GoAbroad Interview

Michelle Esche - Custom Program Advisor

Michelle Esche - Custom Program Advisor

Originally from the Chicago area, Michelle studied communications, business administration, and Spanish at DePaul University in Chicago. She studied abroad in Madrid, Spain on a custom CEA faculty-led program while at DePaul. In her free time she is happiest spending time outdoors, and enjoys hiking, riding her bike, and exploring Arizona!

You studied abroad on a custom CEA program in Madrid, Spain while you were an undergrad at DePaul University, how did this experience impact your interest in a career in international education?

Studying in Madrid opened up and shaped my perspective on the world for the better. When I landed in Madrid, it was my first time traveling alone and my first time in Europe. It was not until then that I really started to grasp how large the world truly is. I became even more passionate about learning about other cultures, meeting people from other cultures, and seeing new places. My experience inspired me to work toward becoming an informed world citizen.

Through my host señora, host families of fellow students, and international connections of other students on my program, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of different people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. I heard about what is was like to grow up in a Franco-ruled Spain from my host señora, and what it was like to be an expat living in Madrid through international connections with other students on my program and the connections of their host families. My interest in pursuing a career in international education stems from the desire to help students study abroad so they hopefully have similar opportunities to grow personally and gain alternative perspectives that help shape their worldviews.

Watching a bull fight at Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid, Spain

Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas bullfighting ring in Madrid

How did you transition from program participant to CEA Study Abroad staff member?

During the last several days of my program in Madrid I remember thinking it would be awesome to somehow get involved in the study abroad field professionally. However, as a student I was not yet aware of the opportunities available. After graduating from DePaul and working in Chicago for a couple of years, my interest in getting involved in international education continued to resurface and grow as I learned more. I started attending local international education and re-entry conferences in Chicago to meet and learn from professionals already working in the field, and started applying to open positions.

As a CEA alumna, an open site specialist position at CEA interested me. I hadn’t seriously considered leaving Chicago before then. I relocated to Phoenix to join the CEA Site Specialist team about three weeks after receiving and accepting the job offer. Last December, I transitioned internally to my current role as the Custom Program Advisor.

What does your day-to-day work life look like?

My day-to-day involves helping students and university faculty prepare for their program and time abroad. I facilitate the pre-departure process for all custom programs by providing program related information, resources, and advice to students and faculty, on topics such as visas, housing, and courses, via email and pre-departure orientations over Skype. A large portion of the pre-departure process also involves collecting documentation from students to make sure our international teams have all the information they need to plan for each program.

As a program advisor you answer a lot of questions, what is the most frequently asked question you receive and what is your answer?

It depends on the program, but I receive a lot of questions and concerns about visa application appointments filling up at consulates when student visas are required for a program. The best way to avoid this is to book your visa appointment (if an appointment is required) as soon as possible. Even if the consulate specifies you must apply for your visa within a certain time frame before your program starts, book your appointment early for a later date that falls within the specified time frame.

On top of Giottos Bell Tower at the Duomo in Florence, Italy

Top of Giotto’s bell tower at the Duomo in Florence

Based on your experience studying abroad with CEA in Spain and your current role, what would you say the typical characteristics of CEA Study Abroad students are?

Based on my experience studying abroad with CEA and in my current role, typical CEA Study Abroad students are goal-oriented, academically-driven, open-minded, and adventurous. Many of our custom programs are academically rigorous. Our students are dedicated to succeeding academically while learning about and interacting with their host culture as much as possible. Many students also find time to explore regions surrounding their host country and travel independently to different cities.

During your study abroad program, you traveled throughout Spain and much of Europe, do you recommend students travel a lot while on a study abroad program? What do you think the benefits of immersing oneself in a single country and city are, versus exploring other regions or countries?

I don’t regret traveling throughout Spain and to different parts of Europe during my program. It is so accessible! However, there is definitely something to be said about committing to immersing yourself in the academic and social culture of your host country.

I traveled to several different cities and countries in a short amount of time, but I planned my independent travel after arriving in Madrid. I began my program with an open mind, eager to learn about the culture in Madrid and different parts of Spain. When there was an opportunity to travel to a new place outside of Spain that interested me, I took advantage of it.

My spanish speaking skills improved radically during my program. Had I traveled less outside of Spain, I would have had more opportunities to practice Spanish and learn even more than I did. If I could do it differently, I would focus on seeing more of Spain. It was so interesting to experience the difference in cultures and traditions between the different regions of the country, and there is still so much of the country I want to see.

You stayed with a host family during your time abroad, what impact did this have on your experience, and do you generally recommend homestays for custom programs?

