Carnegie Mellon University

Renee Rios connected with Keval Gala in Paris

April 13, 2018

Crossing Borders

Spending time in an unfamiliar country can teach us a lot—about others and ourselves. For CEE students, the opportunities to go abroad are vast, from spring break trips to summer programs to entire semesters. “Wherever they want to go, they can find a way to make it work with their studies,” says CEE Director of Undergraduate Programs Andrea Francioni Rooney.

Exploring a Newfound Independence

“I always knew I wanted to study abroad,” says CEE senior Obianozo Chukwuma. “I thought it’d be exciting to go to a university in a new country with all new people and essentially re-dive into everything.” To realize this goal, Chukwuma worked closely with CEE to schedule her trip around her required courses and with the university’s study abroad coordinator to finalize her plans and paperwork. In January 2017, she flew to London for the spring semester. “On the flight, I started getting so nervous,” she admits. “Once you’re there though, it’s absolutely worth it.”

From navigating the nuances of cross-cultural communication with an international group of friends to taking weekend trips across Europe, the experience was everything Chukwuma expected and more. Challenges became valuable lessons. “I’ve gotten a lot better at not stressing when things go wrong,” she says. “It’s taught me to relax and figure it out.”

For example, searching for internships was a bit more complicated for Chukwuma in London than it would have been if she were back in the U.S. attending job fairs on campus. Knowing she wouldn’t meet with anyone in person, Chukwuma was diligent in finding and connecting with potential employers as well as contacting her CEE professors for references and advice. That persistence paid off, and Chukwuma landed a summer internship at WSP USA.
“It’s made me more independent in everything,” she says. “I’ve learned to just go for it, to motivate myself and get things done.”

Creating Lasting Connections

CEE senior Amanda Soyk is currently preparing to spend her fourth consecutive Spring Break in Haiti. A member of the group CMU in Haiti, Soyk has spent much of the year raising funds to benefit grassroots Haitian organizations. Once in Haiti, she and fellow students will meet with each organization to learn their current needs and what’s been accomplished since their last visit—information that influences how CMU in Haiti members allocate their funds among the organizations.

“You really get to know the people down there,” says Soyk, who was the group’s secretary in 2016 and president in 2017. “Our organization is built on these relationships.”

Among the organizations supported is the SOPUDEP school, which recently opened its second school building and provides a free education and daily meal to children who otherwise couldn’t afford schooling. Other CMU in Haiti partners include orphanages and a micro-credit organization that helps women to gain economic independence. In past years, they’ve also held mobile health clinics that deliver basic vitamins and medicines.

“You see how very little can make a big difference,” says Soyk. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me. The average salary of an adult in Haiti is one to two dollars a day. Many of us waste way more than that every day. Every dollar really does count.”

As Soyk envisions her life after graduation, returning to Haiti, she says, would be “a dream come true.” No matter what, she asserts, “I’ll definitely do something with a nonprofit.”

Discovering Different Perspectives

When CEE senior Renee Rios was in high school, she visited her older sister who was studying abroad in Europe. It was that experience that inspired her to do the same. “It was incredible to get to travel and see the world,” she says.
Coming from a Puerto Rican family, Rios grew up around Spanish speakers, so when deciding where to spend a semester abroad, she jumped at the opportunity to study in Barcelona and learn more Spanish. “The practice with the language was amazing,” says Rios.

More important than the language, for Rios, however, was learning about other cultures. “I stayed with a family who had three young girls, so I got to see how their education system differs from ours. The ideals that they teach to kids are different than what we teach here,” she reflects.

Even things like when they ate dinner or when shops closed made an impression. “While you’re there, you sometimes wonder, why don’t they do things like we do?” says Rios. “It’s interesting to adjust to these differences and then, coming back, you see some things in their society that they do a lot better than we do. You start to ask, why don’t we do things like they do?”

Rios already has her next trip planned; this Spring Break she’s returning to Barcelona and then going on to Amsterdam. She says, “Studying abroad taught me to see other people’s perspectives. Learning how to see things from more perspectives and connecting with people from different cultures, that was invaluable to me.”

