans danced in the bleachers and the revelry continued into the night.

After spring break in March, I immersed myself in the city's culture by getting to know Romans. I was not just a visiting student, but a guest in their homes or a friend on their contact list. I ate raw egg carbonara and still-in-the-shell shrimp. I drank table wine for dinner and grappa for desert. I asked myself, "Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa?," and responded "solo vivere" — simply to live.

I was deeply attached to Rome because I knew the city very well and made dozens of friendships. Although I was sad to leave, I knew that I must return home in order to understand the significance of the semester. Studying abroad taught me that I am most comfortable beyond the comfort zone. I travel to meet people, to taste their culture, to understand their perspective of America and to be an honest ambassador of our nation. Such are the ingredients to becoming a tolerant, open-minded person.

The Roman Abbracciare
Scott Cullinane '09

A study abroad student in Rome should be prepared for the all-consuming abbracciare (hug) of Roman culture. John Cabot University is in a vibrant neighborhood across the Tiber river from the city's historic center. Students live in apartments around the city. This provided me with a most magnificent morning commute.

Walking to the campus in fall 2007, I left my flat three blocks from the Vatican and strolled across Saint Peter's Square. Before the tourists and vendors show up, it is a remarkably peaceful place. I always stopped to marvel at the Vatican; it never got old. I walked along the Tiber down cobblestone streets, passing several more churches as I went. Italy is a country of churches, and in Rome there seems to be at least a few on every block.

I'd have to take extra care to avoid the Smart cars and mopeds. Italians are well-known for talking with their hands, a habit they tend to keep up even while driving. Nearing campus, I came to the best part of my morning — the café.
Typically at a Roman café you do not sit, but stand and drink at a counter. Fashionably dressed Italians crowd the bar and yell out their order, then flirt with the barista until it is served. I always bought a cornetto, freshly baked with Nutella inside. Only then was I ready to really start my day.

Italy and Italian culture was almost overwhelming at first, like jumping head first into the deep end of a pool. Yet, there is so much richness to be enjoyed and life to be lived in Rome. I discovered that there was a good deal of truth in Ray Bradbury's quote, "Half the fun of travel is the esthetic of lostness." The opportunity to live in Rome and to study at John Cabot University was amazing, and I absolutely cherish it.

A Dream Come True
Irene Moon '10

Irene Moon on safari in South Africa.

Traveling to Africa was a long-time dream that came true when I took part in the Cape Town, South Africa program in spring 2009, and it all went too fast.

The first month, I suffered from countless mosquito bite attacks every night. My legs were sore from walking so much; the University of Cape Town is about six times bigger than Saint Mary's, so it can take 20 minutes to get from one class to the next. I had a hard time adjusting to classes that varied from 30 students to 150 students. I heard of students being victims of crime.

Nonetheless, I fell in love with South Africa. There are 11 official languages, including Xhosa and Zulu, which require making clicking sounds. I loved listening to these languages. I loved the South African money, rand, with pictures of rhinos, elephants, buffalos, lions and leopards. I loved bargaining for hand-crafted goods at the Greenmarket Square, including elephant hair bracelets, malachite necklaces, cow bone rings and more.

My best friend Caitlin Spangler and I went on many adventures, including camping at Kruger National Park, where the "original" safari is available, and meeting as many new people as possible.

This experience fulfilled my dream more than I could have imagined. I listened to enchanting African music at a church, saw a lion on the safari and I gained invaluable treasures which cannot be measured by the physical value — friendships with such wonderful Africans and confidence, courage, determination, appreciation, fortitude and faith. It was a life-changing experience.

Lauren Silva '08

I didn't know what to expect before studying abroad, but my time in Rome was the very best time of my entire life. Looking back more than a year later, I feel the way I did when the trip ended. I wish I never left. Nothing will ever replace the feeling I got when struggling to converse with an Italian over drinks or not knowing what I was ordering from a menu and then eating the most delicious food I've ever had.

Being in a city with so much history and awe quickly reminded me how vast our world is and how small each of us really is. Glancing up at the Colosseum and walking into Saint Peter's Basilica were two moments that changed what it felt like for me to be alive. There is no place or monument in America that can have that effect on me. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to see intricate and phenomenal mosaics not only in intimate art studios and basilicas, but in the pope's private chambers as well.

Traveling with friends and peers to a new country creates a bond strengthened by unforgettable and irreplaceable memories among those who shared them. Your family and friends back home can listen and envision what it was like, but your deepest feelings are indescribable. Some of us felt a spiritual awakening, others discovered a newfound interest in art or literature or a deep appreciation for a new culture.

I learned about myself, in ways that I could never encounter at home, through the unique experiences, sights, people, Masses and so much more in Rome. From souvenirs to recipes and pictures of beautiful art and monuments, I am reminded of Rome almost daily; however, the best part did not cost one euro cent. The feelings I experienced throughout my journey will never fade, the memories that made it the best time of my entire life.

Foreigners and Friends
Roxanne Untal '10

Roxanne Untal '10, far right.

Of all the places I've visited, I knew the least about Melbourne, Australia — just the Sydney Opera House, the beaches and the kangaroos. I wanted to study there because I felt that almost everything would be a surprise.

