GoAbroad Interview

Elisha Smith - Academic Coordinator

Elisha Smith - Academic Coordinator

Born and raised in Austin, Elisha attended Texas A&M University and spent the Spring Semester of 2010 studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico with Sol Education Abroad. This was one of the highlights of her college experience and ignited a passion to encourage others to get out of their comfort zone and explore another culture. After graduation, with a B.A. in International Studies, Elisha moved back to her hometown of Austin to manage recruiting and coordinate outreach projects for a tech startup. Elisha joined the Sol Team in May 2013 and is thrilled to now be able to help students go abroad! Elisha spends her free time doing anything active, including half-marathons, pick-up soccer, and dancing to 80’s music in her apartment!

Pictured with one of our onsite directors, Maria Molina (far right), this is just after a huge farewell feast and goodbyes to end our 3-week Winter Br
Pictured with one of our onsite directors, Maria Molina (far right), this is just after a huge farewell feast and goodbyes to end our 3-week Winter Break program in Costa Rica, January 2014.

How did you start working with Sol Education Abroad?

I studied abroad with Sol in Oaxaca, Mexico during the spring semester of my junior year in college. I absolutely adored the program and it helped me to secure a degree in International Studies with a minor in Spanish. After two years of work as a recruiter for a local tech firm in Austin, I found myself ready to pursue a career in an industry that I have a passion for, International Education. I learned that Sol was hiring through a post on social media and I joined the team in May 2013. My current role is in recruitment, student advising, and transfer credit processing. I am thrilled to be a part of helping students overcome barriers and embark on life-changing experiences abroad!

What makes Sol Education Abroad unique from other study abroad providers in your opinion?

Our onsite directors and host families are the heart and soul of our program. Since we offer programs in just four locations, our ties run very deep in those areas and our students gain an experience that is very authentic and immersive. We also keep the group size small, no more than 35 students per session. The smaller size allows the students to bond with each other, their directors, and professors. It also allows for more customization and individual attention for each specific student. Our mission statement at Sol is that we strive to treat each student the same way that we wanted to be treated when we studied abroad. We’re serious about that! 

Zipline in costa rica

Preparing to zip-line through the rain forest in Costa Rica!

What makes Sol’s Oaxaca program most beneficial for students?

One of the most impactful aspects of the Sol program in Oaxaca, Mexico is the homestay. There is something so incredibly heart-warming about being welcomed into a stranger’s home and treated like family. Even for students who are well-traveled, the home-stay is such a unique way to experience a culture and the families in Oaxaca are really something special. Another benefit to studying in Oaxaca is the flexibility and variety that the University of Oaxaca offers. Students have a wide selection of electives that they can take year round. This is perfect for students that need custom dates for their program. We also coordinate Spanish/English conversation partners year-round. I actually met one of my best friends, a local university student, when we were set up as conversation partners on my program.

What is the most popular program activity among students? Why do you think students enjoy this portion of the program?

A lot of students enjoy the cultural activities because they are so unique to Oaxaca! There is an art stencil workshop and the artists that lead the workshop were a part of the political protest groups a decade ago. When the students visit the artisan community in Teotitlán, they get a firsthand look at the dying and weaving process of the traditional rugs. The students also visit a Molina and learn how to make mole (a traditional sauce) by a local restaurant chef. Since all of these activities are hands-on and the students experience them in small groups, they come away with a real appreciation for the work itself and the traditional intricacies that fuel the artistry. 

Students with their program director

Sol alumni reunited with their program director from Argentina, Raul de la Mano (center), in College Station, Texas.

What are the typical characteristics that you look for in potential participants?

Language background is never a barrier! We accept students on all ends of the spectrum, from complete beginner to native speaker. Our biggest criteria are openness, patience, and a willingness to experience the beauty in the similarities and differences between languages and cultures. 

What are the steps that Sol Education Abroad has in place to ensure the safety of students?

Our onsite directors are available 24/7. Each student carries an emergency card with phone numbers and addresses of all onsite staff. We have a buddy-system policy for all evening activities, and we have a clear procedure for documenting and responding to any incident that involves the student, however big or small. No issue is too insignificant and our directors are excellent at listening, responding, and implementing solutions. Our U.S. staff is also on-call for emergencies, year-round.

What is one piece of advice that you give or would give to incoming students?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes. It’s a very natural part of the learning process! Success is not having impeccable pronunciation or knowing every textbook fact about a country. Being successful on a Sol program is measured by the ability to eat more food than you ever thought you could eat, laughing in the streets, dancing to a new beat, a quiet moment with your host mom, a light-bulb moment in the classroom, learning a regional phrases and local slang, and stepping outside of your comfort zone to experience something new and exciting!

Explain a typical day for students in the Oaxaca program.

Our students wake up to the occasional sound of a rooster, a fruit peddler, or their host mom preparing food in the kitchen. After a breakfast at home or packed to-go, students walk to the University of Oaxaca or hop on the local bus for a few minutes. After arriving to the university, students spend about 4 hours total in small, interactive classroom groups. Classes will break every hour and sometimes they are held outside, or in a nearby café, for a special treat! The afternoons are filled with cultural & volunteer activities, conversation groups, and time with the host family. A student may finish class and then head over to a family-owned restaurant in the Zócalo (city center) and participate in the preparation of traditional Oaxacan cuisine. Or they might head to a soccer match or learn how to paint the colorful alebrije sculptures. Students can head back home for dinner with their host family and share all about their day. They might meet their Spanish/English conversation partner for coffee, watch a telenovela with their host mom, or walk over to the theater with a friend to see a movie in Spanish. Since the locals are so friendly, it’s not uncommon for our students to form new friendships and connections everywhere they go!

Sol US staff in Austin, Texas

Sol US staff enjoying an autumn afternoon at Hamilton Pool in Austin, Texas!

How does local staff in Oaxaca help support students on a daily basis and attend to their continually changing needs?

Our onsite directors in Oaxaca, Layla Meerloo and Eva Verardo, are phenomenal! When they are not leading the group on excursions and cultural activities, they are communicating with the host families, professors, and students multiple times a week to make sure that everything is running smoothly.

Are there any new locations, programs, or activities that will be added to Sol Education Abroad in the near future?

We are always adding new volunteer and internship opportunities!

Where do you see the Oaxaca program in the next year?

I see a lot of growth potential in our Oaxaca, Mexico program location. In addition to our regular program, we have been recently adding options for specific majors (including art, pre-health, and sociology).