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Students step out of comfort zone through study abroad experiences

Coming from a small town, Tanner Hecht didn't have an interest in study abroad when he was in high school. Now, as a senior at Central Michigan University, he has studied abroad twice — once in Denmark and once in Thailand.   

“If you would’ve told me as a senior in high school that I would study abroad once yet alone twice, I would’ve laughed at you,” he said.   

Though study abroad participants increased by 5 percent from 2015-16 to 2016-17, some students are still hesitant about or uninterested in studying abroad, whether it's because of concerns about graduating on time, cost, safety or something else.   

The Office of Study Abroad is always searching for new programs, especially low-cost options, said Study Abroad Adviser Marko Schubert. Health and safety of students is the first factor considered when adding new programs, said Study Abroad Director Dianne De Salvo.   

Hecht was one of those students who was uninterested in study abroad. He came from a small town — Reese, near Saginaw — and coming to a larger university like CMU was already a big step for him. As he got more involved and talked to other students about their experiences abroad, he decided to make studying abroad a priority.   

“I realized life is short and realized how small my comfort zone was,” he said.    

Hecht chose Denmark because of a specific science course he wanted to take, where he had the opportunity to do hands-on work related to his career goals. He loved the course but because he spent much of his time studying, he didn’t have time to travel. He decided to study abroad again — in Thailand — to get more of a cultural experience.   

He believes personal growth comes from leaving your comfort zone. He also thinks going to Denmark first made going to Thailand less of an adjustment for him.    

“I felt a lot more prepared (than some of the other students) because I had already been abroad,” he said. “Even though Denmark is more culturally comfortable it was still a huge step and a great stepping stone to the more culturally different Thailand.”    

Gladwin senior Ashley Blackburn, who stayed in the Netherlands for six months, said she’s a planner. For her, a lot of worry came from not knowing what to expect from her study abroad experience.    

“For me, it was just an experience I needed to open myself up to,” Blackburn said. “I know for other people like me, it’s very daunting, but it will work out.”    

Blackburn studied at Groningen University and also completed an internship at the university’s museum. She didn’t travel a lot in the Netherlands because living locally was how she believed she could best utilize her time abroad.    

She wanted to feel at home, so she spent her free time wandering around the area she lived in and going on bike rides.    

“I’m not the most adventurous spirit so just the fact that I was able to work up the guts to do study abroad at all, especially in a country I didn’t know much about, even if it is a European country (was a big deal),” she said. “I was so far out of my comfort zone most of my time.”    

Blackburn, who wants to be an archivist, used her time abroad to gain experience working in European museums in addition to the experience she had with museums in the United States. She believes the internship will help her in her future career, and she calmed down a bit as the result of studying abroad, she said.    

“Looking back now, I can’t believe I did that and it worked out and I was happy and successful,” she said. “I guess I’m not very adventurous so I’m still in the aftershocks of the fact that I actually did something like this.”    

Sterling Heights junior Leah Mannino likes to schedule her life and was nervous about the unpredictability of spending two months in Costa Rica living with a host family.    

Nervous about the flight, language barrier and not knowing what would happen, going to Costa Rica was out of her comfort zone. Though she had traveled to Europe before, it was with her family because she has family in Italy.    

Despite the concerns she had, she loved her study abroad experience.    

“I learned how to be less shy and be open to new adventures,” Mannino said. “I could never predict what the day was going to bring me so I learned to just be more open to meeting new people, trying new foods and traveling.”    

Hecht suggests talking to a study abroad adviser and other students who have studied abroad.   

“If you have any inkling at all, I say dive in and just go for it,” he said.