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Miguel Esrello

About My Study Abroad Program

Major/Minor: Biology/Chemistry and Education
Program: UNC Biology in Grenoble - Summer, 2023
Location: Grenoble, France
Term: Summer 2023


Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you select your program?
To be able to escape the continual, mundane classroom and experience higher education in a manner that could only be accessed through UNC is a quintessential opportunity. However, due to a lack of financial funding, imposter syndrome, and inability to take a risk, studying abroad seemed unattainable. These perceived notions made it difficult to apply until attending spotlight events. The spokesperson illustrated how feasible traveling was for lower socioeconomic status individuals and the vastly unique memories that could not be made in a regular classroom. This first-hand account of the resources they used, how they saved money, and the invaluable experiences gained is the motivation for studying abroad. I yearned to gain a better understanding of the medical field through higher-level courses. Unfortunately, other than a small number of summer courses, UNC did not offer any to undergraduates. The Biology in Grenoble program allowed me to learn about immunology and also have the ability to study under a UNC medical researcher. This personalized style of teaching was almost unheard of for any Biology course. The smaller classroom and like-minded, driven students offered a unique experience that is less likely to be experienced during the school year. This class style would lend itself to intimately learning such a complex topic by allowing the students to ask countless questions, discuss the topics after class, and brainstorm with the professor. While the immunology course was at the forefront of my decision to study abroad, I cannot understate how intriguing it was to travel abroad in Europe. The program was centered around France and I hoped to utilize the resources of not only the University of Grenoble-Alpes, but the people as well. One of the main motives for choosing the program was to better understand French culture and how it differs from America. I wanted to experience the landscape, the transportation system, and the people, and integrate into their regular routines. For instance, I heard stories about going to the boulangerie and the charcutier and buying flowers. Moreover, I chose to apply to this program with the aim of not knowing anyone else. I hoped to couple the experience of being somewhere new with people who I do not know as well. While for many this may seem like a huge risk to take, I saw this as a chance to cultivate more unique experiences within the selected group only.


What did you learn about yourself?
The notion of balance is something that every individual struggles with. I obsess over the ability to achieve this state over every aspect of my life. Although, when it comes to balancing school and life, I do not know how to achieve a sustainable balance. Whether it be an overemphasis of self-care or a continual grind of schoolwork, I made sacrifices to ensure I didn’t burn out. I stopped going to social events, meeting new people, and indulging in hobbies when I became too focused on academics. Through my study abroad experience, I adjusted to a new environment where I knew nothing. The uncomfortability of not knowing the language or city forced me to stay within the dorm room and away from fellow students. The immunology course was something that could take most of the day without having to be outside my comfort zone. I feared going outside and ordering in an unknown language, or heading alone to downtown. To juxtapose this dread I reflected upon myself. I pondered on why I chose to listen to my anxiousness rather than exploring something new. Upon continuous thought, I realized that the action itself was not the issue but the possibility of doing something wrong was the concern. Thankfully, this feeling did not last long and I provided myself with the chance to take advantage of traveling abroad. I went to the movies, went rock climbing, ran in the mornings, introduced myself to strangers, bought groceries at the local markets, explored the nightlife and traveled all across Europe. I gained not only a sense of balance between life and school but also defeated the fear of making mistakes in the unknown. Without studying abroad, I do not think that I would have been able to conquer my fears, do activities I have never done, or simply fail everyday by speaking foreign language. Studying abroad has provided me with the opportunity to appreciate and cultivate balance in my academic lifestyle by placing me in a country that I knew almost nothing about.


