A Year Abroad for a Curious Education Major

BY RILEY NORHEIM
For the UAS Whalesong

In fall of 2015, I spent four months living with a host family, taking university courses, volunteering, traveling, and breathing very heavily at an altitude of 11,152 feet in the Andes Mountain Range in Cusco, Peru through International Studies Abroad (ISA). My semester resulted in invaluable growth both academically and personally.

Throughout my time in South America I did things most people only dream about. I taught English as a second (or third) language to underprivileged children. I traveled to Machu Picchu, one of the Wonders of the World, and hiked Huayna Picchu, the tallest mountain behind Machu Picchu. Hence, I had my breath taken away by the most unique and beautiful view of the world famous Inca site. I trekked through the Amazon Rainforest in mud nearly up to my knees and watched working ants that seemed to come right out of Disney’s A Bugs Life, and viewed giant capybaras, tarantulas the size of my head (and I have a big head), and monkeys swinging through the forest carrying their little babies on their backs.

I slept on a bus three nights in a row to get to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia which is the world’s largest salt flat, over 4,000 square miles in size and one of the absolute coolest things I have ever seen. I swam in, fished from, visited floating islands, and hiked mountains that looked over Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest body of water and one of South America’s largest lakes.

I took classes in Spanish and learned about Peruvian culture and Peru’s indigenous peoples not only in the classroom, but first hand in cities and villages around the country. I zip-lined through the Sacred Valley, and I spent my weekends visiting a countless number of Inca ruins and trying Peruvian delicacies such as cow heart shish kabobs, ceviche, alpaca, and guinea pig… And by “try” I mean take one bite of and then never eat again. But hey, at least I tried them!

Since I studied abroad in a Spanish-speaking country, academically I was able to complete my Spanish minor in just three semesters, and I learned more about the Spanish language and Latin American culture in four months than I ever could have in a classroom here in the States.

Living with a Peruvian host family was definitely an essential part of my full-on cultural immersion. Although it was difficult at times due to cultural differences and miscommunication, I wouldn’t change my host family experience for the world. It was a true cultural exchange; they taught me so much about their culture and I got to teach them about mine. The conversations we would have during meal times were so raw and would go on for hours. Those memories I will truly cherish for a lifetime.

On a personal level, my independence and confidence skyrocketed throughout the semester. I was able to make a foreign language, a foreign country, complete strangers, and a new culture my new norm, and I flourished while doing so.

After the semester and spending two weeks at home with my family in the US, I set out for another semester abroad in the spring of 2016, but this time in a very different way. I participated in a very unique multi-country study abroad program known as Semester at Sea.

I spent nearly four months living on and participating in classes on a beautiful ship with 500 other college students from all over the world as we literally circumnavigated the globe. We traveled 23,659 nautical miles and visited 11 different countries.

We embarked the MV World Odyssey in Mexico and from there we traveled to Hawai’i, Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, and we disembarked the ship in England. We had roughly a week in each country, and I made sure to make the most of every single second in each port.

During the semester I fell in love with the ridiculously kind and helpful Japanese people, and I gained 30% of my Cultural Anthropology grade by spending a day eating sushi, exploring temples and shrines, and meditating with Buddhist monks. I hiked on the Great Wall of China while listening to the Mulan soundtrack, and I became a part of what seemed to be Fast and Furious while taking taxis in Hong Kong. In Vietnam, I ate my weight in rice and pho, and had the opportunity to spend some time at an orphanage connecting with a young boy with special needs.

I befriended a monk from Myanmar, or as he likes to call it (and boy, is it accurate), the Land of Smiles. I sat atop an ancient pagoda at sunrise and looked out at thousands of other pagodas and temples as hot air balloons filled the sky. I channeled my inner Indian Princess while wearing my traditional sari at the Taj Mahal, and rode an elephant up a mountain to a palace at sunrise with my absolute best friend.

While sailing from Mauritius to South Africa, I had the amazing opportunity to sail with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and hear him speak about his experience with the apartheid and his dear friend Nelson Mandela. I hiked up Table Mountain, skydived, and went great white shark cage diving (and lived to tell the tale). I spent my time in Ghana in a rural village where I stayed with a local host family, ate traditional Ghanaian food, showered outside without running water, and spent my days assessing students, simply playing with and loving on the sweet children.

In Morocco, my eyes were opened up to the beauty of Islam, and I spent days exploring the old medinas of Marrakech and Fes.

Obviously, when setting off on a voyage with Semester at Sea you don’t get the normal cultural immersion you do with most other study abroad or exchange programs, but what you get in return makes up for that and then some. Thanks to Semester at Sea, I am now a global citizen. I am quite literally a world traveler, and thanks to my classes on board and my experiences in each country, I now have a global perspective unlike any other. And I am only 20-years-old.

In the end, saying goodbye to my floating home and my new lifelong friends was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Yet my adventure wasn’t quite over. I spent three weeks exploring England, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, and Iceland before heading back to the States. I boarded my flight with a very heavy backpack, a very empty bank account, and a full heart.

Describing all of my experiences this past year, both in Peru and on Semester at Sea, and summing them up on two pages worth of text has proven to be nearly impossible. It was truly my dream come true and no doubt a once in a lifetime experience that I will cherish for the rest of time. All of the people I met, opportunities I had, and things I got to do were everything I imagined and much, much more.

Studying abroad and traveling in general has absolutely changed my life dramatically for better, and it can change yours too! It isn’t always easy. In fact, for me, a lot of it was really hard and quite terrifying, but that’s how I learned so much, gained new skills, and grew so much as a person. As cliché as it sounds, life truly does begin at the end of your comfort zone. I suggest that you get out there and starting exploring everything this beautiful world of ours has to offer…before you graduate!

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