Transforming Yourself Through Study Abroad

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Dive inside the transformative experience of studying abroad in this student-authored piece by Collin Thomas (IES Abroad Santiago, Spring 2017 | Hope College), one of our 2019 Ambassadors of the Year.

After studying abroad in Santiago with us, Collin now volunteers as an on-campus Ambassador at Hope College. Day in and day out, Collin opens doors for prospective study abroad students to picture their future lives abroad by sharing details of his internship in Santiago, advice for first-generation college students, and more.

Read more about Collin’s life-changing journey through study abroad, in his own words.


College is a beautiful time. There is space and community to explore. For most, college is four years of self-discovery and refinement. We walk out at the end with a degree, but the journey to arrive at that moment is profoundly complex. Many choose to stay on their home campus for the entire time. Those that decide to study abroad, however, come back with a fresh perspective. If you are on the fence about studying abroad, I hope that my experience will sway you.

This story is a small snapshot of my time, but it played a vital role in the identification of my future. Studying abroad breaks your world. I mean this in the best way possible. When potential students are considering studying abroad, they see the highlight reel: the trips to exotic places or the spectacular food. We all engage in impression management—presenting ourselves and our experiences in the most attractive manner. Studying abroad can change your life, and it probably will. But not in the ways that you are expecting.

My friend, Ismael Byers, who won the 2017 IES Abroad Study Abroad Film Festival, frames the study abroad experience well. His film, Solitude, explains that the lonely moments, when you are frustrated with a new language or missing your community, are when you grow. It is within the silence, when the noise of modernity finally becomes inaudible, that you can hear your heart. Once you get in sync with your heart, life becomes more authentic.

My reasoning for studying in Santiago, Chile was twofold: I wanted a Spanish program, and I sought a healthcare experience in another country. IES Abroad had such a program. I left hoping that I would be able to confirm my dream of becoming a Physician Assistant and gain an edge for my application for PA school.

As humans, we all have a habitus—an internal set of dispositions that allows us to process and understand our life experiences. My time in Chile changed and reconfigured my habitus. There are plenty of reasons for this: a new culture, a new set of friends, and a new family. The list can go on. The beauty of study abroad does not lie in the highlight reel that is posted to various forms of social media. It lies within the relationships and the time spent alone. Studying abroad puts your stocks of knowledge "on notice". The things that you have taken for granted your whole life—speaking a language, making friends—are suddenly not as natural. You go back to square one. The new experiences that you have intertwine themselves into your stocks of knowledge to create new recipes for action.

Studying abroad has the possibility to transform your world. However, it is the reconstructive arc that makes a semester or a year abroad worthwhile. The friendships foster quickly and the strangers that were just typifications become lifelong friends. Your own sense of culture and meaning meld into a kaleidoscope of new experiences which lead to fresh insights. The way in which you approach life drastically shifts. You begin to question your meaning, which leads to a healthy level of introspection.

“Studying abroad can change your life, and it probably will. But not in the ways that you are expecting.”

There certainly were moments when things began to click. On Thursdays, I spent the entire day at an internship where I worked with high risk women. We discussed the dangers of tobacco abuse and the importance of a well-rounded diet. Moments like these were the beginning of my realization that I did not want to go into medicine. I thrived on the interpersonal connections that I made. Not only were my Thursdays at EPES (Educación Popular en Salud) a time for me to speak exclusively in Spanish, it began the process of recreating my perceived vocation. There were other moments, as well. Take my Religion course, for example, ¿Quién es el Hombre? , that I took at PUC (Pontificia Universidad Católica); This course opened my imagination into existential questions—Who are we? What is purpose? Why are we motivated?

I began to realize that the assumptions that I brought to Santiago would not be static upon returning home. While pursuing medicine is a valiant and reasonable career for many, it was not for me. I had full confidence that I could do it, but it would not satisfy me. There were instances in Chile when I broke past the small talk and was able to gain insight into the habitus of others. It was the quiet times, alone on the metro or after a dinner with my host family, when I was able to introspect. I could see myself flourishing while engaging in deep conversations—these were the moments that filled me with passion.

As I reflect on my experiences studying abroad now as I wrap up my senior year of college, I wonder: would I be going to seminary if it wasn’t for my semester in Chile? In my head, I would be preparing for a PA program. Yet, in my heart, this desire to listen and care for others has always been there. The manifestation of said desire is the important part. I would not have been fully content with a life in a white coat. It was the semester spent overseas that allowed me to see myself from a new angle.

My return from Chile was difficult. I was still taking the prescribed courses for PA school. The frameshift that I had within my heart did not align with my head nor the path I was on. I began searching for what fulfilled me; I was looking for an experience like what I had on Thursdays at EPES or in my Religion course at PUC. There was a new desire within my soul. I found what I was looking for in my family friends: the Walters. They run a welcome center in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, for recently finished pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. It was a perfect fit—they needed extra help in the summer, and I needed a place to work through the feelings that my semester abroad stirred and awoke. This second experience overseas helped me confirm my path to seminary. It was the perfect combination of raw conversation and deep reflection within a spiritual framework.

I could continue reflecting on my journey and how I ended up deciding to attend Princeton Theological Seminary next year, but this story is about Santiago, Chile. As I mentioned earlier, this is but a snippet of my time in Santiago. I formed deep friendships with students from all over the world, joined a cross-fit gym to learn how those in another country approach health, and figured out that what I thought I wanted out of my life wasn’t what my heart wanted.

The end of my story is a challenge for you, the reader: Are you doing what you want with your life? If you are unsure, I encourage looking into a semester or year abroad. There is no time better than your college years to immerse yourself in a new place. Take the leap—it may profoundly change you for the better and set you upon a new course for the rest of your life!

student designing the pillow

"Working on a handmade pillow to surprise my parents.

people sitting at the table

"My Thursday internship at EPES. The final celebratory meeting when we cooked all morning together."

student sitting with the host

"In the living room of my home with my host mother, Marcela. She made the tapestry behind us."

students pointing at the flags

"Working out at the cross-fit gym, Greensheep, that I joined.

students standing with a mountain background

"Reuniting with my ‘brother’ Pablo who lived with me in the United States for six months when I w

Thank you, Collin, for sharing this honest and insightful reflection on your growth through study abroad. Learn more from students like Collin—and our other 2019 Ambassador of the Year, Samekh Harris Reed!—by contacting an Ambassador today.

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