The World Awaits

Study abroad returns with more destinations and greater accessibility.

Maria Monteso, center, once again led a six-week trip to Alicante, Spain, over the summer. Paused during the pandemic, study abroad programs have returned at USC Upstate.
Greg Castillo, ’22, and Miriam Elizalde, ’22, barely had time to get used to being new USC Upstate graduates when they were on a plane headed to Alicante, Spain, for a month-long study abroad experience.

The summer trip, led by senior Spanish instructor Maria Montesó in coordination with the University of Alicante, marked the return of study abroad at USC Upstate. Temporarily on hold during the pandemic, international travel, including faculty-led trips like Montesó’s, has resumed and now includes a new partnership with program provider ISEP. The arrangement will offer students more destinations at an affordable cost, says Patrick McCleary, blended classroom coordinator.

“The fact that we are able to engage with this many more institutions still using the exchange model, we never would have been able to accomplish this on our own,” McCleary says.

As an ISEP partner institution, USC Upstate can access 55 different countries and more than 280 programs, McCleary says. Instead of paying fees to a program provider, which can be expensive, students pay their regular USC Upstate tuition and room and board. This means that destinations that were previously cost-prohibitive – such as Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia – are now more accessible, McCleary notes.

“So I’m really hoping that our students are going to be able to start engaging with parts of the world that they maybe hadn’t considered,” he says.

Castillo says the trip to Alicante was an opportunity to try a new experience. Inspired by Chancellor Bennie Harris’ advice to “live life with an empty cup,” Castillo says, “I knew that I was getting close to the end of my educational path and my cup was full with all this knowledge. I realized I had to empty some of it to learn more.”

Students who traveled to Spain with Monteso balanced their days between classes and cultural activities, such as enjoying churros and chocolate.
For Elizalde, the experience was a chance to improve her Spanish. Though a native speaker, “I really wanted to expand my vocabulary even more,” she says. “And I’ve always dreamed of going to Spain.”

The summer program helped both students achieve their goals. All USC Upstate students lived with host families while attending classes at the University of Alicante. Castillo and Elizalde ended up being neighbors. Castillo boarded with the son and daughter-in-law of Elizalde’s host mother, who Elizalde says they affectionately referred to as grandma, both because she was one and because she “loved on us and gave us a lot of attention.”

The experience also brought the USC Upstate graduates closer together. Because of their proximity, Castillo, Elizalde and her roommate spent a lot of time together, taking trips to the beach, going shopping and catching the train together in the mornings to attend classes. “Study abroad definitely gives you new friendships,” Elizalde says.

Castillo admits he was a little wary at first about living with strangers. But he quickly grew to love the arrangement. “I like coming home,” he says. “Being in a dorm on campus, we probably wouldn’t experience that – we’d probably have been hanging out just with each other in the common room.”

As part of a family, he says, he was able to experience Spanish culture firsthand, and he, Elizalde and her roommate were invited along when their host families visited friends in the mountains. “Even going 35 minutes away and seeing a whole different scenery, we got to experience a different culture,” Castillo says.

Montesó also led the USC Upstate group on field trips. A particular favorite for Castillo was the visit to the Valor Chocolate Museum in Villajoyosa, while Elizalde enjoyed trying out paddleboarding and kayaking at the ocean.

These types of cultural and educational experiences, and the personal growth that accompanies them, are what make study abroad so enriching, McMillan says.

Students in Monteso's summer travel program take part in a cooking class at the University of Alicante.
“There’s that self-confidence that comes with removing yourself from everything you’ve ever known, from a context you’re quite comfortable in, and visiting somebody else’s context and understanding how difficult that can be,” he says. “But then after you’ve gone through it, realizing, ‘Oh wow, I am capable of this – so what’s next?’”

McMillan says while he used to emphasize how much students would love the experience if they tried it – he himself was an exchange student in Russia when he was 16 – he now focuses more on the career readiness benefits of international study.

“Even if our students don’t plan on working abroad, they need those global skills to be able to function in a global workforce locally,” he says.

Zane Gray, ’18, former internship coordinator in USC Upstate’s Office of Career Management, says those skills take many forms, foremost of which is the ability to speak another language. But beyond that, “you’re learning to work with other cultures,” he says. “As we look at the entire economy of the state of South Carolina, it’s essentially international. So there’s the ability to see how people do things differently and be curious and not judge.”

Gray himself studied abroad while an Upstate student, through the university’s dual degree program with Landshut University in Germany. He notes just negotiating a foreign country demonstrates two important skills: initiative and adaptability. “You’re having to adjust to different languages, different techniques, find your way around a new city, figure out how to bank.”

Inevitably, students who go abroad come back transformed, McMillan observes. In fact, by the time they’re ready to return, students often discover their host country feels like home now. That can be the impetus for many more adventures, he says.

“For a lot of the students that we send, travel becomes a part of their life. They realize there’s so many other wonderful places in the world to go see.”