A spiritual journey in Turkey, a promising voyage from Vietnam, an artistic adventure in Italy, and a scholastic quest from Kazakhstan – four students traveled across the globe in search of academic opportunities and enriching explorations.
Sticking pins to maps and adding stamps to their passports, they never once assumed the experience was about vacationing abroad. When they've returned home, it will be with lasting mementos and college degrees in hand, and they unearthed profound revelations about themselves as they melded into cultures and peoples divergent from their own.
See more photos of the students' travels in the gallery at right!
Erin Kinucan attended three meetings to prepare herself for a study abroad program in the predominantly Muslim country of Turkey. For a college senior born and raised in the tiny hamlet of Alpine, Texas, where the nearest mall is three hours away in Midland, Erin hasn’t experienced a closed-off life. She was in fourth grade when she first traveled out of the U.S. Her mother lived with a family in Denmark during a foreign exchange program after she graduated from high school, and Erin has since traveled to the Nordic country where she was welcomed as a grandchild o her mother’s host family.
“I caught the travel bug early,” Erin says, a shy, yet broad smile spreading across her freckled face.
This past May, Erin spent two weeks in Turkey, her first trip out of the country alone. Although she was on edge about her solo adventure, she was grateful to be at an age where she would remember key moments of the trip. Her interest in Turkey stemmed from her first year of college at West Texas A&M University, when she read a book set in the Eurasian country and wrote a subsequent essay. If chosen as a winner, Erin would travel to Turkey, but alas, her essay didn’t buy her a ticket. Admittedly heartbroken, Erin eventually forgot about the loss; however, when she discovered the Go Global program’s study abroad opportunity, she knew it was a sign, she says.
The group of 20 education and social work students landed in the lively, fast-paced epicenter of Istanbul, where they toured Chora Church, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Archaeology Museums, took a water cruise, as well as stepped into the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Market, where they brushed up on the art of haggling.
From Istanbul, the group made its way to the conservative, cavernous town of Göreme in the historical region of Cappadocia where they split up and stayed with host families. The students packed up their roles as tourists and took on the personas of citizens of Göreme for five days as they assisted with daily chores, trained their palates for preservative-free meals and covered their bodies accordingly out of respect. Lacking a hot shower and other habitual hygiene while only packing four outfits, Erin confesses the crunchiness of her clothes began to take its toll on her, and she and the otherstudents would meet up in the town square and pay two Lira apiece to use a Western toilet instead of hovering over holes in the ground.
“That connection to material possessions, most American citizens don’t realize we do have that, and study abroad helps to get you to detach,” says Amber Howard, director of Study Abroad at WTAMU. “The disconnect from technology, especially with students nowadays, no Internet access – the students were amazed with the connections they made with people by not having technology.”
And the food? “Uhhh, at first it was really exciting and interesting," Erin awkwardly giggles. "They use tomatoes, onion, things from their garden. And bread. All the time bread, and goat cheese.” Erin’s first meal in Göreme consisted of broth with green onions. Accustomed to only eating the white section of the onion, Erin’s family ate the leaves, prompting Erin to do the same. The food was served in a pan, with no accompanying dishware. They encircled a round table on the patio, sans chairs, and tore pieces off loaves of bread, dipping it into the main dish.
The town of Göreme was a mesmerizing sight for Erin. Built in a volcanic area, the leftover rocks formed hoodoos and chimneys, structures people utilized to carve homes and businesses.
“It’s so crazy,” Erin begins. “The houses are passed down from generation to generation. My sisters were born in the same room their father was born in, where their grandfather was born, and so forth. It’s really cool how they use the resources around them.”
Erin admits she was one of the lucky students, as her two “sisters,” 15-year-old Karrdelenand and 14-year-old Evrim Polart, spoke fluent English. Although English is taught in school, her sisters educated themselves because they have dreams of coming to America. Her tailor father and homemaker mother id not speak English, proving difficult to form a bond with them.
Erin’s days became occupied with teaching English to 15 students at the local school. Their minds buzzed with images of Justin Bieber and they were taken aback when they were informed not all Americans dressed like Lady Gaga. When Erin wasn’t receiving blank, confused stares from young students, she spent much of her time with her sisters, whom she grew close to. She helped them retrieve water from a cave area; when it was time to prepare dinner, she accompanied them to the grocery store. During the evenings, she and her sisters played hide-and-seek in the dim, hushed streets.
“They treated me like family,” Erin sighs, her striking blue eyes gleaming. “Instead of going on a vacation to Turkey, it was kind of like actually being introduced to another culture.”
Five days flew by, and Erin had to depart Göreme and her newfound family to reach the next destination: Ephesus. “Never in a million years did I imagine I would be on the same ground of such incredible history of Biblical people such as the Virgin Mary, Peter, and Paul,” Erin exclaims.
