Emma Baxter - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I have participated in two study abroad programs. The first time I studied immigration and globalization in London. The second trip was through CGEE Central America. After my first trip abroad, I knew I wanted to pursue future study in the field of anthropology, with a focus on immigration. As an anthropology major, I love learning about different cultures and that sparked a serious desire to travel in me. I had never been to Central America before. I also wanted to improve my Spanish language skills, and there is no better way to do that than to go abroad.

Student with host family in Nicaragua
My host family in Nicaragua

Why did you choose the Center for Global Education and Experience?

I was excited and passionate about the curriculum that CGEE offered, in addition to the focus on experiential learning. The academics aligned with my educational goals. Many of the programs I was considering have strict language prerequisites and also taught their classes in Spanish. As a student with only one semester of Spanish completed, I did not meet these requirements. CGEE Central America taught all of its classes in English, but with an intensive Spanish class in Guatemala, and with Spanish spoken at our home stays, I knew I would still be immersed in the language. I wanted to live with host families, and CGEE lets you travel to three different countries, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. I was excited to have the chance to live in three different places. At the end of the program I actually had lived with seven host families! The frequent movement of the program was exciting to me, and we traveled to both rural and urban settings. I wanted to explore as much of the countries as possible.

What was your favorite part about the places you studied and lived?

The great thing about my program was that we traveled to three countries, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. I loved the people of Guatemala. I admired the emphasis on the environment in Costa Rica. I value the insights into political struggle in Nicaragua. A passion of mine is photography, and everywhere I turned I had something beautiful to take a picture of. The beaches, lakes, forests, volcanoes--the natural beauty of all three countries impressed me every day. I come from a smaller city in Iowa, we don’t see many mountains let alone oceans.

I liked how easy it was to travel on the weekends and during breaks. I was nervous at times because I was not fluent in Spanish (even after the intensive language class!), but I found that everyone was more than willing to help me find my bus stop or hostel. Another thing I loved was my host families. CGEE does a great job ensuring that the families are genuine. I had never lived with host families before, and at the end of every homestay, I always shed goodbye tears. This proves how meaningful and impactful the host family experience is.

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua
Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

What made your experience abroad unique?

I feel like every overseas experience is unique and wonderful in its own way. I think what made mine unique was the fellow students that went with me. I learned so much from my peers and I am forever grateful. We were basically with each other 24/7, other than the time we spent with our host families and traveling individually (however we ended up traveling on weekends as a big group fairly often). I felt like we easily made connections and friendships with one another and that was very special. Everyone was eager to learn and engage in the material we were studying, so class conversations were also interesting. At the end of the program, saying goodbye was so hard! After coming home, not seeing these 20 people every day was very strange. I really appreciate the friends I made while abroad.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

Local staff were very helpful, especially when I was planning weekend trips. They helped me with transportation and also recommended their favorite places. Ruth was amazing. She was like the group’s “mom.” She was always friendly, warm, and there for you when you needed to talk. I also loved the staff at our Spanish school in Guatemala. My personal Spanish teacher was great, and she helped me improve two whole levels in Spanish.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently? 

I honestly don’t know what I would have done differently! If I had to choose something I would tell myself to speak more Spanish among fellow students.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

Because we traveled so much from country to country, a typical day varied. In Guatemala a typical day would be five hours of Spanish class in the morning, followed by lunch at home with your host family. After lunch with the host families, we would have a group activity or field trip. After that would be free time to explore on your own followed by dinner with host families and a night of homework and socializing.

Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal, Guatemala

In Costa Rica we would have class in the morning and go home for lunch. After lunch we usually had a group activity and then free time before dinner with the host families. Some days we would be very busy, other days we had the afternoon free to explore.

In Nicaragua our schedule was different. We were picked up in the morning by our bus driver and driven to school. We were picked up around 8 a.m. every day and stayed at school until 5 p.m. We did not go home for lunch. In Nicaragua we had class either in the morning or afternoon; however, many classes were not in the classroom but out in the city, on field trips. After the bus would drop us off, we would spend time with our host families, hang out with other people, and do homework.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

On the weekends I loved to travel. My favorite place in Guatemala was Lake Atitlan and Tikal. In Costa Rica it was the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and in Nicaragua I loved Laguna de Apoyo and Isla de Ometepe. During the school week I always enjoyed exploring the local streets and going to coffee shops. I drank my weight in hot chocolate!

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

I really enjoyed my host families. In all the countries in the beginning we stayed in a hotel with the whole program. That was always fun because it allowed us to be very social. In Costa Rica we stayed in the school for the first week and last week of the program, and it felt like college dorm life! Something different from the traditional host families we had been used to. I enjoyed that also! So many people had different host family experiences. In Guatemala and Costa Rica my families had wifi, hot water, private rooms. In Nicaragua however many people had to pair up and stay in host families with another student. My family was amazing but the homes were different from what we had stayed in in the other two countries. I did not have internet and the showers were cold (but you wanted cold water because it was so hot!).

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Be prepared to travel a lot and pack accordingly. I would recommend bringing a backpacking backpack and pack light! It is no fun to lug around a lot of heavy luggage. In terms of mental preparation, be ready to have many previous notions turned upside down. Come ready to learn as much as possible and leave previous notions of what life “might” be like behind. You will be in a state of culture shock, but take what you find to be different and use that as a tool to expand your knowledge.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

Once I got home I decided to pursue a summer internship with refugees and immigrants, mainly because of the time I spent in Central America living with families of people who have migrated to the United States. In Guatemala we stayed in a rural village of Cajola. We heard stories of migration, especially how hard it was for families left behind, and how life was no easier when their loved ones arrived (legally and illegally) in the United States.

I have a newfound motivation to do activist work in my own community and help make life easier for immigrants in my home state.

I now plan on pursing a career in teaching English as a Second Language. CGEE helped me realize the importance of education and helping others.

Would you recommend CGEE to others? Why?

I would definitely recommend this program to others! I loved it and definitely view it as a highlight of my college years. I learned about myself and about the world, and I will take this knowledge with me for the rest of my life. I also made lifelong friends.