- My STEP Signature Project involved studying abroad for 5 weeks in New Zealand. While staying in the city of Christchurch with a host family, I took a Linguistics course at the University of Canterbury.
- During this program, I gained an entirely new perspective on life in other countries. Prior to this experience, I had never traveled outside of the US before, so I had no concept of what it was like to live in another place besides Columbus, Ohio. But through living in Christchurch for 5 weeks, I learned so much about the differences in lifestyle, food, culture, and language between New Zealand and the US. This time allowed me to really get to know my host family and the people of Christchurch, as well as the city itself and surrounding natural area, and really immerse myself in New Zealand culture and fully experience and take in all these differences. But what I didn’t expect were all the similarities; even though the houses looked different, the food was unfamiliar, and the accent was troubling at times, the people were fundamentally the same. They loved spending time with family, eating good food, and wanted to make the world a better place for their children, all of which are values not unique to New Zealand. This really helped me to understand that while on the surface other cultures may seem different, underneath it all we actually have more in common than we think. Before I knew it, my host family felt like my second family, and we still keep in touch even now. Additionally, I gained an entirely new perspective on my own country and culture that I think can only be gained through travel. Seeing the way citizens of other countries reacted to the fact that I was American was really eye-opening for me. They immediately wanted to know about our politics, what state I was from, and what people back home thought about New Zealand. I was really surprised by the amount of American media in New Zealand, the amount of knowledge the people had about America in general, and the overall positive reactions I received. This experience really made me think critically about the role America plays on the world stage, the pervasive influence of our culture, and my identity as an American and as an Ohioan (and how I feel about those identities). I don’t think this kind of reflection could have been fully realized unless I travelled like I did, and for that I am very grateful.
- My transformation as a result of this program didn’t happen all at once, but rather took place gradually with each conversation, interaction, and new experience in New Zealand. One of the most challenging experiences was being forced to navigate an entirely new country on my own every day. From navigating through 4 different airports to 4 connecting flights over 25 hours just to make it to New Zealand, to trying to use the city bus system, to ordering food in restaurants, and going on solo hikes in the New Zealand wilderness, I proved to myself that I am more capable, more independent, and more self-sufficient than I ever thought possible. Now I have the confidence and the desire to do more solo travel in the future. Another thing that contributed to my transformation was my experience with my homestay family. Each night, my host dad Chris would cook us a traditional New Zealand dinner (like roast lamb, quiche, or sushi) and we would sit down and just talk. Chris, my host mom Heidi, and host sister Coco all loved talking about the differences and similarities between Americana and Kiwiana. We would watch the news together every night, which not only informed me about New Zealand politics and current events, it also kept me up to date on all American news, but from a Kiwi perspective. On weekends, they took me out to do classic Kiwi things; going to fish and chips shops, getting gas station sushi, going on train rides and hikes, and walking on the beach. They showed me what it meant to be a New Zealander, and allowed me to feel like part of their family for a time. Another transformative, yet jarring, thing I experienced was the feeling of being in a place that wasn’t my home. The first time this really hit me was on my plane ride from Auckland to Christchurch when I first arrived in the country. Everyone around me on the plane had a New Zealand accent; yet to them, I was the one with the accent. I was the one who sounded different, who was clearly from a different place. I was having trouble understanding the flight attendants at first, and I felt wildly out of place. I knew that as soon as people heard my American accent, there would be some association or judgment they would have about me, be it positive or negative. This made me very uncomfortable at first, and it discouraged me from speaking. But throughout my time in New Zealand, this feeling gradually went away as I grew more comfortable and confident in myself as a traveller. However, this taught me an incredibly valuable lesson about what it is like to be a nonnative in a different country. Now, I have much more empathy for and understanding of those who come to the US speaking a different language. I understand now, to a small degree, how it feels to have an accent, to misunderstand someone, to not know what the slang means, or to be judged for the way you speak. The last key transformational experience during my study abroad program, was of course, the studying part. Taking this Linguistics class at UC was incredibly enriching and was relevant in my every day life. Being a Linguistics major, I was of course interested in and excited about every lecture. I learned about New Zealand history and culture, the evolution of the linguistic landscape of New Zealand, the linguistics features of New Zealand English as a dialect, the Maori language and culture, and sociolinguistic stereotypes present in New Zealand and around the world. This allowed my experience in New Zealand to be set in context, because, as I know well, language and culture go hand in hand. So not only did I add to my academic knowledge in my field of interest, I learned a wealth of information about the incredible place I was in.
- These transformations and changes are incredibly significant in my life, for many reasons. Personally, travelling abroad has always been one of my top goals in life. I have always strived to be an informed, compassionate, and self-reliant citizen of the world, who thinks beyond my own country and culture. In an increasingly globalized society, I believe understanding other cultures, people, and ways of thinking is something that is necessary to be a functioning member of society, and travelling is one way to achieve this. This trip to New Zealand was, hopefully, the first of many international trips in my future to educate myself about the world I live in. And as I mentioned, this program has enriched my academic life in a way that not many students will experience. I had the opportunity to learn about my passion, linguistics, in a country that is known for its unique and exciting linguistic history. And every day, I got to experience first-hand the language concepts I was learning about in class. Not to mention, I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from fantastic lecturers and professors at the University of Canterbury in my field of interest. I even observed at the Speech & Hearing clinic at UC. As a future speech-language pathologist, these professional connections and experiences are very unique and valuable as I look forward to graduate school and my career. So in conclusion, the person I am today is not the same person I was before I got on a plane and flew across 12 time zones to the tiny island of New Zealand. Because of this program, I got to experience things that most people will never have the opportunity to see; extinct volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, natural hot springs, a traditional Maori haka, the darkest skies in the southern hemisphere, and even the world’s smallest penguin in the wild. But I also got to experience things that most people do everyday, like taking a bus, going to class, and eating dinner with the family; but because I experienced these ordinary things in extraordinary New Zealand, even the most mundane actions and the most typical days were eye-opening and new, and taught me more about the world and myself than anything else so far in my life. I will never forget this experience and how it has allowed me to become a better person, and I will be eternally grateful to STEP for making it possible.