GoAbroad Interview

Melissa Morris - Site Specialist

Melissa Morris - Site Specialist

A traveler by nature and a Texan at heart, Melissa loves experiencing new things. She grew up abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland and Doha, Qatar, then went to college at Texas A&M University. Her most recent adventure brought her to Phoenix to work as a Site Specialist for CEA Study Abroad. In Melissa’s free time, you’ll find her goofing off with her family and friends, reading, and going to concerts and music festivals.

La Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain

Enjoying La Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain with new friends

You were born and raised in Scotland, moved to Qatar, and eventually went to high school in Texas. How did you get connected to CEA Study Abroad?

I always knew I wanted to work in an international environment; after my childhood abroad, it was ingrained in me. There was no escaping it (not that I ever wanted to!). Growing up abroad, living abroad, and studying abroad had such a huge impact on the way I view the world, the way I view people, and the things I value in life. I have such a strong passion for other cultures and believe strongly in the benefit diversity in education provides to students.

It’s for this reason I knew I had to stay involved in international education, no question about it! After working for a while in college access, I came accross the opportunity for an available site specialist position open with CEA Study Abroad and I jumped at the chance to apply. A year later, here I am helping students achieve their aspirations in pursuing study abroad!

What does a day of work look like for you?

The great thing about being a site specialist is every day brings new things. I work with students going to four different locations over as many as three terms at a time, so it keeps me busy! I spend a majority of my day working directly with students and parents, advising them about courses, housing, (the dreaded, but no need to dread, we’re here to help!) visa application process, and any other questions that come up about their specific program.

We as a team strive to best serve our students and parents to help them feel prepared and confident for their time abroad. We want to ensure any and all questions are answered before students depart for onsite!

View of the countryside in Bejar, Spain

Taking in the beautiful view on an impromptu visit to Bejar, Spain

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Some of my more challenging moments have been when working with parents or students to set realistic expectations for a student’s time abroad in areas that you wouldn’t think would be different cross-culturally. It’s easy to overlook differences that may be completely different and incomparable in their host culture, whether that be in smaller housing size, slower wifi speeds and less accessibility, or small streets and graffiti around the city. Many of these things are not commonplace here in the U.S. and can cause some culture shock if students and parents are not aware. The most important thing is to help students and parents understand these cultural differences to help them be prepared once onsite!

You studied abroad in Salamanca, Spain as a student at Texas A&M, how do you use or apply this experience in your work with students today?

Salamanca is a unique college city in Spain, even different than anywhere in Spain I had visited before. While I was there, I went through the growing pains every study abroad student experiences: learning to navigate a strange city, experiencing and trying new food, sleeping in a strange bed away from home, not knowing anyone and making new friends, taking courses in a foreign language (and making sure I understood what was being taught), getting used to a slower paced day to day life, budgeting on a foreign currency (and learning not to constantly calculate the exchange rate), as well as many other things. Being able to use my personal experiences abroad and relate them to the challenges that my students will face onsite makes all the difference!

What is your favorite thing about your role?

I get to talk about study abroad all day; what could be better than that? In all honesty,the most rewarding part of my job is being able to look back on my experiences and relate them to my students to help advise and prepare them for this amazing experience that will change them immensely (even in ways they don’t realize yet). I am lucky to get to work with a team of people who are just as passionate about our students and helping them have the best experience possible!

Sightseeing in Rome, Italy

Doing as the Romans do

What is the most useful piece of advice would you give a well-traveled student headed on a CEA Study Abroad program?

Although you’ve traveled before and you know the ropes, this is a completely new experience, a completely different way of viewing the world. Many times, well traveled students have had the opportunity to travel with their families growing up. *ALERT* - travelling and living abroad on your own is completely different than anything you will have experienced before!

Embrace every single exciting, wonderful, challenging, terrifying, and life-changing moment! Push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you want to, do it.

You will learn more about yourself and will grow more in this time travelling abroad on your own than you have in any other travel experience because YOU are navigating it. It is thrilling, it is challenging, it is fulfilling, it is perfect!

What question do you receive from students quite frequently, and what is your best response?

Our most common questions lie in the areas students value the most and, in the same vein, can cause our students the most stress: housing, courses, and acquiring a student visa. What I would love to tell all of these students is “plan ahead!” CEA Study Abroad is here to help you through these important planning milestones, we’ll take care of all the stress! Just make sure you are working early to get courses approved by your university, have alternates available as scheduling conflicts can come up, fill out your housing form so we can get your housing accommodations squared away, and follow the consulate website’s instructions to prepare for your visa appointment. The earlier you start, the less pressure you’ll feel when completing these items.

Your academic background is in international studies, business, and Spanish, how do you apply this knowledge to your work?

I remember one class specifically I took while abroad. It was noted as a Spanish business class and I truly wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. However, it was, hands down, my favorite course I took while abroad. I was one of the two Americans in the class (which wasn’t always the case). The remainder of the students were from all over Europe and Asia: Germany, France, Switzerland, England, China, Japan, Czech Republic, you name it! The professor was interactive and truly let us guide the class. Many days were spent in discussion comparing different aspects of the business culture and practices in each of our respective countries, all done in Spanish! It was a truly unique experience that I still find extremely beneficial in my day to day work at CEA Study Abroad.

Along with my time in Salamanca, I was lucky enough to spend my academic career at Texas A&M University, learning about language, culture, and globalization through my major and minor. This is imperative to know in this field! Not only do I use this knowledge when working daily with students to prepare them for the differences they will experience while abroad, I am also able to use my experiences when working here at CEA Study Abroad HQ. I work daily with people from all different cultures and countries, so having an understanding of business practices and how they differ around the world has a daily impact on my day to day interactions.

Walking through a forest in Portugal

Admiring the Portugal countryside on a misty day!

You traveled to 11 countries by the time you were 14 years old. If you had to hop on a plane tomorrow to visit a CEA Study Abroad site you haven’t been to, where would you go and why?

Pinpointing one site is a tall order! I have been blessed to have the opportunity to travel extensively growing up, which I truly believe is what instilled in me this innate need to travel.

If I had to choose just one, it would have to be Viña del Mar. I haven’t spent hardly any time in Central or South America and Viña is near some awe-inspiring landmarks I’d love to venture through. The opportunity to see the Chilean culture paired with the vicinity to mountains, deserts, and beaches would make for an unforgettable experience. It has everything to offer, I can’t wait to make it down there!

You’ve been with CEA Study Abroad for a little over a year, what has been your greatest learning experience so far?

Culture shock happens here in the U.S. too! This is the biggest and most beneficial thing I have learned since moving out to Phoenix and working with students from across the nation. Even with how much travel I did growing up, working with students across the country has shown me the differences culturally just among the states. Through working with students from the East to West coast, I have been able to understand better as a whole what students value to provide a better student experience.

What is the most fulfilling part of working for CEA Study Abroad?

Having the opportunity to help students achieve their goals in pursuing study abroad. As I said before, I believe in the power of education and the impact a single experience can have on someone. Studying abroad provides that and so much more to students. The amount that students learn about not only their host country but also about themselves through studying abroad is incomparable to any other experience. Being able to be a part of making this experience possible for students is why I am in the international education field and why I love what I do!