Stephanie Piña - Academic Coordinator
Stephanie is from El Paso, Texas and grew up immersed in a Mexican household. She graduated from UT Austin with degrees in international relations and global studies and government, and she also double minored in Latin American studies and Portuguese. Stephanie studied abroad for a full year during her undergraduate degree, first for a semester in Porto Alegre, Brazil and later in the city of Belo Horizonte. After studying abroad, she found herself working at UT Austin’s Study Abroad Office as a Peer Advisor, where she fell in love with the field of international education. Stephanie loves dogs, very spicy food, romantic music, and is ecstatic to be a part of the Dream Team at SOL.
How did you first get connected with Sol Abroad?
I connected with Sol Abroad through Lori Richardson, who was a Program Coordinator with UT Study Abroad. I expressed to her my interest and came with questions on how I could get involved with the field of international education. She recognized I had a strong language background (my first language is Spanish and I later learned Portuguese in college) and simply knew Sol would be the perfect fit for me.
You worked as a peer advisor at your alma mater before graduating and moving on to Sol Abroad. What was the most common concern that students brought up to you? How did you calm their worries or provide a solution?
The most common concern that students brought up was regarding academics because they worried if the classes they took abroad would transfer back to UT Austin and count towards their major. Picking the right program is one of their main concerns, because our students were also fearful of not graduating if they studied abroad. Explaining to them the ways they could navigate through UT’s database and record of classes previously taken abroad by other students, talking to their academic advisors, etc. I found my process to work well with them because it helped the students really understand the amount of research that is involved and required of them.
It’s really the “unknown” that worries students the most because figuring out the academics aspect of the entire experience is really something new for everyone who is interested in going abroad for the first time.
How do you utilize your diverse educational background in your daily work with Sol Abroad?
My diverse educational background truly comes in handy every single day at work; I definitely use my language background by talking in Spanish with my colleagues and with the students. Even though I studied Portuguese at UT, I still went through the same experience, where my goal was to become better and hopefully fluent in Portuguese.
My educational background on these countries also helps a lot when speaking to parents who always show concerns about sending their child to a different country. I am able to connect with them because my parents had the same concerns, but I also like to turn the tables and say that this is something that will exponentially enrich their child’s academic portfolio. Studying abroad made me a more competitive applicant and it will definitely do the same for their child.
Although you were born and raised in Texas, both of your parents are from Mexico. What is the best piece of advice you have for students interested in traveling to Mexico with Sol Abroad?
The best piece of advice I have for students who are interested in our Oaxaca program is that Mexico finds a unique way to get into your heart and never leave. I tell them that if they think they know Mexican food and Mexican music, that they have seen nothing yet. Our program is in Oaxaca because we found it to be this city with a tropical flavor that is dangerously infectious.
How do Sol Abroad programs foster the development of cultural awareness and understanding?
The best way Sol Abroad achieves this is by having all students stay with a host family and live as the locals do. Whenever a student expresses concerns about staying with a family, I mention how I never lived with a host family because my program did not offer that kind of housing accommodation, and how I wished I would’ve had the same opportunity. I encourage them to embrace it because it’s a key component of our programs and I wouldn’t want for them to miss out on the kind of life-long relationship they can form with their host family.
What component of Sol Abroad programs makes them unique?
If students truly want to improve their Spanish language skills or become fluent, the system that Sol puts together really pushes the student to embrace their language learning process and be a bit less afraid to make mistakes. Their host families are told to only speak to them in Spanish, they participate in cultural activities, go on excursions, etc. They are encouraged to open up during class and that encouragement continues outside of the classroom because they are on location mingling with the locals.
You studied abroad in Brazil for a full year during your college career, so clearly you understand the impact study abroad can have on students. How do you portray the incredible experience that is study abroad to first-time study abroad students?
Do you remember the first time you got on the big roller coaster at the theme park? You used to pass by it thinking, “I’m not ready yet, maybe next time.” But now you’ve grown a bit and you see you’re as tall as that red line at the entrance of the ride. You step in feeling accomplished for drinking all your milk, and then you see it, you see yourself waiting in line to get on that ride you’re finally tall enough to get on. You get closer and closer to the point where you begin to see people getting on the ride looking nervous and strangely coming off of it chanting, “let’s go again!” It’s now your turn to hop on. They instruct you to pick a seat and you do. You’re finally seated in the cart, all buckled-in ready to go…and that’s when it hits you; you’re actually going to do this.
Your entire time abroad consists of going up hills, speeding down, taking sharp turns, and seeing the sky above you come and go. By the time you know it your cart starts slowing down and you begin to see the next group of people who want to take your spot. The cart comes to a complete stop, they’re telling you to unbuckle yourself and get off, but you don’t want to. You want to go again. You hesitantly walk away from the ride already missing those big falls, sharp turns, and laughs you’ve had along the way. That is the best way in which I can portray the incredible experience that is studying abroad for the first time.
What do you think the biggest benefits of international education programs are?
International education programs truly enrich one’s mind and soul. One can’t register to a class that will benefit them on this spiritual level, only international education programs are able to touch one’s heart in such inexplicable way.
International education programs allow you to see the world through a different set of lenses that you strangely can’t take off, but inside you know you are a better person because of it.
If you could participate in one of Sol Abroad’s programs, which one would you choose and why?
I would definitely go on the Oaxaca, Mexico program for a few good reasons. I do not know my own country. I have never even been to New York City, or our nation’s capital. Likewise, I don’t know Mexico City, etc. I have not had the chance of knowing the two countries that make me who I am, the places that make me proud to be an American and proud to be part of Mexican heritage.
I say this in the most humble way, but I’ve never had an interest in Europe and I have a small idea of what Buenos Aires is like because of my experience living in the southernmost part of Brazil. Costa Rica comes as a close second, but Mexico has my heart.
What is the best part about working for Sol Abroad?
There are many great things about working for Sol Abroad but my favorite of them all is the fact that Sol Abroad is primarily a Spanish and culture immersion program. I grew up only knowing Spanish and have always been very passionate about Latin American literature, Spanish music, and Spanish cooking. In many ways, I feel like I absolutely fit with Sol Abroad. I come from a background where family is very important and Sol Abroad has definitely made me feel welcomed and part of their family.