Ambassadors Q&A

Katherine Beavis, ’21, interviewed her fellow Study Abroad Student Ambassadors Emily Harper, ’21, Brinda Rao, ’22, and Janko Stojadinovic, ’21, about their (pre-pandemic) experiences abroad. Read their reflections on learning languages, independent travel, making friends abroad, and more.

May 14, 2021

Interviewed by Katherine Beavis, ’21
Edited and condensed for clarity

Emily Harper, ’21

Major(s)/minor(s)/on-campus commitments
History and Romance Languages and Literature (specialization in Spanish and Catalan), work part-time on campus

Program(s) and their places
Direct enrollment at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona (Autumn 2019)

How did you choose the programs that you applied to and went on?
I knew that I wanted to do direct enrollment, that’s what I had imagined study abroad looking like ever since high school. I wanted to go to a university in another country, take classes with local students, and I also knew that I wanted those classes to be in Spanish because that’s the language I have been learning for quite a few years now. Navigating that linguistic barrier seemed like a fun challenge! For UChicago that meant choosing between Santiago, Chile and Barcelona – honestly it came down to the dates of the programs and random stuff like that but I’m so happy with my choice to go to Barcelona. I knew that Catalan was spoken in Barcelona before going but I didn’t really understand how important it would eventually become in my own academic experience here at UChicago and that wouldn’t have happened elsewhere so I’m really grateful for that but definitely didn’t anticipate it before.

What was the best thing you did in class?
Along the lines of linguistic differences, going in I was excited that half of my courses were taught in Spanish and half were taught in Catalan. I had taken a quarter of Catalan at UChicago before going, once I realized that would be the setup, because their Humanities classes were taught in Catalan. One of the courses I took was in Baroque Art History and I had never taken an Art History course. It was taught in Catalan and it was with students who were specializing in the subject – I was so out of my league. We had this group project that resulted in giving a group presentation in front of the lecture of around 60-70 students, so I ended up in this group that was nice enough to let me work with them even though I didn’t speak the language really well, which was its own great experience. Also, giving a portion of the presentation in Catalan in front of the class was so nerve-wracking but it was definitely the best class experience there because it was so rewarding and I felt that after doing that, presentations at UChicago are not so intimidating.

What was the best thing you did in your free time or on the weekends?
Most of my friends ended up being other international students studying abroad and there were a couple of other students from UChicago who were also there who helped make it less scary – it’s tough to go in and not know anyone! In terms of favorite weekend experiences, I spent a weekend in Andorra with some friends. We rented an Airbnb and it’s just so beautiful there, we got to walk a lot in the mountains and see somewhere totally different. Barcelona is very urban and Andorra is the antithesis of that, so it was a lot of fun and I look back on that really as a good memory. It’s a bit of an effort to get there because it’s nestled in the mountains. But I had a secret agenda in pushing my friends to go because their official language is Catalan and they’re the only country whose official language is Catalan so I wanted to see it for that reason and it ended up being a great trip.

Did you pick up any souvenirs?
Not consciously, but I have things that I got there that now kind of remind me of my trip. I took a Catalan language class and we got a free tote bag that now I carry with me, I really like, and reminds me of the class. I bought some books too that remind me of this book store that I really liked. The other day I found a lip balm that I got in Spain. There are little things that I kind of find from my time there that are nice to look back on. It wasn’t so much a conscious effort of buying things that say “Barcelona!” but I have plenty of things that remind me of my time there.

What challenges that you faced have stuck with you?
Well, I went in knowing that I didn’t know a lot of Catalan so anything was an accomplishment, even ordering a coffee in Catalan. But I think that a challenge especially for language for me was that I went in having years of learning Spanish and I thought it was going to be easier than it was to learn the language while there. All of my learning of Spanish had been academic and so having informal conversations was a whole other game. I found that if I went to a store and ordered something, because I tended to be pretty insecure, I feel like the insecurity really showed because I didn’t want to offend anyone by using the wrong words, or addressing someone in the wrong way. I would be really tentative and my body language was really closed up and so people would usually respond to me in English either because people could tell I was American or because English is a language that a lot of people understand. But I initially took that as some insult to my Spanish skills. Once I realized that if I just approach people confidently, and even if someone does respond to me in English, I can just keep talking in Spanish. Then I can have those interactions and practice my language skills. Really it was less about my language skills and more about my lack of confidence because they don’t really care so much if you mess up. In English we don’t care if someone is learning the language and says something that shows that they’re learning the language. So I think learning that and learning to go easier on myself was good to learn there and I’ve tried to take that with me even back in Chicago.

