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Education Abroad

Jill Palumbo

Jill Palumbo

Destination: Guatemala
Hometown: Harmony, Rhode Island
Major: Graduate Student in Art Education

What were the primary factors that influenced your decision to study abroad?

I always knew I wanted to take this opportunity. As soon as I was accepted into the Graduate program for Art Education here at VCU, I renewed my passport in order to be ready to study abroad. I firmly believe that changing the context of your learning setting increases your capacity for understanding, communication, and empathy.

What program and destination did you choose and why?

I had my heart set on Art Education and Literacy in Guatemala, and it's a good thing too, since it intersected nicely with fulfilling my electives.

What classes did you take while abroad and how would you compare them to taking courses on campus at VCU?

Well, it was a short summer course, and we spent two weeks in Guatemala. There was a service learning component in the course work and we completed that by teaching art and literacy in the classrooms. I can't say that I have ever experienced anything like it, the situation was totally unique. However the program was quite rigorous and academically challenging, as well as organized and highly structured.

What were your expectations before you went? How did those change once you arrived in your host country?

I tried not to have many expectations before the trip to Guatemala. We spent two weeks as a group pouring over our course packet reading and preparing ourselves for the experience of teaching in the classrooms. It was a whirlwind and when we arrived I tried to absorb each day. Thank goodness I kept a visual reflection journal to look back upon and took hundreds of photographs! One thing I did not expect was to actually gain weight during the two weeks. Our host family feed us three delicious homemade meals every single day.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while adjusting to your host country?

It was difficult at times learning how to negotiate between the classroom teachers, our professor, and the important people involved in the program. There were a lot of round table discussions, translated in three different languages. At times it felt like we were off to a false start, but this was a crucial part of learning how to communicate cross culturally.

How has your experience changed your future academic and career goals?

I plan on (and am) conducting research as to the importance of studying abroad, including field trips and different "non-classroom" learning experiences, in the educational community. Also, I have written a high school arts curriculum that centers on planning a cross curricular study abroad experience for the final year students. Hopefully, upon hire, I can take a group of learners with me abroad. It is a life changing experience.

What contact did you have with students from the host country? Other international and American students?

Our group really didn't have much contact. There were no other programs from VCU running at the same time in Guatemala and we were only there for two weeks. However, we all did manage to bump into a variety of students and young professionals working on dissertations and service projects while in Guatemala. It was amazing to have a connection to these dedicated young men and women.

How did you integrate into the culture and meet members of the host community (community events, extracurricular activities, etc.)?

Well, we all integrated as best as we could immediately. Food was major. It was a delicious way to integrate to be sure. We all tried to learn and speak (at least parts of) the language(s): Spanish and Kaqchikel. We attended numerous dinners, musical performances, Mayan rituals performed at site specific ruins, as well as went to jade museums, art galleries, tours of the places we were in, and artist lectures. Not a second was spared!

What were your most memorable experiences?

Personally, I relished hearing the Guatemalan national anthem performed by a group of indigenous Mayan school children in a symphonic arrangement. It was a very special and potent moment. I also really enjoyed the boat ride across Lake Atitlan and, one other experience was witnessing a gorgeous Catholic wedding in the cathedral in Antigua.

If you could do it all over, would you choose the same study abroad program again?

I would love, very much, to return to Guatemala in this capacity, however, I also plan on traveling many other places as well.

For you, what are the benefits of studying abroad?

The benefits are innumerable. Perhaps it can be summed up by stating when you change the context in which you are used to live, a whole new world of possibilities opens up to you.

How has your study abroad experience helped your language skills?

My Spanish improved dramatically when immersed in the language for just two weeks. I was amazed at what I managed to retain from my high school courses (14+ years ago!). In fact, I wrote a long and heartfelt letter to my high school Spanish teacher thanking her for being such a wonderful educator. She responded, I'm glad I sent the note.

How has your study abroad experience changed your perception of your own culture?

While I was studying abroad I was asked what the culture was like in America. This is a hard question to answer since America is a melting pot of cultures. It has made me analyze the good and bad that we have in our society. While volunteering I realized how many services our government provides our citizens and how in other countries these services are nonexistent.

What do you wish you had been told before you studied abroad?

Bring more warm clothes!

What would you say to a student who is not considering studying abroad?

I would ask the student why not? If they say money is an issue, I would encourage them to apply for scholarships because that's what I did! Also, it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You don't really get many of those.

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