Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Three decades ago, Melissa Ferrin (BA political science and Spanish ’95) participated in a study abroad program in Chile offered by the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) as a language learner. She currently teaches English at a small engineering school in Mexico called Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca (UTM). Here, she reflects on her international experience and gives valuable advice to students aspiring to enhance their education with global experiences.  

Melissa Ferrin
At the Gabriela Mistral House Museum in Vicuña, Chile, on Thanksgiving Day, 1993

What prompted you to study abroad in Chile as a student at Iowa? 

I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country. I had done a short exchange in Mexico in high school so was looking for another Spanish-speaking country. I felt that Latin America was changing a lot (it was the early 90s) so I wanted to go there rather than Spain. I looked at another program in Colombia, but it was direct enrollment, and the more structured group program that USAC offered in Chile was more attractive as it seemed to offer more support for me as a foreign student. 

What was your program like?  

It was a group program that accepted a wide range of Spanish levels. There were about 30 American students, most were just studying Spanish. About five of us had a more advanced level of Spanish composition and grammar, so we took a few classes in Spanish by local professors. There was also an American professor, Dr. Thomas C. Wright from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, a Latin American historian who gave us a couple of classes. In December 1993, Chile was having its first election after the transitional president. So, history was happening around us. We only had classes Monday to Thursday and there were organized activities every Friday. The program invited people from all sides of Chile's recent history to speak to us; they really felt it was important that we hear as many different versions of what happened in the 70s and 80s as possible. It was intense, and it wasn't easy, but it was an absolutely wonderful program. 

What is your favorite memory of studying abroad in Chile? 

The scenery. I'm a nature girl. And as an Iowa native--wow, the Andes are really something else. I had the opportunity to travel almost the entire length of Chile. It was my first time in the mountains and in the desert.  I also made the decision that I was going to try everything while abroad. I was going to try all the food that came my way, and try to say yes to as many new experiences as possible. I really recommend any student going abroad do the same. 

"Every interaction is a learning experience; you never know where it may lead. Be open to trying as many new things as possible because later you will get busy with life. Now is the time when you can be free to let life lead you to unexpected places."

What lessons did you learn from your study abroad experience? 

The most important one that I learned was what it is was like to be an "other" - not part of the in-group, which is a position I'd never been in before. I can't think of a more important lesson for a young American to learn. 

How has your international experience benefited you in your life? 

It has quite literally set the course of my life. Despite my semester abroad in Chile, I felt like my Spanish level wasn't high enough to work in a job where I was using Spanish professionally. I saw an ad for a further international opportunity in Ecuador to teach English in exchange for Spanish classes and room and board in Ecuador. I did that after graduation. Later I got a certificate in teaching English as a Foreign Language and went to Japan to teach. After 18 months in Japan, I came to Mexico to teach English, then I got a job that allowed me to study a distance master's degree in applied linguistics, and I'm still teaching in Mexico 26 years later. 

How do you stay connected with fellow Hawkeyes while living in Mexico?  

I live in a small city in Mexico, about the size of Iowa City actually, so I'm not really in any local alumni network. But I receive email newsletters from the University of Iowa and keep in touch with friends online. Facebook was really a game changer. I was even able to find some friends from my time in Chile! 

Do you have any further advice for future students regarding study abroad? 

While you may make great lifelong friends with other American students you make abroad, don't miss out on any opportunities to speak the local language with locals. Every interaction is a learning experience; you never know where it may lead. Be open to trying as many new things as possible because later you will get busy with life. Now is the time when you can be free to let life lead you to unexpected places. 


International Programs (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement.  IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.