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Jennifer De Leon advocates for study abroad experiences

By Francisco Omar Fernandez Rodriguez

Asst. Arts & Features Editor

On April 17, the Center for Inclusive Excellence held an event called Identities Abroad to support studying abroad.

English Professor Jennifer De Leon shared a story about her experience. She said she had always wanted to travel abroad - besides Guatemala, where her parents are from - and got the chance in high school. 

She had heard about an opportunity to study in Africa for a summer, she said. But there were multiple issues, she added, such as affording the tuition and the airfare. 

She eventually won a scholarship to help build a medical clinic in Zimbabwe, she said. She and her family asked teachers, co-workers, everyone they could to raise the money for the flight, De Leon added.

At the airport, she almost turned around and went home, she said. But her parents, who had previously disapproved of this choice, supported her there, she added. De Leon said they told her to “embrace everything,” and “you’ll regret it if you don’t go.”

When she finally made it to Zimbabwe, she lived with a family in a hut without electricity or running water, she said. At first, she added, she needed to use a “candle inside an old Coca Cola bottle” to find the outhouse at night.

By the end of the six weeks, she said, she only needed the light of the moon. She said she had learned some words in the local language and really enjoyed her time there, emphasizing how it expanded her horizons.

One experience that shaped her, De Leon said, was when she went window shopping there. She said while there, the salesperson kept following her until she asked him about it. He was ready to help her find what she wanted to buy, she said. 

When she told him she was just looking around, he said people don’t do that in Zimbabwe, she said. She said he told her, “We don’t just walk around and shop. We go to a store because we need something.” 

She said she realized this makes sense, but it was still “a new concept” to her then. She was used to window shopping.

Later on, when she went to college, she decided to major in international relations, she said. De Leon said she spent a semester in France, another one in Vietnam, and a summer internship in Nigeria. During each of these times, she added, she traveled to neighboring countries. She said she “had 12 passport stamps by the end of college, and I felt like I was just getting started.”

A member of the audience asked if there are any programs similar to De Leon’s trip to Zimbabwe, “where as opposed to just going somewhere and studying, you do something more interactive like that?”

De Leon said there might be some opportunities like that within the Study Abroad programs. She said that is a question to ask when researching through them. She listed some organizations that might be related to that sort of experience, such as Habitats for Humanity.

Another student asked how she got over the fear of it all. “I read so much for this and I’m not sure if this is the right thing to do. How did you get over that?” they asked.

De Leon said the fear is completely valid and real. She said she was “ugly crying” in the airport and wanted to return to Framingham, but the thing that kept her going was imagining what her parents had gone through at her age. She said, “They booked one way tickets, and they came to America to learn a new language, to build a new life, to send money home.” The idea of it all inspired her.

Fear is a normal feeling, she added. She said, “I don’t know why we sort of get this message that fear is bad. Fear, I think, is just an opportunity to be brave, to be courageous, and it means you’re getting outside your comfort zone, and I’m telling you, we all need to do that.”

She added, “I think traveling and studying abroad allows us to develop that muscle of being able to interact with folks from different backgrounds.”



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