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The Spontaneous Choice to Go Abroad

Posted on November 08, 2019


Why did you decide to study abroad?

I spontaneously decided that I wanted to study abroad in the fall semester of my senior year. I was working as a freshman seminar peer mentor/teaching assistant at my university, which was managed by the Director of Study Abroad. One day, I started talking to her about how I wish that I had taken advantage of the various study abroad programs earlier on in my undergrad year because it was too late. She informed me that if I still wanted to study abroad, we could make it happen. From there, it was all about finding the right country, program, and scholarships to fund my trip. As luck would have it, she gave me an ISA-ELAP booklet so that I could look for program and the first page that I opened up to was a film and media program in Mumbai, India. I knew from that moment that India was my destination. I had already been extremely interested in Indian culture; I had worked at an Indian Cuisine restaurant in the summer and was taking the Bollywood: Popular Hindi Cinema class offered at my university at the time as well.

Tell us about the program you went on

My 6-week customized program was through ISA (International Studies Abroad) in collaboration with ISAC (Indian Study Abroad Center). The first 4-weeks I participated in the film and media program, which included meeting with Bollywood film professionals, visiting television and film sets, observing the post-production process (sound mixing, dubbing, special effects), and ultimately, producing my very own short film. The film and media program is in Mumbai, which is the birthplace of Bollywood film. I stayed at a guest house called Swamini Apartments, which was in the Goregaon East section of Mumbai, and I had one roommate. The other 2-weeks I was in Malavli, which is a rural village 3 hours away from Mumbai. This 2-week program was a service-learning program in which I taught and assisted the teachers at the Modern English School. The housing for this program was a beautiful bungalow, in which only ISAC participants lived, as opposed to the guest house in Mumbai, which also housed other people who needed motel services. I enjoyed the program in Malavli more than Mumbai and wish I had been able to extend my stay in Malavli because it was a friendly village with beautiful scenery.

How did you pay for your study abroad experience?

Since I was a senior, I was not eligible for a great deal of the scholarships that my university had to offer, since they are mostly designated for sophomores and juniors. However, I was awarded the Pitt-Study Abroad Scholarship. The African American Alumni Council of the University of Pittsburgh also gave me a grant. I received the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, which required me to write a very strong letter about why I wanted to study abroad, my goals, etc. Lastly, I was awarded the Diversity Abroad Scholarship. I was able to pay for things such as my passport, via, study abroad fees, down payment, vaccinations and some other outside expenses via money saved and donations from friends and family. I am very fortunate that I did not have to take out any loans.

What is one thing you wish you would have known about studying abroad before you left?

One thing that I wish that I would have known before studying abroad is how racist the area in which we were living was going to be. As mentioned in my returnee video, I faced a significant amount of discrimination based on my skin color, especially in the area where our guest house was located. I knew that people would look at me weird because I look different and stand out, but I had no idea the extent in which my discomfort would be due to the ongoing color discrimination in India culture, especially among uneducated people. However, I even felt discriminated against and like I wasn't being given the same kind of attention or friendliness from one of my program managers and some of the film professionals that we met with. There were only two students in the film and media program: me and a white girl named Sara. Sara was definitely given much more attention and respect than I was; white privilege has no borders.

Did you experience any discrimination abroad because of your race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or a physical disability? If so, what did you learn from the experience?

As I mentioned in my response to the question before this one as well as in my video, I faced much discrimination because of my darker skin color and my physical similarities to African people. I learned so many things by encountering racism and discrimination in another country. I learned that white privilege goes beyond the United States. I realized that people of color need to travel more internationally so that people of other countries/cultures can be exposed to us since the media does not portray us in the most positive light. I learned that racism exists all over the world and no matter where you go, you may encounter people who will discriminate against you and when you are faced with blatant racism, you have to challenge it in a positive way and stay strong and proud. You can't let the ignorance of others negatively affect how you enjoy your experience abroad and you are not entitled to prove yourself to anyone; being yourself and showing a vibrant, warm spirit is enough to deny any stereotypes that people will associate with you or people who look like you.

