Embracing a Place and its People: My Year Abroad in South America

In Guatape, near Medellin, Colombia


Towards the end of my 10 months abroad, I made a list of things I had done for the first time. Some of the items were travel related — camped in the desert, swam in the Pacific Ocean, hiked in the Andes Mountains — while others were more related to personal growth — took academic subjects in Spanish, made friends from all over the world and went five months without seeing my family. Through this exercise, I realized the cliches about study abroad are true. I pushed myself emotionally, mentally and physically by living in two new countries, and I came out of the experience as a different, more well-rounded person. I embraced my adventurous, independent side and became more in touch with my own wants and needs, but I also embraced the people around me and created lasting relationships under unique, beautiful and challenging circumstances.  

El Valle de Cocora, Salento, Colombia

When I decided to spend the fall of my junior year in Bogota, Colombia, I never would have imagined what the next year had in store for me. I was only planning to spend one academic term abroad but quickly realized I needed more time to experience new cultures and deepen my Spanish communication skills. To be honest, one reason I chose to go abroad was to take time away from Tulane. Sophomore year was challenging for me academically and personally, and I welcomed a change of scenery. However, when I started living in Colombia, I became much more drawn to the place I had arrived in rather than pushed away from the place I left. In a short time, I noticed the benefits of language and cultural immersion. I started learning how to express my sense of humor in Spanish, I grew (however marginally) more confident speaking in class in front of my Colombian peers and looked for the Eastern mountain peaks on my way to university each morning. After some frantic academic planning and conversations with friends and family, I applied to spend a second semester abroad, this time in Quito, Ecuador.  

street art
Street art on the side of a restaurant in La Candelaria, the historic neighborhood in the center of Bogota.

My two semesters abroad were different from one another and I learned a lot from each. I lived in a very social building of international students first semester, while second semester I lived with a host family. I made all my trips with friends in Colombia, whereas in Ecuador I made solo trips for the first (and second) time. In both countries, I learned that each person’s experience is a gateway to discovering a culture. Most people like talking about themselves (this usually transcends cultures!) and if you show an interest in their culture or background as a foreigner, it demonstrates curiosity and respect. I had in-depth conversations with Uber drivers, with my building manager and with my group members in class. I heard a huge range of political opinions, regional loyalties and (unsolicited) perceptions of the U.S. I became accustomed to different Spanish accents from immigrants and people who moved to the capital from smaller towns. Overall, I began to understand the diversity of the places I learned to call my home.  

Hiking in the desert
Hiking in the Desierto de Tatacoa, Huila, Colombia

Another big skill I learned arose mainly from bus travel in my host countries. I learned to balance patience and adaptability with assertiveness. Bus schedules are not always exact, bus stops are rarely defined and usually not announced, and travel, like many things in life, is very unpredictable. When my plans changed, I quickly moved past frustration and on to charting my next steps. When I got on a bus, I overcame my shyness to ask bus drivers for help and clarified that I needed my stop announced. I asked for very clear explanations of where a bus stopped because sometimes bus drivers want you to take a partial ride just so they can collect your fare! Despite this adaptation, taking buses of varying distances was a highly enjoyable part of my time abroad. It allowed me to get out of my communication and travel comfort zone while seeing mountains and jungles, riding along the coast and observing the little towns along the way.  

Volcano Antisana as seen on a clear day from Papallacta, Ecuador.

Even with all the amazing experiences I had, mentally and emotionally, moving abroad — especially to two countries in one year — can be quite challenging. One of my classmates in the Newcomb Scholars program, Sarah Jones (SLA ’20), recently gave a presentation on Communities of Care and how one’s support network changes their life, including during her study abroad in South Africa. When you pick up your life and move it thousands of miles away, you may still communicate with loved ones back home, but they aren’t there for you in the same way.

You won’t know who will be there for you and in what capacity, but if you’re lucky you will piece together a web of people who support you even after a short time. In Colombia, my housemates and some friends from the university — both local and international — became my rocks. My more adventurous housemates would convince me to take a break from studying for social time, my friend Becca from Tulane cooked dinner with me almost every night, and my Colombian friends Juan David and Juanse would listen to my cultural missteps and give me tips for life in Bogota.  

Walking with friends along the beach in National Park Machalilla, near Puerto Lopez, Ecuador.

In Ecuador, my host family provided a warm and inviting environment for me, asking me questions about classes, joking at the dinner table and supporting me through a ton of Skype interviews for summer internships. My friends Will and Natasha are from Wisconsin, where my mom is from, which made me feel like I was with family while I traveled with them all over Ecuador. My friend Eduardo, who works for the U.S. government in Quito, showed me around the city and taught me a lot about military life, something I knew very little about previously.

Floating down a mangrove ecosystem in a canoe with Becca Stelman (BSM ’20) in Choco, Pacific Coast of Colombia.

In March, while still living in Ecuador, I traveled back to Colombia to celebrate my 21st birthday with friends I made the previous semester. While deciding whether or not to book the flight to Bogota, my friend Imran gave me some advice: “When in your life will you be able to casually fly to Bogota and stay with people who care about you like you’re coming back home?” Thinking back on his words, I feel so grateful for the experiences I got to have this past year. Not only because of all the traveling, dancing, studying, eating and laughing I did, but because of who I did it with.

Of course, I was challenged along the way and had moments of doubt and insecurity, but I made my own new Communities of Care and realized how much more I have to learn about the world. I plan to keep traveling and learning but also to value all the people in my life in the U.S. who make me feel loved and supported. I will also continue taking an interest in the people I interact with daily, because you never know what you will learn by asking a person about themselves.

Sophie Drew (BSM ’20) is a management major with minors in international development and Spanish. She spent the fall 2018 semester in Bogota, Colombia, and the spring 2019 semester in Quito, Ecuador. Sophie is a student worker for the Freeman Abroad and Exchange office and can be reached at sdrew1@tulane.edu.