Are there any low moments that you really learned something from or look back on now as funny?
I do think of some of those as low moments – the misunderstandings. In terms of a moment that I look back on as funny, it definitely took a lot of adapting in ways. Even something as simple as doing laundry in Spain was different. I lived in a building that had some washers but only one for everyone. It was pretty expensive and it seemed like the assumption was that people don’t really use a dryer so the first time that I did my laundry, the dryer wasn’t available so I had to hang things around my tiny apartment. I didn’t have anything to hang items with so I would take toilet paper and try to wrap it into a string, then I found some clothespins that I could stick to different parts of the string so eventually my whole room was a mess of strings and rubber bands, trying to adapt to the circumstances but just so unprepared because I didn’t know where to buy a drying rack or how to handle it. That’s the kind of situation where you have to adapt until I realized where to buy what I needed, but initially it was an adjustment.

What surprised you the most?
The dryer of course, the blinds worked differently there – took me a while to figure out! It was easier than I expected to form friendships with people in my classes even if they weren’t people I was spending a lot of time with. Realizing how similar everyone is, all these other international students who just wanted to have these great experiences and make friends. There were some things that were harder and more challenging than expected, but people were friendly and kind. Before we left we got this packet from the Study Abroad Office about the emotional rollercoaster, the “w” symbol, and when I first read that I thought, “Well, I don’t know how much of that I’m going to experience,” but I think I was surprised at how true that was! You have this high when you get there of being so excited about it and real lows when things don’t go according to plan and you feel like “This is my study abroad experience, it’s supposed to be perfect,” but of course it’s not because it’s real life. Then finding your routine and becoming really confident again and then coming back there’s a little bit of a sadness when other people can’t relate to your experiences. You talk about it with your friends but it’s over, so there is this emotional rollercoaster and it’s so rewarding, and you come back from that dip, any low points realizing how much you’ve grown and learned. It was a surprise for me how true that would be but that was a good surprise.

How have you changed as a result of studying abroad? Did your friends notice anything new?
I think I’m more adaptable, just rolling with whatever happens and not taking everything so personally or seriously. Part of that came from navigating those linguistic barriers, which has led to more confidence too, but I think going easy on myself and understanding that when something is challenging it’s usually a good learning experience. People are not as hard on you as you are on yourself.

Where are you now in life and how has study abroad helped you?
The job that I have after graduation does involve a lot of travel, mostly domestic travel, so adapting to traveling a lot will apply directly. Less directly, some things that I love at UChicago are the discussion-based classes and the support from advisors and professors, but when I was abroad there was less of that. I was in big lecture classes and that academic support system fades a little bit – there’s only so much they can do from Chicago. Having that experience of a little less hands-on support and more independence is something I have been thinking about as I get ready for a full-time job, where inevitably that independence and the necessity of adapting are at play, so I think study abroad has prepared me well in that way.

Any final regrets?
No! During COVID it’s easy to wish that I traveled more but I’m happy with how much I traveled.

Where do you want to go next? Either with UChicago or independently?
I want to go back to Spain and see cities I didn’t see! I didn’t go to southern Spain at all, I would love to visit Malaga or Granada. There are even things in Barcelona I didn’t get to see even though I was there for four months so I would love to go back!

Brinda Rao, ’22

Major(s)/minor(s)/on-campus commitments
No minors, double majoring in English and Classics, maybe Economics

Wrote for The Maroon while abroad, served on the Editorial Board and as Sports Editor, served on the Provost’s Committee Against Sexual Misconduct, Study Abroad Student Advisory Committee, used to tutor on Google Meets while on London, Study abroad prepared me for our pandemic environment

Program(s) and their places
Paris Civ (Summer 2019), London Brit Lit (Autumn 2019)

How did you choose the programs that you applied to and went on?
I did Civ in Paris the summer after my first year because the summer before I came to UChicago I was speaking to a friend about how that was my dream academic experience! It sounded absolutely fantastic and I had my mind set on it for a very long time. For the British Literature and Culture program I actually went to a Study Abroad Fair and I spoke to students who did it. I felt that this was a program really fitted to me because I didn’t know what I wanted to major in but I knew that I really liked English Literature a lot. I really liked it because it showed me that I wanted to major in English.

What was the best thing you did in class?
When I went to Euro Civ in Paris, on our second day of class I got to lead a presentation on Machiavelli’s The Prince. I was the first person in our group to give an independent presentation and I was supposed to give it with a partner but she was jetlagged and missed it! I had to do it all on my own – it was really intimidating and scary but I think at the end of the day that I set a really good stone going forward. First I didn’t hold it against her at all, I wanted to have a positive attitude going into the program. Second, I really tried to make it known to our program and our cohort that stuff like that happens and it’s ok. When you’re abroad lots of accidents and mishaps will happen and you have to roll with it.