Back in Istanbul at the Blue Mosque, the students covered their heads, giving other tourists the impression they were locals. Witnessing the Call to Prayer was such a breathtaking experience for Erin, a sense of unity and spirit she will never forget.
“The Call to Prayer was so beautiful. It gives me chills,” Erin breathes, as she rolls a green bead on her keychain between her fingers, revealing the peeling paint of a blue eye, a symbol believed to ward off evil. “One of the prayers translates to spending time with God is more beautiful than sleeping. The words behind it were interesting to hear.”
Thanks to her teaching experience in Göreme, Erin is looking into teaching English in a foreign country after she graduates. Erin flew back to Amarillo with one prized possession: a teal, Turkish rug she purchased for the equivalent of $200. The rug represents more than a beautiful, intricate material object; it’s a reminder of the owner of the rug shop, how he showed them the process of rug-making, and made them dinner. It now lays on the living room floor of her small apartment.
“It’s hard to put into words what I experienced,” Erin pauses to ponder. “The world is so much bigger. There are so many different types of people and just because they aren’t exactly like you doesn’t mean they aren’t incredible. A lot of [people] aren’t willing to leave what they know, but if you’re willing to pass that comfort zone, you’re going to really learn something about yourself.”
Alex Montoya set off on a journey of his own to Florence, Italy in June. To say his trip was a bit rocky is an understatement. The sophomore missed his first flight from Amarillo because he forgot his passport. An unanticipated $1,300 later, he eventually made it to his destination. On his way back home, the airline lost his ticket and he scrambled to find a ticket for less than 250 Euros. “I spent 24 hours at the airport,” Alex groans. “But on the bright side, I met a Swiss lawyer. We still talk,” he says, perking up.
On an impromptu weekend getaway to Rome, Alex tried to make last-minute reservations at a hostel or hotel. However, the locations were either booked or priced out of his budget. He persevered and chose to camp out at the train station in Rome until the security guard shooed him, gypsies and the homeless away at 3 a.m. (He failed to mention this incident to his parents.) “That was a crazy experience,” the broadcasting and public relations major energetically laughs. But if he wouldn’t have slept in the train station, he wouldn’t have had the chance to gaze upon one of the Seven Wonders of the World in Rome, the Coliseum, a moment he describes as “mind-blowing.”
Like Erin, this was Alex’s first trip out of the country alone, as well as his first trip out of the country; he was the only WTAMU student traveler and he attended the local art school, Firenze Arti Visive, enrolling in a letterpress class and advanced photography course, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. He rented an apartment alone, he didn’t speak Italian, he didn’t bring a mobile phone, and his only comrade was his fellow student Anita, who was from Uganda. Alex thought he could more or less “wing it,” and admits the language barrier made him anxious to return home within the first two days, but he quickly recovered.
“The type of education you are getting in a study abroad experience is completely different than what you would be getting in the classroom,” says Amber, who studied abroad four times while attending Texas Tech University, before joining the staff at WTAMU. “In the classroom, professors have a limited amount of time to convey concepts about a particular subject and study abroads are supposed to be more of a holistic experience. The student is not only learning courses relevant to their field, but they’re also learning about themselves or how to read maps and endless other things.”
Alex thankfully found refuge in the Oblate of Florence. He walked around the cobblestones streets of the crowded city and observed the people, their patient pace and their social personas, while taking note of the artful propaganda skillfully swept across structures. The devotion to family, way of dress, the architecture and history left Alex in awe.
On a visit to a museum, Alex picked up a copy of “Dark Water,” a book chronicling the Florence flood of 1966. He read that at the Ufizzi Gallery, the painters scuttled to save their work and supplies and how the apartment he rented in the historic district was under water half a century before he occupied it for a month. He became aware of the red markings staining walls of the city, providing a visual indicator where the gushing waters rose decades before. He ventured to the Piazzale Michelangelo to absorb the panoramic view of the city, reminded of the WWII tanks that littered the streets below with corpses.
“Being in a different culture is amazing,” Alex proclaims, his deep, coffee-colored eyes exuding candor. “It opens your eyes a bit more. I’m already an open-minded person, but it still opened my eyes even more as to other people, the way they live, the way they are. The way they walk, the way they dress, the way they look at you. Their history is amazing.”
Alex mostly appreciates the lifestyle of the Florentines, he says. They take their time, they savor their food; he had nothing to fret about during that month in Florence. “My only worry was having to wake up early,” Alex laughs. “Life over there is slow. Everybody takes their time. It’s a very peaceful, slow life and that’s what I like about it... They take their sweet time,” ending his recollection with his signature, canorous chuckle.
