Q&A: CMU students reflect on being first to study abroad since pandemic’s start

Like all of the world, Central Michigan University’s study abroad program was forced into hiatus for several semesters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past spring and summer semesters were the first, since 2020, in which CMU students embarked on educational journeys around the world.

“You could tell the excitement was back,” said Marko Schubert, assistant director of study abroad. “It was heartbreaking to see for the last two years that every semester we had to tell them, ‘Sorry it’s not going to work’.”

About a dozen students spent their spring semester in six countries and almost 200 students spent their summer in nearly 20 countries.

Central Michigan Life sat down with five of these students to ask about their experience being some of the first CMU students to study abroad since the pandemic started.

CM Life: Did you plan to study abroad when you began at CMU and how did COVID-19 change those plans?

DeWitt junior Kaleb Wever studied abroad in France last spring.

Kaleb: I’m in the Honors Program so one of the big reasons I came (to CMU) was the study abroad scholarship. I tried to build my whole college career around my study abroad. I actually went when I was originally planning to, but I really didn’t know if I was officially going until two weeks before I actually left. They weren’t letting people go to any country that was a level four or above on the state departments ranking or whatever. France was at a level three when I signed up, but then a couple weeks before, it went up to a level four for COVID-19 so it was unsure if it was going to get canceled or not, which is kind of crazy.

How did you choose the country you studied in?

Livonia senior Brenden Seewald studied abroad in South Korea last spring.

Brenden: I always kind of had an interest to go somewhere in Asia. I used to work at a sushi place down by where I lived and the family that owned it was Korean. They would always tell me about how cool it is there because obviously, they're from there, and I just kind of had this fascination with it. And I want to teach English abroad somewhere in Asia so I was like, ‘oh, maybe I can go to South Korea, it's offered through Central. If I’m planning to do that later on in life, it’d probably be a good thing to go there beforehand to kind of scope it out, so I'm not just going in there blind.’

What were you nervous or concerned about going into it?

Walled Lake senior Paige Meyer studied abroad in Italy this past summer.

Paige: If you ask any of my friends, they would tell you that I was super nervous. I'm a very outgoing person, but I didn't know one person going into studying abroad in Rome. It was not a faculty-led program, I did it all on my own. CMU helped me pick which program, but I basically went there blind. I didn't know my roommates; I didn't know anybody that was going. So, I was kind of all alone. My biggest fear was just making friends. When I went to orientation, they said every single college that was there. Michigan State was there, and they had over 10 students and then they said CMU and I was the only one. I was the only one there that was the only one from the university. Everyone else had some students that were at least from their school; I was just all on my own. But I ended up having a great time and meeting a bunch of friends there. Every weekend, we would go somewhere. I went to Venice, Florence, Sorento, Capri, the Amalfi Coast, a lot of places.

What was your experience abroad like and how did it compare to your expectations?

Chesaning junior Haylei Drope studied abroad in Ireland and Italy, respectively, this past summer.

Haylei: I expected to like Italy more than Ireland but I ended up loving everything to do with Ireland. I love the culture. I’m more of a structured person than I realized. I like people giving me an itinerary and in Italy, you needed to build your own itinerary. In Ireland, we had Irish culture night, we had trivia night, we had all these fun things where I really felt like they immersed me into the culture without me having to do it myself.

How did your language skills improve?

Wisconsin senior Lauren Buffington studied abroad in Uruguay this past summer.

Lauren: I would say my conversational skills improved drastically. Five weeks is a short amount of time, so in that way I kind of wish I was there longer because as soon as I felt more comfortable speaking (Spanish) and trying new things, it was time for me to go. But then in the business setting, I would say I did a lot more listening and having to infer a lot of things that my boss was saying to me and then just run with it. Also, the cultural aspect is different. Her form of feedback and criticism was different than any other boss I had in America. Overall, I think my Spanish improved, especially in comparison to the other students that were there just taking classes. The internship forced me to speak a lot more Spanish than they had to speak because classes were taught in English.

How did study abroad inform your goals after college?

Haylei: I definitely want to do something where I’m able to travel and see the world. It definitely gave me that travel bug everyone talks about. I want to go to all the other places that are over there.

What advice can you give to students considering studying abroad?

Brenden: Go to the countries that not everyone goes to, don’t do what everyone else is doing. And when you go, fully immerse yourself. Here, I’m a picky eater but I was like ‘if I go there, I have to be into everything’ and that’s what I did. I tried so many different foods that I absolutely loved. Just try to fully immerse yourself as much as possible. Take everything in, experience as much as you can. I’m already trying to plan a trip to go back in a year because there’s so many things I didn’t get to do there.

Were you able to make connections in your field of interest?

Lauren: The people I worked with at the non-profit, they invited me to their house for dinner one night. I went there and got to know the informal side of them and they asked me about my life. I feel comfortable going back to them if I ever need anything, especially my advisor there. She’s super kind and we still are texting now. She’s like, “Send me pictures from your field hockey games.” Even the study abroad program advisors that I worked with there were super helpful.

What did study abroad help you learn about yourself?

Paige: I learned how to be more independent and open-minded because at first, I would get frustrated with myself like I couldn’t read any of the ingredients at the grocery store. It took some getting used to. I had never lived in another place that was so far from my family that I couldn’t rely on them to help me. Being in another place for a month was very intimidating but you get to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. I had to figure out public transit, which was absolutely crazy to think about, but towards the end of my trip, it was no big deal. I had to learn different amounts of money. That was interesting kind of figuring out how to communicate exchanges.

What was it like getting to see multiple countries in one summer?

Haylei: I did a 3-week program in Ireland, I traveled for a week-and-a-half by myself and then a 6-week program in Italy. Ireland was my absolute favorite. It was absolutely beautiful. Everyone starts drinking at 3 p.m. It was also a lot more structured. They had stuff for us planned. The week-and-a-half was insane. I went to London, Paris, Milan and Venice. I saw all these big landmarks in such a short period of time that I never thought I’d be able to see. I sat and read outside the Eiffel tower. In Italy, it was so much fun. We had a lot more free time.

What differences did you notice between America and the country you studied in?

Kaleb: Lots of the people that I was around over there seem to have a better separation of their work or school from their personal life. When they left work or left school, they were done with that and they were able to just focus on other things where I feel like here it’s much harder for us to turn that part of us off when we leave. Also, the cheese is super good. I lived with a host family so they were able to cook for me. They cooked me different French meals and I sometimes cooked with them so I got to learn how to make some of that stuff. I appreciate how much knowledge they have on all of their food.