Vegan, Zero Waste, and Teaching Abroad: Thoughts on Global Citizenship from Kathleen Blehl

ies abroad logo
IES Abroad
Kathleen Blehl smiling

When Kathleen Blehl (IES Abroad Milan, Academic Year 2016-17 | Villanova University) first arrived in Milan she didn't know how much her life would change.

By October, she decided one semester wasn't long enough, so she stayed for another semester. By January, she decided she could make an impact on the world through small changes in her lifestyle towards veganism, zero waste, and sustainable fashion. Now, two years later, Kathleen continues to encourages others to learn about sustainable living on her blog A Newer Kat in Town and pushes herself out of her comfort zone on the regular. 

We caught up with Kathleen, a 2017 Global Citizen of the Year Finalist, to hear how her study abroad experience still impacts her life today as an English teacher in Ukraine.

IES Abroad: The theme of the 2019 Global Citizen of the Year application is all about finding your place in the world. How did studying abroad help you find yours?

Kathleen Blehl (KB): Studying abroad allows you to come into yourself because you're exposed every single day to something new. I often talk about how my time abroad was so amazing and so fulfilling because I learned something new every day. You're surrounded by everything that's new: the city, the language, the people. So, if you have the right mindset, you can take advantage of all these opportunities and challenge yourself to learn the language and to meet locals, to try new things that you might not have at home.

IES Abroad: It was during your nine months studying abroad in Milan that you transitioned your lifestyle to becoming a vegan, boycotting fast fashion, and more. Was this something you set out to do during your time abroad, or did it unfold while you were there?

KB: I had no intentions of changing anything. So, prior to studying abroad in Milan, I was eating a carnivorous diet. I was eating whatever I wanted. And, the first semester, I still ate this way. I shopped at fast fashion stores, especially in Milan. It's the fashion capital of the world. There's H&M, Zara, and big brands well-known everywhere. But I saw these other beautiful places during my first semester, and I decided that I wanted to start protecting these places so that future generations could experience what I had experienced for a semester.

This led me to watching documentaries and reading statistics online. And within two weeks of my arrival in January for the second semester, I started transitioning to veganism, which was really interesting to do while I was abroad because it's already a challenge to read the menus and to see new foods at the grocery store. This made me even more excited to learn the language because now I had a reason to read the ingredients, to see the skim milk or animal products in it.

Then, when I was reading about the environment, the idea of textile wastes came up in a lot of articles. As a fashion blogger who promoted fast fashion, I realized that I had a platform and an opportunity to share this knowledge with other people who may not know about the environmental aspects of fast fashion. So I already had this platform, and I was living in the fashion capital of the world, and I thought, "What better way to learn about this and share with others."

At the same time, coincidentally, my internship was at a company that is similar to Rent the Runway, where they have a set amount of dresses, and then you just rent the dress that you need for that event. So it's sustainable and eco-friendly in that way. That also helped my transition, and I continued to travel and all these beliefs became stronger and stronger as I began to see more and more beautiful places.

IES Abroad: Why did you decide to do a second semester? It sounds like you weren't planning on it originally.

KB: So, I have a unique background. I studied abroad after my freshman year during 2015 in Prague for the summer. Then in 2016 I studied abroad in China for the summer, and that fall I was set to go to Milan with IES Abroad. Throughout the summer programs, I always felt like as soon as I started getting used to the city and started learning and just getting my feet wet, I had to leave because the program was over. So I thought, "Okay, if I go for a semester, this time it'll be different. And I'll feel like I have enough time to get to know the city and the people." 

I think it was October and I thought, "Uh-oh. I'm starting to get the same feeling of not having enough time." I still had so much I wanted to do. So I said, "What if I stay for another semester?" I had never thought about it because I wasn't sure if the credits would work.

When you're in college, it's hard to plan everything, but I sat down one night and I stared at my whole schedule and figured it all out. And that night I said, "Okay. I'm going to stay for the next semester." I knew it was crazy, but I loved this idea of learning. I felt like I didn't finish what I started.

I'm very grateful that I stayed because most of what I learned about Italy and about Milan happened in the second semester. It took that much more time for me to really delve into the language and to have the courage to take classes at the local university, which was something I didn't do first semester because I was nervous... Staying second semester allowed me to step even more outside my comfort zone, try new things, and dive deeper into what I was maybe too nervous or too scared to do in the beginning.

I was able to do that and travel to more unique places. Not just in Italy, but also around Europe, Morocco, Romania, Bulgaria. I finally had the confidence to do these things now that I had more time and more resources.

“Staying second semester allowed me to step even more outside my comfort zone, try new things, and dive deeper into what I was maybe too nervous or too scared to do in the beginning.”

