Oktoberfest Survival Tips Dirndl
All dressed up in my dirndl at Oktoberfest

After listening to the White House Travel Blogger Summit talk about study abroad I felt inspired to write this post and share my experience as a Latina abroad. One of the main items discussed was the lack of diversity in study abroad programs. I’ve had the great opportunity to work and study abroad and I cannot stress how instrumental it has been in my life. A big thanks to my parents for always feeding my dreams even though their version of international travel was a road trip from Rochester, NY to Niagara Falls (a 90 minute drive). According to NAFSA (National Association of Foreign Student Advisers) only 7.6% of Latino university students studied abroad in 2013. I can only imagine the number back in 1999! 

Latina Abroad in Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Rewind to 1996.  After my freshman year at University at Albany I had itchy feet. I wanted to live a life of adventure. I joined the US Marine Corps Reserves.  As a young enlisted Marine, I did not get to travel abroad I got to see many places as a 19 year old Puerto Rican girl in Western NY didn’t get to see: Missouri and Kentucky! My senior year I ended up signing up for a study abroad program. It wasn’t that exotic (at least for me): I returned to Puerto Rico to spend a semester at Universidad del Sagrado Corazon. I needed the income from my reserve job and Puerto Rico had a unit I could work with. Fast forward to 2014: Did you know you can use your GI Bill while studying abroad?

Latina Abroad College Days
My senior year at SUNY Albany, 2000

Although I did not need a passport for that adventure, I was immersed back in my Puerto Rican culture. I spent my semester honing my writing and speaking skills in Spanish.  Although I grew up in Puerto Rico, my high school studies were mostly in English. It was great to master the literary part of the Spanish  language. I still use those skills at my work and my upcoming Spanish Language travel segment with Despierta DC.

Experiencing Germany when I worked for NATO
Experiencing Bavaria While Working for NATO

Upon graduation, I was commissioned as a Marine Corps Second Lieutenant. My first assignment was in Okinawa, Japan. Needless to say, I was in a work/study abroad situation.  I loved driving around the island and walking into small shops and ordering from a menu that I couldn’t even remotely read! I pointed at kanji script and prayed (everything was always delicious)! During that year in Okinawa, I also got to do extended assignments in Thailand and Australia (45 days each). Those assignments opened my mind and my palate to travel. My next assignment was just as exotic but dangerous: Baghdad, Iraq. There, I learned from talking to the locals working on base, eating the best hummus I’ve ever had, and reflecting on myself and humanity.

Latina Abroad in Ghana
A shopping break while in Ghana on assignment

In 2005, I returned home physically and emotionally exhausted from my deployment to Iraq and decided to use my GI Bill and all of my savings to move to Belgium, where I found a Masters in Management and Business Administration from Boston University (the program is no longer available in Belgium). Before my big move I visited Brussels for the BU program and the Copenhagen School of Business.  Although I was more keen to move to Copenhagen, I was turned off by the staff member I met with. She told me (by the way she was American) in a condescending tone: “you are aware that you have to have 5+ years of work experience to apply”. She automatically judged by my appearance as she had not seen my resume.  When I told her everything I had accomplished since my college graduation, she was quite humbled. Needless to say, it was a turn off. I was happy that the BU staff was so open and eager to have me join their program.

Latina Abroad in Brussels
At my Master’s Graduation in Brussels

Although I had lived abroad before arriving to Brussels: Japan, South Korea, and my deployment in Iraq, Brussels was a whole new world in so many levels. I recall getting my student visa at the Belgian Embassy in Seoul (where I was living at the time) and the whole process seemed so foreign to me. I arrived to Brussels with no sponsor waiting for me at the airport, no housing office, no tax-free benefits, and no paycheck! Being overseas in the military has a lot of privileges that I was no longer entitled to now that I was on my own. I’ll be honest, it was difficult to adjust, especially as a graduate student since the environment was much more independent than my undergraduate experience.

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

There I was, a 28 year old feeling 18 again! However, I soon became involved in the program and met some amazing people from New Zealand, Congo, El Salvador, Germany, China, and the list goes on. I started taking French lessons and my network kept on growing. (Expat Tip: always enroll in clubs and language courses to meet new people and do something productive!) When I started the program, I was under the impression that I would finish in 18 months and return to the US. What really happened is that I moved to Germany for a year, returned to Brussels after my work assignment, and was hired at NATO. I spent six years in Brussels and it was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experience of my life.

At My Farewell Party in Brussels, 2012
The unknown is a scary thing sometimes. I had the same fear in the pit of my stomach when I arrived at Parris Island to Marine Boot Camp in 1997 as I had when I landed in Belgium. Crazy enough those are two of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  In Brussels I learned French, learned to make mussels, taught a few to dance Salsa, earned my Masters’, met my Dutchman, and most importantly, it was a new beginning for me. Being a Latina abroad had its ups and downs but there is not one thing I would change from this journey.

post signature

  • Tanvi

    What an exciting life you have lived so far … Lovely reading about your travel/life experiences. Thank you for sharing.

    ∞ tanvii.com ∞