Alex somehow returned to the states 20 pounds lighter, he says, despite devouring pizzas for two in one helping and relishing numerous glasses of wine. He became obsessed with the brick chicken at the restaurant, Trattoria Baldovino. He tried crème brulee for the first time, an experience he describes as “epic.” He also came home with posters he designed in class exhibiting quotes, such as “I wish we were better strangers.” He’s waiting to find frames so he can hang his work in his apartment. “The posters I made and pictures I took remind me of why I went,” Alex reflects, switching from a lighthearted voice to a staid tone. “It was about personal growth. I was searching for something. I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m searching for really, but I’m going to figure it out.’ I wanted to experience something new. It is a life-changing experience. You experience something greater than yourself. You experience a new culture and you become a more global citizen.”
Roaming around in a foreign city not speaking the language, Alex was able to comprehend what international students studying at American universities must go through on a daily basis.
“Seeing the international students here, you realize exactly why they’re having such a hard time,” Alex explains. “It’s something you don’t ever think about. You may think they’re not being social or they’re awkward, but they’re not. They don’t know how to talk to you.”
Rachel Le Nguyen enrolled at WTAMU two years ago. Leaving her friends, family and lifestyle behind in Hanoi, Vietnam, the 24-year-old will graduate with a Master of Science in Finance and Economics in December.
“How can you be such a great nation?” she earnestly asks, scanning my eyes for a flicker of response. “How can you have such a strong country and people are so wealthy? Even if they don’t have a degree. What makes it different? So I really wanted to go to America and get a degree and find out what makes the country so strong.”
Rachel’s uncle, who lives in Dallas, encouraged her to apply to an American university in Texas, and one of the schools he recommended was WTAMU. Rachel had dreams of studying abroad when she was in high school, but her parents, who own a bookstore, were skeptical of sending her to another country alone at such a young age, and at such a high cost.
“America has a good reputation for a good education and people in Vietnam want to study in different countries so they can have better careers, better futures,” Rachel explains, the bell tower in the Canyon Square tolling overhead. “I really love languages and I really want to do things about cultures and people. International business is something I’m really interested in.”
Earning her bachelor’s degree in international business at the Foreign Trade University in Hanoi, Rachel came to the U.S. academically capable of excelling in her field, succeeding in school and learning a new language. It’s the social aspect of living in an unfamiliar country that has left Rachel sometimes lonesome and dejected; she hasn’t seen her friends, parents and 13-year-old brother in two years.
In Vietnam, Rachel says she could call her friends at any hour of the day or night, and they would cordially converse; but here, her uncle warned her not to call people after 9 p.m. or before 9 a.m. Rachel reluctantly reveals she feels lost and lonely, and has only found a few confidantes.
“You will feel the weight and loneliness of being away from loved ones,” says Kristine Combs, director of WTAMU's International Student Office. “I explain to them that’s normal during orientation.”
The image of America and its people weren’t what Rachel envisioned. She says Vietnamese people assume all Americans are well-to-do and well-dressed. “I pictured America as something like "High School Musical" movie,” she giggles. “People really fun and people sing and dance; it’s not like that here [in Canyon]. Here it is really peaceful and quiet and everything is spread out. It’s really different from the Vietnam culture and where I’m from.”
Growing up in the condensed capital city of Vietnam, Rachel is used to jammed streets, blinding lights, and coffee shops on every corner where large groups of friends congregate. She misses her motorbike, especially since she can’t afford to buy a vehicle here.
While Rachel has suffered emotionally, she has fully taken advantage of the opportunity to study and learn in the U.S. She is a member of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) and the Association of Finance and Accounting. She swims on a regular basis at WTAMU’s facilities and she has been able to study in a small, classroom environment where she can easily access her professors for questions and concerns. Rachel has the freedom to speak honestly about government and religion and openly believe as she chooses here in the U.S., unlike what she’s accustomed to in communist Vietnam.
Rachel says she does not have many opportunities for success in Vietnam, so she hopes to stay in the U.S., preferably Texas, after she graduates and be sponsored by a company. However, if she must return to Vietnam, her fluency in English will tremendously help her in finding work at an international company, she says.
“You can work here; you can have a comfortable life,” Rachel states, a sense of longing lingering on her last word. “In Vietnam if you don’t have a degree, it’s hard for you to make a living. Here it’s not corrupted. People understand you have to be a team. In Vietnam, it’s more competitive. You want to step on other people to be successful. You don’t mind doing that. Here, you want to help each other and build a team. People have that skill, to work as a team, and I’ve learned a lot about it.”
Although Rachel initially came to the U.S. to study and learn about finance and economics, she has learned much more about the American culture and its people. “Even though I got a master’s degree, I feel there are still a lot of things I need to learn,” she states. “You can’t isolate yourself. You have to make friends. You have to make friends with American people so you can learn about the culture.”