IES Abroad: One of the reasons you were named a Global Citizen of the Year finalist was because you not only made a difference to your own lifestyle but you encouraged and supported others to make changes too. Tell us more about what you've been doing with your blogging platform in the past year.

KB: I redesigned my blog last year to make it more user-friendly and so that people could have easy access to the topics that I talk about. I want someone to go to my blog and be able to say, "Okay, I want to learn about veganism. How do I start? What is it like? What are the biggest challenges?" So I have a tab for that. Zero waste, okay, what are some zero waste changes that I can make in my life that I can start doing now?

And then my favorite tab is the travel tab. How to implement zero waste and veganism while traveling is really cool because a lot of people think that you can't live this lifestyle and that it's not very accessible while you're traveling. But it's my favorite thing to be able to share these tips on my platform for other travelers. 

So, yes, it's still the same blog, but I guess I'm more confident in sharing my tips with others because I've gained so much experience while I was in Milan and learned after continuing to watch documentaries. It's just a place for me to share with others and lead by example.

I think communities are key to spreading any message that you want to spread, whether it's about sustainability, global citizenship, or whatever it may be. If you don't have people around you who are willing to listen and to cooperate with you and share ideas, then no idea you have is going to come to fruition.

Especially while teaching English, community plays such a big role in students' learning and showing students that we're all human. Even though we come from different countries and different backgrounds, we have that community, that place that's safe where they can trust one another and that's open to learning. I think if you want to build a global community in that way, it has to start with trust and being open to one another and hearing one another's ideas.

IES Abroad: Eating vegan and living zero waste can seem like a huge lifestyle change for many. How would you advise people who want to live more sustainably but may not know where to start?

KB: I definitely agree with your statement. A lot of people think, "Oh, I could never do that." That's the first response. Every time I say I'm vegan and live zero waste myself, that's what I hear, but what I usually respond with is that we don't need a million people doing zero waste and being vegan perfectly. We need a million people doing it imperfectly, making small changes every single day.

You don't have to go no waste in one week or one month, you don't have to eat vegan for every single meal. Maybe you're having meatless Mondays, or maybe you shop from the bulk section at the grocery store once a week. I believe these changes, when added up, make a far greater impact than having a small community of people who are doing it perfectly.

So that's what I would say, and I would recommend anyone who's in this lifestyle or who lives this lifestyle to continue to lead by example. People don't want to have ideas thrown at them and say, "You have to live this way, there's no other way to live, as this is the right way." No. People, in my experience, they see that you're happy, they see that you care about the environment, you care about the world around you, and they want to know what's the key, what drives you to do that.

IES Abroad: A year after being named the Global Citizen of the Year finalist and graduating college, what do you reflect on retrospectively? What are you able to learn or process differently now that some time has passed, and is there anything you would do differently in your study abroad experience if you could?

KB: I think when you're studying abroad you're so caught up in everything. You want to make friends with people in your program, you want to make friends with locals, you want to try new food. It's overwhelming. It's amazing, but it's overwhelming. I think the most important thing when you study abroad is to make time for reflection, both during the program and after. Because you're experiencing so much at one time, it's really important to take that time to reflect and say, "What have I learned and how can that help me grow into the person that I want to be?"

Reflecting, I think, is very valuable because when you travel the next time or when you do another program, you're able to look at it differently. So for me, I mentioned the difference between my first semester and second semester, and how I was able to make lifestyle changes and do things a little differently. That transcended to all my other travels, especially now that I'm in Ukraine. I see a greater importance than I did before in learning the language and meeting locals. These are two things that took me a lot of time to start doing while I was in Milan.

Now that I'm looking back, my favorite memories and the most valuable lessons that I learned were during these times where I needed to speak the language to learn and meet local people. I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't do that. So looking back, I would tell myself that it's okay. The first few weeks, you're getting adjusted, but it's so important to put an effort into your language classes, and to not only learn in class but to use that knowledge. Even if the waiters or the clerk at the grocery store respond in English, keep pushing and keep practicing in whatever language it is because that's the only way you'll keep learning—if you practice.

The second thing I would change or do sooner would be to travel to unique places. Of course, these popular cities are beautiful, but they're also very crowded, and it's easy to get sucked into the tourist traps. My favorite memories are when I booked cheap flights to Bulgaria and Romania. I would have never picked those out. I would have never gone there if I hadn't stayed for the second semester. I would do these unique experiences sooner, and just staying at an AirBnb instead of maybe a hotel, where you get to have the possibility of seeing how a local lives and meet people from around the world.

“Communities are key to spreading any message that you want to spread, whether it's about sustainability, global citizenship, or whatever it may be.”

