Out of My Comfort Zone

Anthony Hurtado | Staff Photographer

Anthony Hurtado | Staff Photographer

Traveling abroad, Angie Martinez knew that it was absolutely necessary to pack light. Martinez would be on her way to Madrid and Rome. As a native Spanish speaker, she felt confident acclimating to life in  Madrid, but Rome would present a whole new set of challenges; one of many she would have studying abroad for the next 11 weeks.

As a double major in history and education, Martinez was reaching the end of her third-year when she left the country. Her experience has encouraged her to be open-minded to culture and language.

“You never realize how independent you have to be when you’re on your own,” said Martinez. “On campus, you think you’re independent. Take all of that and put yourself in a whole new situation. It kind of makes you do a survival instinct thing.”

After carefully weighing her options, Martinez chose to be a part of the European Transformations Madrid and Rome program. During this time, Martinez spent half the quarter in Madrid and the other half in Rome. The nearly 14 hour flight journey was well worth it in the end.

On a typical week in Rome, Martinez’s schedule consisted of early classes from Monday through Thursday. Every morning, Martinez woke up to catch the metro. Getting off at the same stop in Town Square every day, she witnessed some of the best smelling coffee, pizza and decadent gelato stores that lined the streets. Fridays were days that she had to herself, where she would either tour the city or stay in her apartment and enjoy the scenery.

Looking back, Martinez realized that learning the language was one of the most important points she took away from the trip. As a native Spanish speaker, Martinez felt like Madrid was a second home to her, yet she still faced the challenge of adjusting to the Spanish dialect spoken in Europe.

In Rome, she experienced more of a culture shock. Martinez didn’t know any Italian, making it difficult for her to adapt to her new surroundings. In no time, she was able to pick up Italian and is now a firm believer that learning a new language shouldn’t deter anyone from studying abroad.

“If you take the time out of your day to integrate yourself that way by trying, no matter where you’re going, they’re going to treat you so much nicer because you tried,” Martinez said.

That doesn’t mean Martinez didn’t encounter challenges. Having never been away from home for an extended period of time, she realized how even the simplest things, such as her mother’s home-cooked food, made her miss home even more. Despite her brief moments of missing her family, Martinez was able to establish a new home for herself abroad.

“One of my most memorable things is how easily a different country can become another home,” said Martinez. “I feel like I have a home in these two places. In Madrid, I had this nice landlady. She was the sweetest lady. She was like a surrogate grandmother. She made us feel like we were at home.”

To cope with being away from home, Martinez used Skype as her main form of communication. Another of her peers used an app on their phones called “magicApp” that allowed unlimited, free international calls.

Upon returning to UC Irvine, Martinez discovered she wanted to help students transition and find their ideal travel destination while still focusing on their studies. Now on to her fourth-year, Martinez is a peer advisor at the Study Abroad Center where she helps other students prepare for their journey abroad.

Students who plan to study abroad go through the process of filling out an interest profile on the study abroad website. Afterward, students view the short web shops that explain the different program options, financial aid eligibility, scholarships offered and the difference between getting credit and fulfilling degree requirements.

The three main programs to choose from are the UC Education Abroad Program (UCEAP), International Opportunities Program (IOP) study and non-study and UCI Experiential Learning Abroad, a volunteer service experience.

UCEAP is a systemwide program that is based on schools having a connection with other schools. Students who choose this program will immediately have grades shown on their transcripts. IOP is part of a third party provider. Students who choose this option pick a program based on the school of their choice. The main difference between the two is that students who choose the IOP program receive units instead of a letter grade and a separate transcript.

Like many others, financial aid was a factor Martinez considered before going abroad. Yet, it’s important to note that students who study abroad are able to receive funding through financial aid.

When it comes to choosing the best option for students who receive aid, UCEAP is highly recommended for students who receive the Pell Grant, Cal Grant and UCI grant. For IOP, students receive the Pell Grant and Cal Grant, but no UCI grant. Usually IOP is the best option for students who do not receive aid. For others, it may be in terms of affordability, if the dates ideally work with their schedule, or if they don’t meet the GPA requirements for a certain program that UCEAP offers.

Reflecting back on her experience, Martinez recommends students travel abroad their junior year of college.

“Studying abroad is very popular [during your] third year because you have more freedom in choosing classes,” said Martinez. “Depending on what major you are, you can take any upper division class and about anything within the same subject in case you need to take GE’s that are very specific to courses you must take at UC Irvine.”

When wondering when is the best time to travel, students can travel as early as summer of freshmen year or can wait until after their undergraduate experience as a graduate. Before considering going abroad, students are encouraged to do prior research on their place of interest and apply as soon as possible.

“Before going abroad, educate yourself about the program,” said Martinez. “Know if the classes fit your major. Know what freedoms you have and what classes you can take abroad. Financial aid will help you out. There are scholarships you can do. Pick a quarter where you know you’re going to be free. Save the classes that you know you have more freedom to do abroad. Plan ahead. The earlier, the more choices you have.”

“Be open minded. Don’t overpack. Do try new things. You have an opportunity to be a new person. Be safe. Don’t go [out] on your own. Do research even when you’re there. Stay true to your budget. Have some responsibility for yourself. You’re studying abroad. Remember that you have to get good grades.”

For more information, students are encouraged to walk in with no prior appointment necessary to the Study Abroad Center located at Student Services II across Zot-N-Go.