The Magic of Studying Abroad
March 18, 2019
Ellie Crowley ’20 hails from San Antonio, Texas, but it took traveling 4,766 miles to Córdoba, Argentina, to realize how much she’d miss home. “San Antonio is so connected,” she says. “It’s the biggest small town I’ve ever been to. I missed it so much more than I thought I would. And of course I missed parts of Southwestern and parts of Georgetown, too.”
Even if she had to cope with occasional bursts of homesickness, Crowley, a business major who’s minoring in Spanish, is grateful that Southwestern enabled her to spend a semester abroad, where she improved her language skills, cavorted with exchange students from Europe and Asia, and thought about complicated issues ranging from ethnic and political diversity, cultural appropriation, racial privilege, and colorism to the cost higher education and different countries’ perspectives on competition and success. She says that her experience studying in Argentina felt very much like an extension of her first two years at SU: “Some of the things I’ve studied at Southwestern or just talked about with other people have vastly opened my mind,” she shares. “The more I get out there and the more I explore, that will help me because I will have contact with lots of different people, taking my and their thoughts and challenging them. That’s why I chose to study abroad: knowing a different language, I’ll be able to communicate with a vastly larger number of people. And visiting a society I know very little about, I’m learning about myself through the process and through the filter of Argentine society.”
“That’s why I chose to study abroad … visiting a society I know very little about, I’m learning about myself through the process …”
Linguistic challenges and triumphs
Perhaps the greatest difficulty Crowley faced while studying abroad was taking classes in a language she didn’t speak natively. Although some of her coursework was created specifically for exchange students, others required fluency in conversational Spanish. “It took me a lot of time to really warm up, and they still weren’t easy classes, but with discipline and time, it got easier to understand the topics,” she recalls. At the beginning of the semester, she struggled to convey simple wishes and ideas because she didn’t have the vocabulary to express her thoughts, but by the end of the semester, her confidence had blossomed. “I don’t consider myself fluent because there are still chunks of the language I’m missing, but my toolset has expanded to the point where I can comfortably have a conversation with someone about pretty much any topic,” she says.
She could especially see that she was mastering the language when she knew she could jump into a conversation, which is difficult because it requires listening for words and phrases out of context, comprehending the gist of the dialogue, and being able to jump in and continue with the discussion. “Maybe I’ll draw the line at something like physics, but I wouldn’t know the terms in English, either. And jokes and humor are a very nuanced thing,” she adds, smiling.
Beyond improving her Spanish, Crowley challenged herself to take classes in fields she had not previously studied. For example, she had never taken an ethics course before, but she deliberately elected a philosophy course offered in Spanish: “I knew it would be difficult to take these classes in a different language—especially thinking about new subjects and in a new language.”
In recognizing the improvement of her language skills, Crowley also came to appreciate the many obstacles that can hinder communication more broadly, whether they be language barriers, difficulty understanding different accents and dialects, physical disabilities, cultural differences, or prejudices. “Realizing what that can feel like was hard but a good growing process for me.” Becoming more proficient in another language, then, is not just a skill to put on her résumé to impress future employers. “I want to use my Spanish for the good—not only to communicate with people but also to help our society become more united,” she comments. “That’s part of my cultural-exchange experience and my language experience but also my education as a whole to better society.”
Perspective and independence
Crowley knew that after returning to Southwestern from Argentina, in addition to being able to better communicate with Spanish speakers in the local community, her eyes would be wide open to things she took for granted before living and learning in South America. “It affects the way I see all the little privileges we have, all the little opportunities we have every day within our campus, and a lot of the daily life at Southwestern,” she reflects. “I have a more open mind about global studies from different perspectives in my business and music classes.”
Beyond a broadened view of the world, what Crowley treasures most about her experience abroad is “an even more heightened level of independence” than just going away to college. “When you go to a country where you don’t speak the language perfectly, it is kind of isolating. But being able to develop friendships, to go out and communicate with people, [and] to explore the area and all it has to offer is so important,” Crowley says. “The food has been really good, too.” She says that she enjoyed Argentinian canelones—savory crepes filled with spinach and tomato and topped with a delicious meat sauce—that she recorded the recipe in her journal so she can try to replicate it at home.
Studying abroad has been one of the most significant aspects of Crowley’s Southwestern Experience, which is saying a lot considering the milestones of her undergraduate career: She lived in a residence hall dedicated to learning about and doing service related to global engagement and social justice. She served as a marketing and administrative intern at SAY Sí, a nonprofit arts and youth-development organization in San Antonio. She was a campus leader the first year that Southwestern participated in Up to Us, a nonpartisan campaign to raise awareness among students about the national debt. She served as a marketing coordinator and student ambassador for SU’s Student Foundation. And she has worked in the Office of Community-Engaged Learning. Although Crowley is grateful for and deeply values these experiences, she has been most affected by study abroad and champions it as an adventure that every student should consider. “This is a very specific opportunity that you’re only going to have in this part of your education and life,” Crowley says. “I’m taking the most advantage of my education. I love that SU begins to open my mind in a way I didn’t think was possible. But studying abroad takes that to a new level because you go through things personally and emotionally, too. You learn things about life and yourself that you aren’t going to explore in other situations or if you stay within your home country.”
In addition to intellectual growth through language immersion and academic courses, Crowley believes that study abroad expands one’s self-knowledge, interpersonal connections, and personal development. “When you start to interact with people you’ve never interacted with before, it helps you grow immensely. It’s necessary to our growth not only as students but as people as well. … Study abroad is a very unique opportunity, and there’s no way you can fully prepare yourself for it, but that’s part of the magic of it.”