IES Abroad: You mentioned you're currently in Ukraine and will be working as a Fulbright teaching assistant. What influenced your desire to teach abroad?

KB: While I was in Milan, I had the opportunity to tutor two children who lived in the city, and I had always had this idea that I wanted to teach internationally, so it was a great opportunity for me to test out the waters and see if I would be a good fit for this role... It was just simple tutoring and reading children's books, just playing with them, and during that time, I had a few friends who were applying for a Fulbright, which I had only just heard of. I didn't know exactly what it was, but it pinged in the back of my head.

I didn't apply right away, but I applied to teach English in Ukraine for the summer after graduation in 2018. It was a four-week volunteer program, and it was a step further towards making sure this was something I really wanted to do. I had such a great experience, I really enjoyed my classes and teaching in an international environment because it's one thing to teach in the United States—it's more comfortable because it's your home, but to teach internationally, you add this element of excitement, and then those feelings that you have when you study abroad, it's the same in the classroom when you're teaching internationally.

After teaching in Ukraine last summer, I decided to push through the Fulbright and apply to Ukraine. I found out in April that I was selected as a finalist, and then just found out my placement, so I'm really excited, and I'm currently teaching at the same summer camp as I taught at last summer. After this I will return to the States for one month and then start my Fulbright. I'm excited because it's really amazing to me, to go back to a place where I now have this community from last summer and from this summer and be able to continue what I started here. I guess you could say I have the same feeling that I had first semester in Milan, right? I didn't have enough time to finish what I started. Now, getting to complete the Fulbright, I've got that extra time for me to continue to learn, to have an impact on students.

IES Abroad: What drew you to Ukraine after graduation?

KB: While I was studying abroad that second semester, I got to travel to unique places that a lot of people wouldn't. When you tell them you traveled there they go, "Why'd you pick there?" "Of all places, why'd you go there?" And I love that excitement and that challenge of going to a place that maybe you're not as comfortable. 

I decided last year that I wanted to push myself outside my comfort zone even further. Spending a year in Milan at that time did that for me, so this was a step further, to go some place where I wouldn't know the language and knew the language would be very difficult, especially because it's a different alphabet. It's a totally different culture than what I had experienced in Milan. Totally different history. I mean, these people went through so much and are still going through so much, and that is really inspiring to me.

I was attracted to the idea of having conversations with these students because their history is so rich. Just learning how they live here, it's so different than what I'm used to at home and even in Milan, so that's what attracted me to it. I wanted a challenge, and I know the Fulbright will most definitely be one because I'll be on my own.

IES Abroad: In your own words, why should future study abroad students care about the world?

KB: That's a hard question. Why should they care about the world? I think they should care about the world because there is so much to learn in every place, no matter where you study abroad. You should care about the world because in every conversation, in every city you visit, every school you try, there's something to learn. And I think, if we want to become the best versions of ourselves, we need to be constantly learning.

IES Abroad: What advice would you share with others looking to make a difference in the world?

KB: I would say to start small. I didn't start my blog with 50,000 followers, right? I started with just one post and my family and friends reading it.

I didn't start my study abroad journey and go on to a Fullbright just like that. I started with one small program and visiting one country, living in one country.

And same with zero waste and vegan changes. I start small. I just change my diet once a week, and then three times a week. And then a week at a time, I would make these changes. So with any change that you're starting, I think it's important to just start small and trust that even when things don't seem to be going well, as long as you keep pushing forward and asking questions and learning, it'll work out.

IES Abroad: Beyond your upcoming Fulbright in Ukraine, what do you feel like is next for you?

KB: What excites me about the Fulbright is that a lot of it's unknown. I plan on using whatever I learn during these years to help guide me to the next step. So, some ideas that I have now would be pursuing a master's degree in education and then continuing to teach at home or internationally. I've always wanted to go back to Asia, and I think it would be incredible to experience a new part of the world.

Throughout the time on the Fulbright, I plan on continuing my blog, writing, and taking pictures.

And then, more long term, I would love to be involved in some study abroad programs, whether as a study abroad advisor at a university, or on the other side, the program side through IES Abroad. That's exciting to me, the idea of helping students find a program that fits them and being with them as they are going through it and afterwards, too, because a lot of it is readjusting and figuring out what to do with the skills you learn while abroad to help you get the job you want or to move forward in your program.

In summary, in the short term, I'd like to continue teaching English whether domestically or internationally while continuing to write for my blog. And in the long term, help other students see the value in studying abroad and taking that leap.

IES Abroad News

Read More

IES Abroad regularly publishes news stories, articles, student stories, and other helpful study abroad content. Stay up to date on the latest from IES Abroad by reading our recent posts.

View All IES Abroad News