Leah Simonson - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

Studying abroad is a very unique experience. It is not like traveling independently or for leisure, and it is not like the time you have at your university. Therefore, I felt motivated and inspired to go abroad, knowing that it would be like nothing else I would or could ever experience, especially at that time in my life.

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

I knew little to nothing about Central America prior to my program. However, I felt drawn to the central academic focuses of the program: community engagement and social justice. Also, the aspect of studying, living, and traveling in three different countries completely blew me away. I was drawn in immediately! The more I researched about the program and the region, the more I felt it was important for me to explore a place, language, history, and stories I had not known about before.

View of Managua, Nicaragua
Hiked up to see a view of Managua, Nicaragua

What was your favorite part about each country?

I absolutely loved living with families in each country. This aspect of the program brought me closer to where I was and why I was there. It gave me a purpose and meaning in new places, and truly made me feel comfortable.

What made your experience abroad unique?

I am amazed and so grateful for the special experience I had studying abroad. I was able to grow independently but also co-dependently in a group of 18 passionate students. Not only were we studying a broad range of interconnected subjects, but we were speaking to people who had worked in organizations or personally lived through the events and movements we were learning about.

Additionally, I was able to connect with families and individuals in each country, making me feel personally connected to where I was. Lastly and most importantly, I feel that seeing and experiencing various types of lifestyles and many different types of landscapes/geography gave me a more wholesome, comprehensive understanding of where I was. We lived in cities, in small villages, in suburbs. We hiked volcanoes, went to local concerts, and ate homemade food. I feel as though I got a little taste of everything that I was hoping for, and more. It was such a rich experience, in which I felt constantly stimulated in positively challenged. This made my experience incredibly unique.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The local staff were our rocks throughout the program. We had core staff who travelled with us along the way, and were our support system for any and all forms of support. I felt centered because of their consistent dedication to us and the program.

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

I wish I had explored the major cities we were living in more. This would have given me an even better understanding of the cities, but also would have allowed me to meet more people. The program does keep the students incredibly busy, limiting our free time during the weekday to go out and meet others. Nonetheless, I wish I had utilized more of what free time we did have to enrich my connection with each place.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

Our schedules differed greatly from country to country, so I will describe typical days in each country. In Guatemala, we ate breakfast at our homestays and walked to school. We took Spanish for about four hours a day, one-on-one with a professor. After class we went home for lunch, then would often go back to school in the afternoon for a speaker. From there we had free time to explore before going home for dinner and homework.

In Costa Rica, our schedule was similar in that we had school in the morning and speakers in the afternoon, but this differed day-by-day. We were taking liberation theology so the focus changed when we got there.

In Nicaragua, since the school was not in walking distance, we took a bus to school in the morning, and then took the bus back to our neighborhood at 5 p.m. Therefore, we were at school most of the day, either taking class, working on assignments, hanging out together, or hearing speakers. Then we got home and had the evenings to spend with our families.

Kayaking in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Kayaking on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I enjoyed traveling in the free time we had. Although I wish I had stayed put in the cities we were based in a bit more, because each stay was only five weeks I really wanted to see as much as I could in each country. Traveling was fairly easy and accessible, and it definitely enhanced my overall abroad experience. Most places I traveled to on weekends, which was when we had the most free time - were places to swim and hike, like various lakes and volcanoes. I was able to experience many different types of places due to these weekend trips.

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

The accommodations were great, as I discussed above. Living with families personalized the experience and drew me more deeply into where I was. I was not just an anonymous student from the United States in a new and foreign place. I was part of families, expected to be at meals, and engaged with them. Although each family is different and with that comes different relationships/experiences, overall I feel as though this made my experience memorable. It makes me want to go back and visit all the families I lived with, all seven of them!

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

This program is challenging; with adjusting to many different places as you are on the move quite frequently, learning a new language, studying subjects that make you really have to think and be introspective, this is definitely not a program to go on if you are looking for a "vacation" or a leisurely, non-rigorous program.

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

My time abroad has impacted my life in more ways than I ever could have anticipated. Before the program I had no interest in learning Spanish; now the language brings me joy and reminds me of the connections I made. The program has sparked my desire to keep learning and using Spanish. Before the program, I had no knowledge or interest of learning about Latin American history. Now, I am drawn to articles and books about it. I feel now that as a U.S. citizen it is so important to learn about Latin America and the U.S. relationship to the region. The program brought to light something I am so passionate about without knowing it! It was the beginning of an incredible learning journey.

Would you recommend CGEE to others? Why?

Once I spoke to a student and got a better understanding of what they are looking for in a study abroad experience, I would recommend this program in a heartbeat. Although challenging and exhausting, since you never fully settle into once place, this program expanded my worldview, my understanding of myself, my country, Central America, and most importantly, other people. I heard stories and met so many inspiring people. I felt deeply about everything; sadness, happiness, confusion, etc. I was constantly learning and being stimulated by new places, people, and information. Therefore, I definitely recommend this program to students who are looking for an experience like this.