Solidifying a Desire to Give Back

CEE senior Roseanne Usnay had two goals: to explore another culture and contribute to the global good. The Carnegie Mellon Global Water Brigades chapter, with its mission to increase access to clean water, offered the perfect opportunity.

Over Spring Break 2017, Usnay and other Carnegie Mellon students visited rural northern Nicaragua to help build a gravity-based water supply system. “Without that system, community members have to walk five miles to the nearest source of fresh water,” explains Usnay. “Of course, in a week, you can’t finish the entire project. Every week different chapters come and continue where the last chapter left off.”

For this project, Usnay spent most mornings digging trenches for PVC pipe. Later in the week, her group also helped to build outdoor sanitation stations and concrete flooring. The afternoons, however, were saved for community interaction and exploration.

“One day we walked to a coffee farm up in the mountains. The owner gave us a tour and talked about how he makes coffee and how much he makes. Afterwards, he played guitar while we sat in his home sipping coffee that he had given us,” recalls Usnay. “It was amazing.”

For Usnay, her experience in Nicaragua has shaped how she sees life back in the U.S. and has reinforced her desire to work on environmental projects abroad.

“Staying in this community was eye-opening,” she says. “These water projects are so important, and this experience has brought home how privileged we are and how we can do so much more to help others.”

Living in Another Language

“My goal has always been to experience as much as possible in college,” says senior Keval Gala.

It’s a goal that’s clear from his studies. He’s double majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy, with minors in Global Engineering and French and Francophone Studies. It’s also reflected in his travels over the last four years. He’s gone on Spring Break service trips to both Haiti and Honduras and spent part of one summer in Ethiopia for a program called Engineering for Developing Communities. Most recently, Gala went to Paris for a full semester in 2017.

An experienced traveler, Gala didn’t experience culture shock abroad, but he was surprised by the difficulty of switching languages. “All of a sudden, French was my living language,” he explains. Every day, he was taking classes, reading, arguing, navigating grocery stores, and even telling jokes—all in French.

Since he’s considering joining the Peace Corps or working in international engineering and development, Gala had chosen France specifically to practice his language skills. Still, as he tried to express himself or his sense of humor, he often wished for the ease of his native language. Yet, somehow, over the semester, Gala says speaking French began to feel more natural.

“When you use a language that much, it becomes a part of you. I started to even think in French,” he says. “It became personal to me in a way that it wasn’t before, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been living in France.”

Discovering New Points of View

As an underclassman, CEE junior Austin Lin wasn’t interested in studying abroad, despite his family encouraging him to give it a chance. When a close friend went abroad and also sang its praises, Lin began considering it more seriously, but he still wasn’t sure. After all, he was focused on his engineering studies and he’d miss part of his golf season and the Spring Carnival while abroad.

Lin weighed the pros and the cons, and the benefits won out. Now in Barcelona for the semester, he’s surprised by how much he’s enjoying the city, with its affordable travel, scenic hikes, and architecture that appeals to his interest in civil engineering. “After class every day, I just get lost in the city and somehow make my way back home,” he explains.

While in Spain, Lin is devoting the mental energy typically spent on engineering courses to learning Spanish instead, something he plans to continue after returning to CMU. “It’s tough, but it’s going well,” he says. “There’s a lot of opportunity to practice.”

Interacting with others from around the world has also been a highlight. “At school, you’re mainly talking with students or friends back home who have shared experiences. Talking with people here about their experiences makes you think a little differently,” Lin says. “I can have a hard time getting out of my comfort zone, taking a wider view, and not being narrow minded. For engineering, I can be too focused on a particular solution. After this, I think it’ll be easier to see different angles and possibilities.”

Shared Experiences

Wherever our students go, they all return changed in some way, with a deeper understanding of themselves and the world in which we live. Despite the unique nature of each individual’s travels, they share a common refrain: going abroad is a valuable life experience made possible with help from CEE and the university.

“No matter what, you should take advantage of this opportunity,” says Usnay. “As we are young, it’s important for us to learn more about the world and the things we don’t always see in our day-to-day lives. It’s something I think everyone should experience.”