International Education: A Transformative Experience
Every semester a group of students at The University of Texas can explore other cultures by studying abroad. UT ranks third in the nation for the number of students studying abroad due mainly to the variety of possible programs that allow students to pursue their education internationally. Nearly all of the colleges at UT offer unique study abroad programs to make each student’s time memorable. Furthermore, going abroad equips students with practical day-to-day skills that are put into practice wherever they go. Whether it’s in classes when they return to UT, are working at their first job, or meeting someone new at a coffee shop, the skills learned from their experiences living and studying abroad transfer with them. However, only some of the most important learning is done in the classroom during a study abroad program, with many important skills coming from the experience are from the day-to-day interactions, experiences, and actions.
For this reason, many find their study abroad experience to be genuinely transformative, including Kathleen McArthur (Class of 2002) and Austin Cruz (Class of 2018).
Kathleen, who majored in Finance at the McCombs School of Business, grew up without traveling far from home, only leaving the state to visit her mother’s home country of Mexico. When deciding where to complete a semester abroad, Kathleen felt drawn by the idea of connecting with and exploring a region unknown to her — South America. This resulted in the remarkable opportunity to study abroad in Chile during the post-Pinochet era in the fall of her sophomore year.
Arriving in Chile in the Fall of 1999, Kathleen’s transformation coincided with a transformational time for the nation. Although she was initially unfamiliar with Chilean history or its ongoing political situation, Kathleen witnessed firsthand the upheaval and unrest in the nation as Pinochet was being held in London; his future was debated along with that of the country. This uncertainty was dramatically reflected in the valuation of Chilean currency at the time, which underwent unprecedented inflation during her time in Chile.
For Kathleen, understanding and adjusting to these nationwide uncertainties was certainly part of the study abroad challenge. Still, her mind and skills were also stretched by simple, everyday tasks. In particular, she was routinely confronted with differences in dialect and communication styles between Chile and the Mexican customs with which she was familiar. Even simple tasks like ordering lunch or celebrating a birthday could result in strange looks and confusion. Still, Kathleen took it in stride, realizing that it was essential to learn and appreciate cultural differences — however small — and that communicating among and through those differences takes patience and understanding.
Austin, who majored in Sociology at the College of Liberal Arts, began his study abroad in Mexico City. However, he had the unfortunate yet life-changing experience of living through the catastrophic 2017 earthquake and being forced to finish his semester in Queretaro, Mexico. Like Kathleen, Austin came from a Mexican background. His grandmother had moved to Texas from Mexico. Nonetheless, he felt he had lost much of his Hispanic heritage and wanted to reconnect with his roots by studying in Mexico.
The plan was to study in the 2017 fall semester at one of UT’s partner schools in Mexico City. When he first arrived, he felt he was in a completely different world right from the start. Everything was different from what he was used to in the United States. At the beginning of his time in Mexico, he realized that he would have to learn Spanish. Austin remembers struggling to learn before going on his study abroad trip, but he had never really been good at the language. However, Austin quickly realized in Mexico City that if he did not learn to communicate in Spanish, he would miss out on almost everything; being able to purchase food, getting on the correct bus, calling for help in case of an emergency, paying rent, and all of the tourist attractions.
Then came September 19th, 2017. Mexico witnessed one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in its history. Austin was lucky and survived the earthquake, yet his memories from the catastrophe remain vivid. Classmates, neighbors, and people who had become his community were left in a very critical state. Austin recalls this time as the most challenging experience he had ever had to live through.
The UT students in Mexico City were given the option to move to Queretaro, a city north of Mexico City, or cut their trip short and come back to Texas. Austin was committed to finishing his semester in Mexico. However, all of his belongings had been destroyed. Additionally, the cost of living in Queretaro was higher than in Mexico City, so he had to find a way to make it work. He recalls speaking to Dr. Mendez, and she told him something that remains with him to this day: “we can’t choose what happens to us in life, but we can choose how we respond to it.” This motivated Cruz, and he was able to find a way to get the funding to move to Queretaro and buy all the supplies he needed to attend school and move forward in his study abroad.
Although their chosen professions took them in different directions, Kathleen and Austin’s experiences abroad taught them the same lesson: challenging one’s comfort zone can lead to growth and discovery. And as both Kathleen’s and Austin’s stories demonstrate, skills like curiosity, adaptability, and resilience — all that the Center for Global Business calls “global readiness” — are essential for success, wherever a career may take you. The practice and experience students get with these skills while studying abroad often have an impact long after they return to the United States.
As a partner at Sullivan and Cromwell LLP, and thanks to her experience living and studying in Chile and getting to know more about Latin America, Kathleen appreciates that “a global firm has to think of the implications of their resolutions globally.” This practice often contrasts the frequent “hyper-local perspective” employed by U.S. companies, even when dealing with those outside the U.S.
Austin Cruz’s study abroad experience also influenced his current work and how he takes on challenges. His experience living in Mexico (along with what he witnessed there) reinforced his passion, and Austin is currently a Program Manager in Crisis Management and Disaster Services at Allied Universal. The critical thinking, interpersonal skills, and personal endurance he developed abroad helped him immensely in his career.
Choosing where to study abroad can be difficult and take a lot of work. There are so many places students want to go and explore. For this reason, Austin recommends digging deep and studying your options beforehand. Learning about each location’s culture, way of life, weather, food, and everything you can learn about the country. Then, after considering all these different aspects, assess which of those countries is more similar to one’s way of life. In the end, students will be in that country for months, so it is crucial that they can quickly adapt to the practice of living in that country. Also, he recommends that one goes to where they have heritage origins. Being able to live where one comes from is a truly life-changing experience.
Kathleen suggests that those students who go and have the opportunity to study in a different country look for ways to grow and develop through the events they will experience. Recognizing how transformative it is when conducting interviews, Kathleen asks potential employees if they have any international experience, whether it be educational or non-educational. She digs deep into trying to look for ways to determine how impactful it was and how that person utilizes that impact.
There are many ways UT students can seek an international education besides studying abroad. The University and CGB specifically support courses that convey that business has no borders. The University offers countless foreign language courses, and other departments provide regional studies to individuals. Within McCombs, many International Business classes are open to non-business majors, with Intercultural Cultural Management (IB 367C) being among the most popular. Taught by Dr. Mendez, the course is an excellent start for anyone interested in learning how to work well as a team and manage different people from different cultural backgrounds. It enables students to break barriers and see past cultural differences in all aspects of life.
The University of Texas at Austin is hosting its annual International Education Week from November 14–18. IEW is an excellent opportunity for students, faculty, and interested individuals to learn about UT’s mission of promoting global readiness.
If you are a student interested in seeing how an International Experience can bolster and supplement your major or minor, click here.
Written by Julian Gonzalez, Intern at the Center for Global Business