What was the best thing you did in your free time or on the weekends?
During my free time in both programs I used to go running every day in the evenings. When I was in France I ran in a park next to Cité and met people there who were from Germany and Italy who were also into running. It was a great way to meet other people. When I was in London I did a lot of solo running and I ran a half marathon there at one point too. I also used to run with people from University College London. I absolutely loved it, it was a great way to explore the built environments of the cities and get to know people. Both cities are really intense running cities, in London there were all these people who would run with weighted backpacks and I spoke to an old woman who was doing it – she totally convinced me as to how it’s a great thing to do and gets you in shape! I won’t do it, but I’m convinced.

Did you pick up any souvenirs?
When I went to Belgium I bought 20 bars of Belgian chocolate and had a friend who was going home bring the bars home with him so that they were waiting for me when I got back home. My family got to enjoy some, it was very exciting, though he did have to declare them at the airport, haha! When I went to Paris I bought a lot of gifts for people: a bouquet of preserved lavenders from Provence for my mom. She loves lavender and missed the Provence bloom by a week when she visited France. When I went to Amsterdam I also got my mom tulip bulbs that I could legally bring into the US and she absolutely loved it.

What challenges that you faced have stuck with you?
Learning to be really adaptable to situations and learning that not everything is about you. When I was in studying in France and on a weekend trip to Portugal, there was an incident with a control tower and it shut down maybe 400-500 flights in Europe for an entire 12 hours, including my flight from Portugal to Paris. The next flight I could get was booked for 2 days later and I was in the airport about to break down crying until I looked around and saw that this was not my problem, it was happening to everyone around me. There was actually a family near me that was trying to get to a funeral. I was upset because I didn’t want to miss class, just because each class means a lot to the curriculum but I realized in that moment that in the grand scheme of things, UChicago professors are very accommodating and that my problem doesn’t really compare to the other ones happening around me. In general, just learning to be aware of that whenever you have a situation or trouble, other people do as well.

Are there any low moments that you really learned something from or look back on now as funny?
I think when we first got to France everyone had a hard time adjusting to the heat wave (while jetlagged) because the French don’t really have air conditioners. My lowest moment was getting into an argument with a friend who was also on the program. She was extremely jetlagged and ended up jetlagged for two weeks. We were all especially irritable because of the heat and in that argument she didn’t need someone to lecture her over how she should manage her jetlag but rather someone to help her and encourage her not to spend all day sleeping.

What surprised you the most?
When I was in London I lived in a triple and I thought I would absolutely hate it. Historically I have never gotten along with roommates but I loved it so much and ended up having a fantastic time with my two roommates! They taught me a lot about what it’s like to live with other people in a way that’s really communicative.

How have you changed as a result of studying abroad? Did your friends notice anything new?
I think that had the pandemic not happened, there would have been a bigger difference. I was so much more open to being friendly and communicating with people with whom I hadn’t done so in the past after studying abroad. I came back to campus and really wanted to speak to everyone who I knew and hadn’t seen in the past 6-7 months but ever since the pandemic happened that’s not really reasonable to do anymore (besides waving hi on the quad and stuff). I’m really grateful changing my approach to life, becoming more friendly.

Where are you now in life and how has study abroad helped you?
I think that study abroad first, really helped me choose my majors and second, made me realize that having global citizenship and perspective on every aspect on my life is very important. That encouraged me to go through consulting recruitment and I will be interning in consulting this summer, hopefully working in it after college. More broadly, studying abroad changed the way that I approach literature, media, life, the way I communicate with other people, and the fact that I want to hear their stories.

Any final regrets?
That I didn’t encourage more people to do it with me first year! I think it’s a really fun experience to do when you’re younger. I know it’s traditionally a third and fourth year experience but I did it my second year and the summer after my first year and loved it.

Where do you want to go next? Either with UChicago or independently?
Probably Greece! As a Classics major, Greece or Italy – I’ve never been to Florence.

Janko Stojadinovic, ’21

Major(s)/minor(s)/on-campus commitments
Economics with Specialization in Business Econ and Spanish

Currently I’m on the board for EDGE entrepreneurship, we focus on teaching students more than the theoretical stuff we learn going to UChicago and we pair them with startups on campus, always cool to work with new companies. I’m also on the Study Abroad Student Advisory Committee.

Program(s) and their places
Paris Civ – fall 2nd year (Autumn 2018)

How did you choose the programs that you applied to and went on?
I knew I was doing Civ because I wanted to get my Core Requirements out of the way. I didn’t know my major and as I thought about European Civ and what we’d be learning, I wanted to be in a city where I could see that city as were learning about it. Paris, of course being the metropolis that it is, was full of that history and that culture. In the Paris civ program we go all the way from the Renaissance up to modernity, into World War II. So you’re learning about World War II and then you go to a museum and walk through the trenches and that’s something that I really wanted to experience, outside of the classroom. Paris hosts Euro Civ and African Civ but I decided Euro over African actually because I didn’t know about the African Civ program at the time I was applying – in hindsight, it sounds super interesting and maybe I would have gone for that!