In general, I highly recommend homestays. It’s such a great way to meet and form relationships with people who grew up in your host culture. The best way to learn about a culture is through the local people, they know it best! It also adds a personal touch to the experience. The more I got to know my señora, the more I naturally learned about Spanish culture through her perspective. The fact that I spoke Spanish with her on a daily basis allowed me to practice speaking outside of the classroom in a real world setting.

Custom programs are unique in that students do not always get to personally choose the housing arrangement for their program. We often work directly with our university partner to determine the housing type for a program, and if students will get to choose from certain options. Homestays are especially beneficial for language students, and it is not a surprise they are most popular with our programs dedicated to language academically.

View of the cliffs in Cuenca, Spain

CEA Excursion at the cliffs of Cuenca, Spain

You studied communication and business administration, how do you use those skills in your position with CEA?

Communicating effectively is essential in my role. I interact with students, faculty, university contacts, and our international teams on a daily basis and there is a lot of coordination that takes place. Depending on whether I am crafting an informational email to students, or sending a message to an international team, I have to know my audience and adjust what I say, how I say it, and the technology used to deliver the message to effectively reach my end goal. My background in business administration comes in to play with executing internal processes essential for our department and programs to run. As a team we are always analyzing the ways we currently document program components, keep records of participating students, and invoice our customers to identify ways the current processes can be improved.

You speak Spanish quite fluently, why is learning the local language so important before and during a student’s time abroad?

For me, it is important to learn the local language before and during your time abroad because the language is an integral part of your host country and city’s culture. Studying the local language results in a deeper appreciation and understanding of the local culture along with improved language abilities.

What does CEA offer in terms of language courses and immersion activities?

CEA offers a variety of language courses and levels both through our school of record, the University of New Haven, and our local partner institutions abroad. To aid in language acquisition, various programs have an early start option where students arrive about a month before the regular semester starts for a  four week intensive language course. Students can expect to improve an entire language level before the start of their regular semester language course(s).

In addition to courses, we offer a variety of language-related cultural activities, such as language exchanges with local students and language seminars designed to familiarize all students with basic vocabulary and phrases, even if the academic portion of their program does not include language.

What’s the most important tip you would give to prospective CEA Study Abroad students?

It is important to prepare ahead of time for your program. At the same time, you cannot prepare for everything you will experience and the challenges you might face while abroad. That is what makes studying abroad such a unique and fulfilling experience.

You have the opportunity to learn about a new culture through first hand experiences that also allow you to grow personally. Keep an open mind and you will be surprised with how much you learn about your host country and yourself.

Pena National Palace in Sintra, Portugal

Pena National Palace in Sintra, Portugal

What sets CEA Study Abroad apart from other study abroad organizations?

CEA is pretty flexible, within reason, with what we are able to offer to students and our university partners. When it comes to both custom and standard students with very specific academic needs, our international academic teams are willing to explore different course options, even if they fall outside of the courses that the majority of students take in that particular city. This might mean looking into the possibility of developing a new course for a custom program or researching new course offerings available to students at one of our local partner institutions. CEA actively explores different solutions and possibilities to continually improve the academic experience of our students.

We also truly view the relationships we have with universities as partnerships. When it comes to developing custom and faculty-led programs, we are open to suggestions and willing to explore new program components even if it is not something we have tried or offered before, in order to meet the academic and cultural goals of a program. 

You’ve been with CEA Study Abroad for a little over a year, what has been the most surprising thing about the organization so far?

The most surprising aspect of CEA as an organization is how hands on different teams and individual employees get to be with contributing to overall company goals. In my experience, team members of all different levels have the opportunity to work across teams domestically and internationally to work toward achieving common goals. Many moving parts before, during,  and after a program have to come together for a study abroad program to be a success. It is great to continually see individuals from all different teams and levels involved in the process.

Who is your biggest role model in the field of international education?

I look up to many people at CEA, both here in Phoenix and internationally. I have learned so much from my managers, coworkers, and superiors in the past year that has allowed me to grow professionally. I am grateful for the opportunities I have to work with individuals across teams and levels, who I continue to learn from on a daily basis.

What is the most fulfilling part about your work with CEA Study Abroad?

The most fulfilling part of my work at CEA is the opportunity to work with students throughout their entire study abroad process, from pre-departure to re-entry. Hearing from students after they return from their program is the most rewarding, because I witness and advise students through many of the obstacles they have to overcome in order to make studying abroad a reality.

Studying abroad requires a lot of work and preparation that is more than worth the experience.

This is something I find myself reminding students often during the pre-departure process. Hearing positive feedback directly from students confirming this after they return is the most fulfilling part for me.