travel stories

One of the most significant aspects of studying abroad is seeing everything you possibly can, while learning and growing every step of the way. After getting settled into my new life at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, I was quickly ready to get out there and begin seeing all the things I had spent months pinning on Pinterest. After all, my parents were beginning to wonder what exactly I was getting out of spending day after day at the beach.

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UI Study Abroad Diversity Ambassador Scholar Mikkia Graves is a senior majoring in mathematics with a minor in statistics and a certificate in entrepreneurial management. This winter, Graves studied abroad on the USAC Havana Program in Havana, Cuba, where she explored the history and culture of Cuba. In this letter, she reflects on her study abroad experiences in Cuba and India as both a first-generation college student and an African American woman.

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UI Study Abroad Diversity Ambassador Scholar Azzah Nasraddin reflects on her identity as a black Muslim American woman while abroad on the UI India Winterim program– and how her experiences broke down her stereotypes and prejudices. Azzah is a sophomore majoring in psychology and social work with a minor in global health and Arabic.

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In my last year at Iowa, I served as a Diversity Ambassador in a study abroad program which took me to Havana, Cuba. It was an unforgettable month of culture, dancing, cuisine, and lifelong memories. During my time on the island with the 20 other Americans participating in the USAC program, I learned much about group dynamics, gained some close friends, and had the time of my life experiencing such a unique learning opportunity with a well-rounded group of peers. The most important lessons I learned with regard to diversity, I learned from the people I met on the island.

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In Morocco, they take it easy. As soon as my plane lands in Rabat, I can feel the change. The other passengers do not push against each other to stand in the aisle. They take their time gathering backpacks and briefcases from the overhead compartments. My flight is late, but that’s no problem. IES Abroad’s driver is just arriving to take me to the Center, where the other students are. I don’t know much Darija (the local dialect) yet, and he doesn’t know English. We smile at each other. It’s not uncomfortable.

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I have been at the University of Newcastle, in New South Wales, Australia for nearly three weeks already, and yet I continue to wake up most mornings in awe that this is actually my life. I prepared for this journey for quite some time; making and saving money, meeting deadlines for paperwork, and doing lots of research. To finally be here, literally on the other side of the world, can at times be hard to grasp.

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If you are reading this letter, you may be pondering the idea of studying abroad and trying to decide whether it is something you should do. As a senior in my last year in the College of Education, I debated the idea for many reasons, but the biggest one being the cost. See, my original goal coming out of high school and soon to be first generation college student was to go to college and excel in my academics in order to achieve greatness, but never was it in my plan to study abroad.

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My first experience abroad was in Spain during winter break of my freshman year. While this was an enlightening experience, it was not so different from my own culture. Traveling to India, however, I was excited to explore those cultural and social differences. Starting with the sheer amount of people on the streets of Chennai, the town I flew into, I knew the YouTube travel videos I’d watched in preparation were not exaggerating.

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Three months ago to this exact date was the day I accepted to spend the spring semester in Thessaloniki, Greece. After sending the acceptance e-mail, I remember calling my mom, my boyfriend, my friends – anyone who would listen – and then wondering how in the world I could ever wait three months to leave for Greece.

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Getting off the plane at O’Hare was surreal. Was I really back in Chicago? Costa Rica felt like a dream and I had just suddenly awoken to the brisk winter of the Windy City. To be honest I wasn’t excited to be back, not as excited as I should have been or excited as my friends were. I had found a sense of happiness in Costa Rica that I was scared I would lose the moment I stepped back on to U.S. territory. But as I walked through the airport, I promised myself I would hold on to that happiness and optimism I had gained in Costa Rica and carry it with me wherever I went.

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