Deakin University is a 20- to 30-minute walk from International House, and some of my best memories are from that walk. In school, I learned quickly that the Australians I made friends with on the first day became Australians that I didn't get to see the second day in lecture halls filled with 200 students. There were moments when I felt alone in the big theaters frantically looking for someone familiar to sit next to, but there were also occasions when I felt solitude sitting by myself against the backdrop of new Australian friends. I guess that's really one of the goals of studying abroad: to sit comfortably in a room as a foreigner and feel at ease.

I found that my Melbourne experience introduced me to new experiences — and to people who had been around me in Moraga but were strangers. I was most thankful for living in a house in Australia with four women from Saint Mary's. In the beginning, they were more foreign to me than Australia ever was, yet they have become my travel companions, house mates and close friends. I can't imagine another group of people I would have wanted to share this unforgettable experience with.

Jordan Grider ’10
A Prized Possession in the Dominicann

I gained a lot from my experience in the Dominican Republic; from growth in faith, to joy in serving, to broadening my horizons on my preconceived notion of what the Real World is.
We encountered people with no water or electricity, living in broken wooden huts using tin cans for walls and ceilings and soles of shoes for door hinges. We met an old woman living on a mountain outside Constanza who didn’t even know her age. Imagine what that means – you are so poor your age matters not to you. This poverty was heartbreaking; it was something nobody from America could prepare for.

One highlight was the joy I received from giving. When you give and act unselfishly you are filled with a peace and joy that can only come from God. Another was the joy from the kids. This joy was my “immediate reward” for service. Receiving a hug or a smile from kids who have gone through so much turmoil is truly a blessing.

But I learned to be careful with kids’ joy. Some kids don’t give hugs or smile, and that can lead you to question if work you are putting in is benefiting them. We heard about a girl who passed away at Monte Plata who never showed any affection. But in her living room hung the medals from our (Saint Mary’s) soccer camps, showing how important they were to her. Just because she never showed it doesn’t mean our love never affected her, it may have affected her more than the others.

The most challenging part of my trip was coming back to a completely different world in the United States. It was difficult to bring back what I learned, act as though I have learned it, and not forget it.

Tina Vincent ’09
Helping Out in Sao Paulo

When I arrived in Brazil, I realized that hardly anyone spoke English. On the first day at a McDonald’s, I tried to say “Casquinha” (an ice cream). Even when I knew the word for something, I wasn’t able to pronounce it correctly.

The church where we painted classrooms was in much better shape than I expected. What I thought would be a plain building actually looked like a church from the outside.  Inside it was beautiful. There were stained glass windows, decorative art pieces and nice wood benches.

The church had classrooms, a large kitchen and a huge open space that could be used for various purposes. The classrooms we painted definitely needed it. They were disgusting, full of scribbles and footprints.

The favela we visited was inspiring. There were so many people working to make the conditions they lived in better. An electrical system had been installed amid the homes, which I was told was stolen from the city.

Everyone who lived there seemed to get along with everyone and helped each other out. They welcomed us into their homes with open arms and offered us water or coffee. These people who had so little had big hearts and were so giving.

Dianna Mota ’11
Casa de Los Angeles
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The highlight of my experience is the children that attend Casa de los Angeles in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. The children were very adorable and happy. I worked most with the 2-year-olds, so I knew them better.

They knew how to push your buttons and sometimes it got to me, but they were all very sweet and knew when they had to behave. I really enjoyed all the activities we did with the children, and how we were almost like partners in play.

The children really got to know me and knew that they could count on me for whatever support they needed. They knew they could trust me, but that I was also there to enforce discipline.

I got really used to the classroom and the teacher felt comfortable letting me lead activities and even leaving me alone with them. They all learned my name and even the 3-year-olds in the separate classroom learned my name. I felt like I did have an impact on them and made a difference in their life at Casa de los Angeles.

Dillon Valadez
Joys and frustrations in Mexico City

My personal travels to Mexico had cleared up some of the rumors about the dangers in Mexico City and reaffirm others. Indeed Mexico, in the interior of many the neighborhoods, looked menacing. However, day-to-day life on the street seemed safe.

My expectations of the Internado (school) were slightly surprised though. I didn’t expect their lives to run with such order and discipline. I also expected teaching to be easy since I was a Spanish tutor. However, I found my knowledge of my own language lacking at times. For example, when approached about certain nuances of the English languages, I had to admit sometimes that I was not aware of some grammar rules. I had to study with the boys to find answers.

I found a great many new friends at the Internado. The cooks, teachers, children and Brothers were all fantastic. In free time, I was to take the kids out to see the city. I thought this did a lot of good for them since they had a fair amount of monotony in their lives. I took them to movies, a restaurant, even museums and castles. I let them show me around the good parts of their city, which they seemed to be proud of, and some of the kids knew a remarkable amount about history. I think an average American child wouldn’t know as many things about American history in comparison.

The service experience was truly enlightening. I can feel in my personality. Those children had few possessions or families, yet they had a great amount of tenderness and love to give. I liked being around them so much more than certain people in my own country, who only seem to aggravate me.

Outsiders would say I was helping these kids, but I felt more like I was living with a different family. Everyone had their role – chores, jobs – just like normal families, and I was a part of that for a short time. It was easy to integrate myself into them.