What is one of your favorite memories from your program?
My favorite memory pertains to one of the most unique experiences that I would have never done alone. My group chose to go paragliding and everyone had to attend to participate. I was extremely reluctant because I am afraid of heights, hate roller coasters, and get nauseous easily. However, through persistent reassurance and a tiny amount of peer pressure I found myself waiting to go paragliding with everyone else. A man named Vincent, who was in charge of organizing the event, informed us that only two individuals were allowed at one time. I was unfortunately put in the last pair with one of my friends Chi Chi. As each group went up and came back down their experience ranged from “This was the best thing ever” to “Be careful I almost threw up”. Before I had a chance to process everything, it was Chi Chi and I’s time to drive up to the takeoff spot. Unlike the other groups who went with only two experts, we found ourselves in a van with an entire group of paragliders! As we drove up the mountain, we discussed their passion for paragliding, their favorite basketball teams, how afraid I felt, and all sang to Beyoncé. I felt as if I was in a movie seen as the rookie flying with the established professionals who were all looking forward to seeing my inevitable paragliding journey. We eventually made it to our first takeoff spot but there was no wind to carry us off the mountain. Because of this, we had to relocate to a higher spot further up. This definitely did not boost my confidence that I was not going to die. Nonetheless, we located a spot that we could take off from. I was equipped with a helmet, a GoPro, and some heavy gear, and linked to the expert paraglider, Niko. Niko instructed me to run straight off the cliff and not stop for any reason. This in itself was petrifying to hear, but I fearfully sprinted straight off the mountain without any regard for my life. I somehow started to float through the air and ended up sitting on a chair that came from my equipped gear. I screamed from the bottom of my lungs but then saw the beauty of the scenery surrounding me. There were countless trees that spread across the land, mountains in the distance covered with snow, and vast hills encompassing a small village. Niko taught me the calling that paragliders say to one another when in the air. It was a simple bird-like noise; yet, for me, it illustrated the symbolic transformation paragliders undergo as they take on the air. We were no longer people, but flyers of the earth. We soared together experiencing the beauty of the land and the peace of the air.


What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
A person’s thoughts, opinions, and individualism is derived from what they have experienced in life. For someone encountering uncertainties while abroad, I would express that studying abroad is the quintessential environment for personal growth and change. Whether that be learning to cook or being on your own for the first time in a foreign country, have confidence in the fact that you are growing and changing at an exponential rate. Studying abroad also means that you have countless resources at your disposal. For instance, your fellow students are experiencing the same thing! Do not be afraid to reach out or ask for advice. Moreover, the professor, study abroad advisor, and your family are always a part of your support group. These uncertainties that may seem grand during your abroad trip are nothing more but catalysts for your own growth.


How do you identify?
Student of color, Scholarship Recipient, Rural County Resident


Could you share any experiences where your identity played a role in your time abroad?
French culture is founded on traditional values that are rooted in certain principles that undermine minority groups. As someone who identifies as a Hispanic and Native American individual, skin tone was a prevalent factor during the trip. One of the most persistent occurrences was being stopped at shops and being checked for items I bought. While this may seem like procedure, the guards would consistently select only darker skinned individuals or people that may be perceived as “minorities”. The process was not invasive but having to be labeled as someone who may potentially steal never felt good. Additionally, there were instances where my identity aided in my experience. I was a frequent customer at a gelato shop called Amarino, and the workers there were from Spanish speaking countries. While I am not the most fluent in Spanish, I had the ability to converse and discuss the issues that many face in France. This provided me with a safe space away from constricting French culture. My identity did not cause the study abroad trip to be unbearable; however, it was a notion that I needed to be mindful of.


Is there any advice you would give to other students who share your identity?
Many who share my identity have most likely experienced some form of prejudice in the United States. As a minority, I have to be mindful of my appearance, my clothing, and how other individuals perceive me. While studying abroad, this idea is not any different. Many countries experience these issues on the same, if not greater, level. Moreover, as an American, you will stick out even further. Being mindful of how you are presenting yourself will allow your study abroad experience to be smooth and without issues. I would also state that this does not mean you have to necessarily change who you are, but, to simply be aware of your identities. Researching political climates or events in your country will allow you to be more educated about what is socially acceptable or not. Do not feel a need to instantly assimilate to the new culture or social norms. As you continue your study abroad program, the more you will naturally integrate into the country’s culture!


If you faced any challenges abroad, where could you turn to get the support you needed?
Many students had some level of issues over the course of the program. One of the easiest channels of support was our Study Abroad Advisor who constantly made themselves available and ready to listen. Within my program, we were connected to an organization, called API, who constantly provided us with resources, tips, and emergency help. They always had an open door policy and strived to understand every student's needs and feelings. The program fees also included GeoBlue insurance that allowed students to get free—included in the initial cost—help to online therapists and local hospitals. My professors provided office hours to ensure students could voice any concerns, made herself available to chat about any issue, and helped students get adjusted to the new environment as well.