Four Continents in Three Years: How Travel Can Shape Your Undergraduate Experience

By Allegra Mangione

It was November, 2013 and I was sitting in my Tuesday morning Connections & Decisions class. The topic: Experiential Learning. This was probably the most exciting day of Connections & Decisions because we finally got to talk about co-op, which for many of my classmates (me included), was the main reason they chose to attend Northeastern.

Our class discussion soon arrived a question that many Northeastern students grapple with: With so many students going abroad and pursuing co-ops outside of Boston, don’t we miss out on a strong sense of school spirit, close friendships and continuity in student groups and other on campus communities? Our two student leaders disagreed, and both spoke about the topic from personal experience. For one, it had led to difficulties with friends, and a desire to have a more cohesive campus feel. My TA however, said something that sticks with me today, “friendships will pick right back up where they left off, and oftentimes students come back with rich experiences that they are excited to tell about and learn from each other.”

A few weeks later, I presented my Major Exploration Plan, and told the class of my quickly shaping plan to pursue three international co-ops as a Human Services and International Affairs Major. I wanted to go into NGO work that focused on women’s issues. The following semester, when I told my academic advisor my plan, I don’t think she believed that I’d actually follow through.

But that’s what I did. I am writing from Kathmandu, Nepal, and I am on my third international co-op. Each year after my freshman year, I have spent a whirlwind fall semester packed with classes, student groups, on campus jobs and finding co-ops in Boston, and in early January departed for a new country to call home for the following 6-8 months. Sophomore year was Quito, Ecuador, where I worked for a community development non-profit doing program delivery. Middler year was Cape Town, South Africa, where I worked in fundraising and finance for an organization that supports children living with HIV/AIDS. Here in Nepal, I am exactly where I want to be, doing project monitoring and evaluation at a fund that practices community philanthropy and grantmaking for Nepali women’s organizations.

Each experience has built off the previous, while at the same time being transformative in its own right. Through my series of co-ops, supplemented with classes like Strategic Philanthropy and Non-Profit Management and my minor in Social Entrepreneurship, I have gained a good sense of the direction of my future career and post-graduate study. Academically, I could not have asked for a more enriching undergraduate experience. Eclipsing that, however, I continue to be surprised by how much I have changed in the face of seemingly endless transitions, adapting and adapting back, and the constant stream of challenges this brings.

Last fall, I sat on a panel of international co-op students, trying to describe my experiences in South Africa and Ecuador in bite sized pieces that were honest, positive and helpful to students interested in pursuing international co-op. However, I have found it is not so easy to package eight months of intensive personal growth neatly and tie it with a pretty bow, as most people seem to expect from a passing “How was South Africa?” Sometimes it is hard to have chunks of your life that your best friends on campus have no concept of. The constant transitioning can and does take a toll on emotional well-being. I think these challenges don’t get talked about enough for students who are considering spending time abroad. Oftentimes, we glorify these experiences and shroud them with excitement, not leaving room for other perspectives and emotions.

That said, I feel lucky to have found that the words of my TA have rung true. Friendships do pick up right where they left off. It is enriching to have classmates with diverse international experiences, even if you only get to see them once every three semesters.

And I would do it all over in a heartbeat. I would be a completely different person if I had not spent the past three years tumbling in and out of my comfort zone. I have discovered new passions (scuba diving and mountain climbing, to name a couple), made deep connections with people on three different continents, and gained skills that I wouldn’t have picked up any other way.

So for the undeclared students who are on the fence about leaving their comfort zones: do it, and do it in a way that works for you. Let new experiences define your undergraduate years, immerse yourself in the unfamiliar, and allow yourself to grow and change. Don’t expect everything to feel the same when you get back, but instead be ready to adapt to your old environment in a new way. Take chances and seize appealing opportunities, no matter how crazy they—or you—may seem. This is your time to explore, and these experiences can help you figure out your interests and your future.