How has studying abroad benefited you, personally and academically?

Studying abroad has opened my eyes in many ways. I have discovered so much about myself as an American, as a woman of color, as an educated student, etc. Being able to see how happy and grateful many of the Indian people are with the bare minimum of things really humbled me and awakened a deeper urge to give back and participate in humanitarian work. Academically, just the knowledge that I was able to receive through my time abroad will help me and will allow me to apply my experiences to my course work. Whether it is technical skills that I learned from the film and media program or personal experiences as I encountered racism and poverty stricken areas; I have so much more knowledge than I had before I traveled to India.

What was the most memorable moment of studying abroad?

My most memorable moment was any of the moments that I spent with my students at the Modern English School. Every day was filled with new memories, new moments of laughter, and more opportunities to interact and learn from my students. It is hard to choose just one moment that is memorable because we really made memories every day that are worth keeping forever.

How was the entertainment and nightlife?

The only time that I was able to experience the nightlife of Mumbai was the night before our last day. I went out with two of the interns of an alumni of my school, who is the editor-in-chief of Condenast Traveller India. They took me out to this awesome, hip lounge called Hoppipolla. It reminded me so much of the places back in the U.S. where I hang out with friends. I was dressed in traditional Indian attire, but everyone else had on more modern, western clothing. Our program managers advise us to always wear Indian attire, which is why I didn’t pack any club clothes or anything of the like, but once I saw how hip everyone was at Hoppipolla, I was wishing that I had asked for the dress code beforehand, lol. Hoppipolla served some of the best continental and western food; I had some of the best chicken wings that I have ever tasted. They also played great music, mostly American, and the vibe was just very cool and upbeat. Afterward, we went to this bar called the Moneky Bar, which was also a great, modern place with a nice, diverse crowd. We drank and danced and had a great time. Hands-down one of the best nights that I had in Mumbai. The three of us agreed that we wish that we had met earlier on in my trip because they wanted to show me more of the night life, haha.

In what way do you feel your experience abroad has prepared you for your future career? (Think both tangible things like language acquisition and intangible like learning to work with people who are very different from you)

My intercultural communication skills have been significantly approved because of this experience abroad. I feel like now I will be able to interact and communicate even better with people who are different from me because I've had first-hand experience with trying to talk to people who don't speak English fluently or who have different cultural views . I also think that this experience will improve the type of narratives that I want to tell with my filmmaking. Being able to encounter all of these new people and situations has gotten my creative juices pumping and I am excited to see how my experiences as well as new technical knowledge will assist in the type of short films and media that I produce. Also, I feel like if I decide to do some teaching later on in the future, having this international teaching experience will assist the other experiences that I've had with teaching college students as well as volunteering at my local elementary school.

Would you recommend the program you went on, if so why??

This is a tough question. I think that I would advise students to go through ISA, but I am not sure if I would recommend the ISAC programs that are offered from ISA, just because there were a significant amount of issues that I had with the way the programs were being ran and the organization of things. Also, it felt like there were times when information was not presented in the best way, and students had to make up for it. Such as, film students having to pay for lunch and supplies for actors/audio techs. That was something that had not been mentioned beforehand and something that should have been made clear, especially since the film and media students are the only students who have to pay for things outside of the program costs that are still apart of the program.

What advice do you have for students thinking about study abroad?

Besides saying, "JUST DO IT!" My advice would be to do as much research as you can about the country, city, culture, people, government, socio-economic issues, various study abroad programs offered in that destination, etc. so that you will be as informed as possible about where you are going and what you might encounter. Work with your study abroad office and director of study abroad to find the best program and location.

Any additional comments or thoughts that you have about your study abroad experience

Studying abroad was one of the absolute best experiences that I have ever had and it has definitely awakened my travel bug. I am so glad that I decided to take part in a study abroad program and explore a new culture because it was the best learning experience. Not only did I learn about the country, culture, and the people, but I learned so much about myself and I know that things that I discovered will help mold me into a better young woman, student, professional, and human being.

Authored by: Ashley Young

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