Vitaliy Skorodziyevskiy turns 23 in October. He’s only been a student at WTAMU for two-and-half years, but to him, that feels like a lifetime.
“I’ve been here forever,” exclaims the Russian from Kazakhstan. “When I first came, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know where I am.’ But now it’s good. I’m used to this place. I knew nothing about this place. Literally.”
Growing up in Karaganda, one of the largest cities in Kazakhstan, the lifestyle of the West Texas town of Canyon greatly differs from that in Vitaliy’s native country. He misses his mother, stepfather and close friends, but he is pleased with his decision to study in the U.S.
“Home is home,” he sighs, the corners of his mouth faintly upturning. “I feel I have two different lives. Here I have school and friends and a girlfriend and my car. Over there, it’s awesome. I have friends, best friends, family. It’s way different. When I’m here, I miss family. When I’m there, I miss this place because there are certain people here I consider my friends.”
Vitaliy found himself in quite in the quandary when he came across a forum online recommending WTAMU. For an international student, fees can run up to at least $25,000 per year, an estimated cost that includes tuition, books, the price of food and rent, an expense his mother and stepfather could not afford.
“I like to study,” Vitaliy states. “I was thinking what I wanted to do with my life when I was a teenager. I had this dilemma in my head.” Vitaliy earned a degree in computer science back home, but the degree is not recognized in the U.S. – an academic setback for the young student. In order for international students to be accepted into an American university, they must pass the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Vitaliy did not pass the first time he took the exam, but WTAMU accepted him regardless, and encouraged him to take English as Second Language courses.
Many international students that are familiar with the attractions for young people, such as dance clubs and coffee houses, are floored when they ride down a narrow, dirt road and spot dust cyclones. Even students from townships and villages are jolted as well, startled by the sizable trucks that cruise down 23rd Avenue, music blaring out of the windows.
“Most of the kids from cities have mass transit, and they come to Canyon and it’s quite shocking to them,” says Kristine, who has been with the International Student Office for 19 years. “Some kids are from small villages, and they come to Canyon and they still have a culture shock because it’s not home.”
For Vitaliy, it was not the geography or even monster trucks that disturbed him after he left Rick Husband International Airport. Coming from a country slightly less than four times the size of Texas, he was used to seeing deserts and wastelands. “The big culture shock wasn’t the environment or the weather. The big culture shock was about people, what people do and how they deal with things,” he states, a serious look clouding his face.
He says he has a difficult time discerning people’s genuine thoughts and actions, and tenaciously does not concur with the concept of a white lie. Tell him the truth; he can take it. “You know when people smile all the time, they can be lying,” he begins. “I ask people, ‘How are you,’ and even if something is really bad, they say they are good. They are basically lying.” The way of dress differs greatly as well. “I don’t like it. I still don’t like it,” he spouts, his nose turned up, shuddering.
Vitaliy has not struggled academically. He enjoys his international business courses and marketing. Math is a cinch. He’s a member of SIFE. It’s the socializing that has his head spinning. After arriving the in the U.S., Vitaliy could not speak English well. He knew some grammar and could form sentences, he just could not understand the language or anticipate how to follow up a statement or question.
“I just wasn’t able to think really fast,” he explains, softly cursing his Android as he pulls up his translator app. “Right now, you’re asking me questions. I have no clue what you are going to ask me next. I don’t feel like I’m translating anything. I just say things. It’s not trying to speak it; I’m also trying to understand why people do what they do. If I ask you a question and you tell me something, I just want to know why. Why you say so?”
Vitaliy confesses most of his friends here are fellow international students. He makes efforts to speak with Americans and invite them to hang out with him, for instance at a student volleyball match, but his amicable attempts to form relationships with American friends are not always reciprocated. He doesn’t play video games or computer games, and he doesn’t drink alcohol. Not only does he not share the same interests as many American men his age, but he also lacks free time because of his on campus job and college classes.
Vitaliy is not one to complain, however. He appreciates the friendly demeanor of the people of the Texas Panhandle. He has made important business connections with presidents of local banks and owners of large businesses, networking opportunities he would never have encountered in Kazakhstan. Vitaliy will not only walk away from Texas with a degree in international business from WTAMU, but he’ll also take away with him a treasured tradition: the Texas two-step. Let’s just say he’s been to Midnight Rodeo once or twice.
Receiving two academic scholarships this year and being accepted as one of 25 students in a newly established leadership organization, Vitaliy plans to remain in Canyon for at least two more years. That’s two more years away from his friends and family and life back home, but he seems at ease and excited about the opportunity to continue his education and life here.
“My days go so fast. It’s Monday then it’s Friday evening. Time is going by extremely fast for me,” he says leaning across the table, two sliver rings inscribed with a Russian phrase translated as “Dear God, save my life,” catching the light. “I’m at peace.”
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.