Reflections of an AIFS Alumni Ambassador: How Staying Connected to My Study Abroad Experience Opened Doors
As a Psychology major, just one year ago, I never saw myself as part of this movement called “international education.” A junior in college who hadn’t left the country yet, I actually considered postponing my study abroad. A month before departure, I scrambled to talk to my study abroad advisor, asking about the fees it would cost to push it back, simply terrified of leaving my friends and support system. However, just one year after my experience, and only 8 months after beginning my time as an Alumni Ambassador, I’m proud to say that becoming an advocate for international education was one of the best decisions I made while attending Howard University.
Becoming an AIFS Alumni Ambassador
I studied abroad in San José, Costa Rica for three months through AIFS. I stayed in a Spanish-speaking homestay, took salsa classes, improved my Spanish fluency, went to counseling, made research presentations on LGBTQIA+ communities across Latin America, and expanded my horizons in ways I couldn’t imagine. I came, saw and felt I had conquered. But then I returned home in April and started to wonder: “Well, what’s next?”
Fortunately, the answer was close by. In May, AIFS posted applications for Alumni Ambassadors — a term I wasn’t familiar with. I found out that Ambassadors encourage students to go abroad, plan events, host discussions, and take part in advancing international education: all things I was passionate about doing. Throughout the interview process, I repeated my story: how I was afraid to leave, but had been so positively impacted and changed by my time abroad that I couldn’t leave the experience alone. I needed to encourage other students to take part.
To my surprise, I was accepted. In the August, all of the other accepted Ambassadors came to Stamford, CT to meet, resources, and start developing professional skills. We went through workshops that covered everything from event-planning to creating an online website for resumes. I knew I made the right decision once I met the other Ambassadors: all active leaders on their campuses inspired by their time abroad, and ready to change the world one student at a time.
As soon as we got back to school, the ball started rolling. The Ralph Bunche Center (Howard University’s International Affairs Center) hosted the Fall Study Abroad Fair. My advisor, MaRaina Montgomery, helped me and my fellow Ambassador, Justin Edwards, to get together all the resources we needed to advise students. Talking to students during the fair, then getting to know them through my office hours at the Bunche Center, proved to be helpful in many ways. I started to understand the process of studying abroad and its significance in shifting the way education is developed, then passed on across language and culture. Answering students’ questions helped me to realize the skills I was developing while abroad and after returning. I got to witness firsthand the background work that it takes to support students as they experience other people and cultures, and I found myself becoming more curious of the needs of those around me.
This curiosity helped
shaped the events I would come to host. One of our first panels on “Global
Mental Health Abroad” partnered staff, faculty, and student organizations
across disciplines to give their experiences with studying psychology abroad.
This event was especially rewarding because I got to combine my passion for
mental health with my passion for international education and cultural
competence. Our “Night of Reflection” allowed students to showcase their abroad
experience, encourage other students to go abroad, and put into words what we
had gained professionally and experientially.
One of the events I was most proud to host was “Black and Queer Abroad,” which brought together students’ various perspectives of their time abroad, highlighting their intersectional identities. Some students had only studied abroad for a week, a summer, and some for a whole year. Some identified as non-binary, lesbian, queer, and gay. They gave the (soon to be abroad) students a well-rounded impression of how their different identities became salient abroad and the ways they navigated them as American students living in another country. This event helped me to put my own experiences into words while supporting the needs of my community at home.
If hosting events for college students is rewarding, any opportunity to advise high schoolers serves as a reminder of what education is really about. Each year, high-school students from Atlanta, GA visit Howard as part of a college tour. They spent an hour and a half at the Bunche Center where we talked about their expectations for college, where they hoped to travel, and their goals once they got accepted. Together, we did a Nigerian gratitude activity (which I picked up in an African-centered psychology workshop), which allowed the students to express their thoughts and mindfulness. For me, it was rewarding to be able to put into words how my experience abroad helped me to grow as a student and human.
Research & Career
My experience abroad and as an Ambassador led me to apply for various opportunities to continue my passion for becoming a more well-rounded person. I applied for an English Teaching Assistantship in Argentina through the Fulbright Student Program and got to the Semi-Finalist stage. I applied for the Charles B. Rangel International Fellowship, which leads students into foreign diplomacy, and got to the Finalist stage. I then got accepted to join the first cohort of the UC-HBCU partnership between Howard University and The University of California, Santa Barbara with the goal of diversifying the Classics. This summer, after graduation, I will be conducting research on gender and sexuality in 5th-century Greece, then spending two weeks in Athens to investigate ancient art and deliver my final presentation. Thus, it is never too late to pursue education abroad — but my time as an Ambassador helped me to form the connections necessary to find these opportunities in the first place.
My time abroad also led
me to my research on HIV-Gender stigma and its influences on cognitive load. As
part of this global community health lab, I was able to bring a more cultured
lens to my research. I presented at Howard University’s Annual Research
Symposium and have been accepted to present at the American Psychological
Association’s National Convention in Chicago, IL.
Going abroad and my position as an Ambassador opened up doors that I didn’t know existed. Before leaving, and before becoming an Alumni Ambassador, I thought I might be limited in some ways by my major. However, my position opened doors for me and made me realize that I am the only person who can decide the path ahead. As I embrace the sometimes-uncertain next steps after graduation, adjusting to “adulthood” and preparing for graduate studies, I am more rooted, dedicated, and confident in my ability to succeed wherever I end up next. Whether you decide to become an Alumni Ambassador, or to stay connected to the experience, advancing international education is a guaranteed way to learn more about yourself, the world around you, and how the two need each other to produce anything worthwhile.
This post was contributed by Jacquelyn Chin, an AIFS Alumni Ambassador from Howard University who spent a studied abroad with AIFS in San José, Costa Rica.