A trip across hemispheres helped Kyla Kohagen learn some truths about home.
By Kyla Kohagen (B.A. 2008)
Kyla Kohagen is a Spanish studies major who spent spring semester 2007 studying in Lima, Perú. "I never really set out to study Spanish or be a Spanish major," Kyla said, "but after several years of high school study I realized the benefits of speaking a foreign language and continued on at the U of M. I felt that Spanish could lead me into a variety of fields and allowed me to keep many options open."
Like many students with a love for learning and foreign cultures, Kyla's experience in Perú wasn't her first. Before studying in Perú, she had visited Ecuador with a small high school group. "I was drawn towards the culture. The geography of Ecuador (and Perú) attracted me because you can visit the Pacific coast, the Andes, or the jungle, which present a multitude of travel options."
Like many students, Kyla struggled with selecting the right program, so she sought out advice from within her own department. The advisers in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese Studies attempt to find out what the students' interests are before helping them select the program that best fits their needs. Kyla was looking for a smaller-sized program in an authentic place. "I didn't want to be in a tourist-laden city or be with a huge group of American college students." A new program in Lima turned out to be the perfect fit.
"The program immediately clicked with me," she says. "Perú offered what I loved about Ecuador's geography, but much more of it, as Ecuador is such a small country. The opportunity to live in a chaotic urban center, while also seeing Incan ruins and traditional Andean life, seemed like a thrilling experience. I also figured a new program would attract a smaller group of students, and I was right--there were only six students in the program."
Studying abroad is a great way for students to discover things about themselves that they may not discover while on campus. Kyla was no different. "Being in a foreign country without your familiar support system really forces you to be self-reliant and get to know yourself on a new level. When I went to Perú, I expected that after graduation I would live abroad for a significant part of my life. I had written off the U.S. in many ways. Throughout my experience I learned a lot about what the U.S. has to offer and, surprisingly, learned to appreciate the U.S."
Many students experience more difficulty reintegrating into American culture than they do when they first go abroad. Because educational systems and political activism can be much different in other parts of the world, the Learning Abroad Center has programs designed to help students become re-accustomed to life as a U.S. college student. Kyla confirmed that "the Learning Abroad Center had materials that said it was normal to come back with anti-American views. I already had anti-American views and expected them to intensify after being abroad. I never expected it to happen, but I gained an understanding of what makes the U.S. unique and was able to find its redeeming qualities. I also learned a lot about the concept of home and realized that my home is in Minneapolis whether I like it or not. My family, my roots, my memories, and that feeling of home are here and no matter how long I am abroad they will be here waiting for me. While I still plan on living abroad after graduation, I realize it is not as simple as the U.S. is bad and some other country is good. Every country has its flaws but it is important to see the whole picture and realize its positive qualities too."
In addition to expecting difficulties with reintegration, Kyla recommends that students who are considering Perú as a destination abroad go with an open mind. "I think having an open mind and a positive attitude are essential for living in Lima. If you have high expectations and a specific idea of your experience in mind you are likely to be let down. I went to Perú as a blank slate, without expectations, and the experience was extremely rewarding. Patience and a sense of humor are key to surviving in a different culture." On a lighter note, Kyla adds, "I would also recommend not giving your phone number to people while out dancing--you'll avoid a lot of awkward phone calls."
Bitten by the bug twice--once in high school and once in college--Kyla doesn't plan to end her international experiences upon graduation. She plans to teach English in South America and also hopes to complete a certification program in Buenos Aires, Argentina for teaching English as a foreign language.
For information on programs in Perú or other Spanish-speaking countries, please visit the Learning Abroad Center's website.