What was the best thing you did in class?
We were learning about World War I and we took an excursion up north, about an hour and a half to a museum where there were actual battles fought. We saw the museum but afterwards we went out of the museum and they take you on another 25 minute ride and suddenly you’re on a battlefield where there are actual trenches. There was a site where a mortar had fallen and the crater was half a football field. It was so massive, it was surreal to me. That was the moment where I stopped and I thought about all the events that had gone on here and I’m just walking around as a student. One of the craziest things they said when we were walking – this is going to sound dark – there are thousands of bodies underneath us, of warriors that never made it home. I stepped back and that was a moment that I really appreciated. You absolutely don’t get that in the classroom in Chicago – when you read, you sort of get an image of war and how horrible it is. When you’re there, you really think this is where it happened, so many people were here, young people like ourselves.

What was the best thing you did in your free time or on the weekends?
I did a lot of travel outside of Paris – I went to Brussels, I went to Stuttgart, took the Chunnel train to London, looking back I wish I had planned it a little bit better. Study Abroad is super good about giving us our schedules, which is nice, and they even told us that if you’re going to plan something, plan it out, here is your schedule and I didn’t do that unfortunately but it is really easy to travel to and from Paris because it is a hub city. After the program, I visited my family in Serbia.

Did you pick up any souvenirs?
Oh yeah, so many souvenirs! I collect a flag from everywhere I’ve gone – France, Greece, Canada, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the UK. Also I have dedicated an entire shelf in my room to things that are iconic of the places I went. From London I got a little phone booth, from Paris of course the Eiffel tower, and from other places I’ve traveled to like New York I have a little Statue of Liberty. I have an entire box somewhere dedicated to little paper things like pamphlets, but no clothes from anywhere. And I take so many photos! I have a buddy who collects postcards and I buy postcards for him but it’s too late for me to start a postcard collection.

What challenges that you faced have stuck with you?
Other than my immediate family, all of my family is in Serbia so I did a lot of travel as a kid, going to Serbia 13 or 14 times in my 22 years of life. Being away from home was never a big deal for me. I remember I even went to Serbia by myself for the first time when I was 14 so I never experienced that sort of homesickness. Maybe a challenge for me now is having closer friends and not being able to be with them while I was abroad. It was sort of difficult missing out on the on-campus experience. News is also delayed, people hear something and it gets to you two days later but maybe I’m an outlier because I didn’t have any huge difficulties.

Are there any low moments that you really learned something from or look back on now as funny?
I am a Spanish major as well, and Romance languages are all very similar, so French wasn’t very difficult for me language-wise – I was in the beginner French class but my best friend was abroad with me and he is fluent so I could rely on him.

What surprised you the most?
I went abroad when I was in high school to Madrid, Spain. Going into this program I thought it would be tough for me to make friends, there might be one person there out of 25 who can relate to me and I might just talk to one person. But you literally get close with everyone on the program at least in one way or another! You talk to everyone because they’re in your class and you see them around all the time. What surprised me was how close everyone got and how everyone gelled. I had a great group, it was 25 people and everyone knew everyone’s names and everyone talked.

How have you changed as a result of studying abroad? Did your friends notice anything new?
You know the stereotype – “study abroad changed my life.” That didn’t really happen to me. One thing I can say is that my eating habits changed and I became more open to trying things when I came back to the US because I tried so many things while I was abroad. You get this sense of, “Ok I’m in Paris now, who knows when I’ll be here again? I might as well try it,” so I came back and I’m like, “Oh if I’ve eaten snails before I might as well try this now.” The bakeries in Paris were absolutely amazing and there was one right next to the Center in Paris, so every morning you’d walk by – we had class at 9 so you’d get to the bakery at 8:30 and it was fresh and just awesome.

Where are you now in life and how has study abroad helped you?
I am applying to jobs and grad schools at the moment and I feel that grad schools like to see that you’ve experienced other cultures, that you speak other languages, that you know how the world outside the US works. You never know, maybe I’ll work abroad one day and it’ll be a much easier transition than it would be otherwise.

Any final regrets?
A small one, I wish I had planned out my other travels a little bit better because I was abroad and looking at airfare and I remember seeing an 11euro ticket to Milan from Paris. I thought if I had planned better I could’ve gone to Italy for 10 dollars! Not a serious regret but something I would have changed.

Where do you want to go next? Either with UChicago or independently?
Asia! I have never been to Asia so probably Tokyo or some place in China, Beijing or Chengdu. All the places I’ve been so far have been in Europe, so Asia or South America next!


Related: Read more advice from past Study Abroad Student Ambassadors in The Core: College Magazine of the University of Chicago (Summer/19).