In this article, Natalie Rhodes, an AFS-USA Alumna who went to Chile for one semester during her junior year of high school, responds to a series of questions about her experience and the impact studying abroad has had on her life.
What inspired you to study abroad?
I traveled for a month to Costa Rica the year prior with a school trip, and I instantly fell in love with the Latin American culture. I knew I wanted to travel more, and I had a friend a year older than me travel to Argentina through AFS. She was a family friend, so it helped convince my mom to let me go knowing someone who had completed a study abroad program. My dad had passed away, and I felt a little lost. I felt that traveling abroad may help me heal, as he had been so encouraging of my traveling to Costa Rica. My mom was so worried about me, but I ensured her I could grieve wherever I was in the world. Losing someone makes you truly cherish every moment, and when the opportunity presented itself (or I created it for myself, I guess), I knew I couldn’t let anything stop me.
Were you surprised by your experience in any way?
There were so many things that were different than my initial expectations. I don’t know that I truly grasped how difficult the language barrier would be for me. I had a decent Spanish knowledge, but I remember the first several weeks I had a headache almost every day just trying to process the language. There were so many phrases that were specific to the country and even the area where I lived. And even several months in, I still struggled with the language. But pushing through created a knowledge that allowed me to continue speaking Spanish fluently into adulthood. I now use it every day at my job!
How did your host family and volunteers support you during your exchange?
My host family was amazing. I had a host sister who was on her year-long exchange in New York when I got there, so she came back about 3/4 of the way through my semester. It was so nice having a host family that truly knew what it meant to have a child study abroad. It helped my mom feel more comfortable as well. Luckily, I didn’t need a ton of additional support from the volunteers while I was there, but they were always very easily accessible.
What did you learn through your study abroad experience?
Traveling abroad gave me confidence that I have carried with me into adulthood. I have since traveled to many other places and did another semester exchange program in college. The support I received from AFS to experience another culture was so impactful and ended up guiding my path to my current career.
How did the experience influence your future study/career choices and opportunities?
I fell in love with the Spanish language and culture after traveling abroad, so much so that I ended up having Spanish as my major in college. I was pre-med but decided to go into nursing my senior year. I ended up becoming an RN and am now a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who works with a large Spanish population. While in nursing school for my BSN, I worked as a Spanish medical interpreter. My Spanish background has positively influenced every single job I have had since graduating my undergrad with a Spanish BA degree. It truly has allowed me to reach every career goal I have set for myself. My mom thought I was a little crazy in choosing Spanish as my major in college, but it is safe to say it was the absolute best decision. Without AFS and the opportunities it gave me, my career path would have been entirely different.
Any great memories you’d like to share?
I turned 18 while I was abroad, which was really fun. Honestly, traveling truly did help me heal (or start to heal) from my father’s death. That is something so meaningful to me.
What lasting relationships did you make?
I wish I could say that I have kept in touch with my host family, but I haven’t. That is one thing I wish I would have done differently. I heard so many stories of students who ended up going back to visit their host families or having them come to the US, and that just wasn’t the case for me.
Would you recommend an AFS study abroad experience to others?
100% yes. The experience was definitely worth it. The adjustment is very hard and I missed home so much at times, but it broadened my horizons in so many ways.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I would just encourage any parents who are hesitant to send their child abroad to trust the process and support that AFS provides. The world is scary, but the opportunities a young person can gain from traveling abroad are so special.
Thank you to Natalie for the content of this article! Interested in studying abroad? Start an application today!