Gators Abroad: A (Brief) Oral History of Four Globetrotting Students
By Hayden Bergman
Mark Twain wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice. This is true, but Twain never addresses the obvious counterpoint to his bit of wisdom, and so, it begs the question: What does travel birth? For UHD students, travel births adventure, self-discovery, reconnection with one’s heritage, and the expansion of both professional and academic opportunities. Four students—Raquel Esqueda (Business major, studied in France), Kaylen Sexton (Fine Arts, Thailand), Veronica Gorostieta (International Business, Seoul), and Michelle Valdez (Communications, Thailand)—have returned to tell the tale.
The students shared their experiences at a reception in February hosted by Office of Study Abroad Associate Director Claudia Baba and Executive Director of the Office of Impact Learning Dr. Poonam Gulati. “We wanted to showcase these extraordinary students and their adventures,” said Baba. “Their experiences serve as an example for other students who might be interested in studying abroad but have concerns. This event was a way to air out those concerns and show how doable a semester abroad can be for anyone.”
At the reception, Provost Deborah E. Bordelon offered her perspective on the value of study abroad, and Baba presented the students with certificates of achievement.
We met up with the world travelers after the event to capture an oral history of the collective wisdom they gained during their travels. Read on to hear what they had to say.
Part 1: ‘It was definitely a way of breaking out of my shell.’
All four students encountered culture shock, both inside and outside of the classroom (even Gorostieta, who knew some Korean). Each was pleasantly surprised by their encounters with difference, however, even after some initial hesitance.
Esqueda: “I remember the first day for one of my classes, International Business Development Strategies. We just walked in, introduced ourselves really quickly, and then [the professor] immediately put us into groups and asked us to do a project, right then and there. I didn't have a syllabus or a rubric, but it got [my] creativity flowing. It was definitely a way of breaking out of my shell.”
Sexton: “You’re going to be with 40-200 kids in your program ... It’s like a social experiment. You’re placed in a different country with all these kids that you don’t even know ... you figure it out.”
Valdez: “We would have [language] lessons each week in my Intro to Thai Culture and Language course, and I tried my best to use the language. There were times when I couldn't say something, so we would use an app or Google translate. Most people were nice and very patient with us.”
Gorostieta: “I had never been out of the country before this ... it was my first time flying alone.”
Sexton: “I learned as much from my social life as I did from my classes.”
Part 2: ‘I would give yourself at least a year or a year and a half ...’
While each student had a different experience preparing to go abroad, they all agree that financial and academic planning are very much required, as is emotional preparation.
Valdez: “I come from a low-income background, and I didn’t want to have my parents pay another expense I know they couldn’t [afford]. I found out [UHD] gives grants ...”
Sexton: “There’s so much that goes into the preparation ... preparing yourself to fly, get everything together, but [also] the aspect of the courses and making sure they transfer. I would give yourself at least a year and a half.”
Esqueda: “Be patient. In France, I found myself very frustrated. I wasn’t able to go to the bank to pay my rent on the weekend or in the afternoon. I had to go on a weekday or in the morning. There was a lot of “No, we can’t do this,” or “We have to do it in the morning.” It’s completely different. So, I would say be patient. You’re in a different country, their system of doing things is going to be different, and you have to prepare for that.”
Gorostieta: “Definitely research the country and the culture and know the dos and don’ts. Also, research the school you’re going to. Oh, and don't limit yourself to hanging out with only other foreigners. You’re in another country, and you’re there to integrate yourself into the culture, learn about the people. If I had just stuck to what I was comfortable with, I don’t think I would have learned everything I did.”
Part 3: ‘It’s going to be a big boost on your résumé for sure.’
The value of studying abroad isn’t just in the friendships made, or the memories that will last for decades. In addition to the worldliness students bring back from their sojourns abroad, they return with invaluable soft skills that employers and graduate schools value. Going abroad, then, is a quantifiable asset. One student, Gorostieta, secured a job offer during her time in Korea.
Valdez: “I talked with the FBI about an opportunity that they offer, as well as an insurance company. And I learned how to be more considerate of other people and their backgrounds.”
Esqueda: “It’s going to affect employment, and it’s going to be a big boost on your résumé for sure. That’s how I was able to get my internship ... .”
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.