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Natalie Flow

About My Study Abroad Program

Major/Minor: Spanish literature and culture, global studies, minor in public policy
Program: Exchange, Universidad de Guanajuato
Location: Guanajuato, Mexico
Term: Spring 2019


Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you select your program?
I came into college with 3 goals for myself: to have an interdisciplinary education, to learn to speak Spanish as fluently as possible in four years, and to study abroad. I knew that the only way to truly achieve my goal of learning to REALLY speak Spanish would be to get my abroad experience exactly right. I knew that I needed to be in the smallest program that I could so I couldn't cheat and use English as a crutch. Actually choosing my program was a product of sheer luck; when searching through programs in Latin America on the study abroad website with a friend in the Meantime Coffee Co., another student overheard us talking. She told me that she had studied abroad the previous semester in Guanajuato, Mexico, and how she thought it was “one of the most beautiful places on Earth”. I looked it up, and I agreed. I fell in love after reading about the city’s history, and my heart was set. I am so grateful for that interaction. That student’s love for Guanajuato and her want to reach out and help others led me to the city that changed my life.


What did you learn about yourself?
This is such a difficult question to answer because I learned so much about myself and the world, and a lot of it was deeply personal. In short, I learned that I am more adaptable than I could ever imagine myself to be. I flew to a different country entirely on my own, and built myself a new life in a language that wasn’t my first. I learned that I deeply value personal relationships, and even people that are in my life for just a few months can change and my life forever. I learned that I can also have this same impact on others. This may be cheesy, but I really feel like I learned who I am during my time in Mexico, and I learned to love her deeply.


What is one of your favorite memories from your program?
There are so, so many favorite memories to pick from. The one I am going to choose happened over my spring break. My closest friend and I made a snap decision and flew to the southern Mayan peninsula for a week long tour of ancient Mayan cities and deserted beaches. The friend I went with was the only other foreign exchange student in my classes; he was from southern Chile. Although we were in literal paradise and spent a week exploring astounding ruins and laying on white sandy beaches, my favorite moment happened on the roof of our AirBnB outside of Cancun. We accidentally stumbled upon a snorkel tour of an island just off the coast and spent the entire day in the water. After returning to the mainland after sundown, we were completely exhausted and didn't have the energy to cook or go find a restaurant. So, for dinner, we went to the convenience store just up the street and bought cookies, potato chips, and a liter of Coke. We found our way up to the roof of our AirBnB, where we could see the ocean. For hours, we sat in the warm, salty breeze, and just talked, entirely in Spanish. He confided in me about coming out as gay to his very conservative, religious family, and navigating life as the oldest child in a poor family. I opened up about being raised by an alcoholic, and we bonded over how our two very different lives have been brought together by so many similarities. Not only did this night with my friend teach me so much about the world outside the United States, but it was a life-changing interaction that I had entirely in another language. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had.


What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
Allow yourself to be vulnerable and ASK FOR HELP when you need it. You can't navigate everything on your own; there will be times when you must rely on others to get by.


Would you do it again?
ABSOLUTELY, without question.


How did your study abroad experience prepare you for your future career?
After I graduate, I hope to go into a career that allows me to advocate for and support immigrants in the United States. My time in Mexico solidified my passion for this line of work. Outside of becoming nearly fluent in Spanish, as a significant number of immigrants to the United States are from Spanish-speaking nations, I heard powerful, first hand accounts of the American immigration system and how it affected my host family, my classmates, my friends, and even strangers at the bus stop. I heard so many people tell me about the support they wish they or their family had, and they inspired me to take their stories and use my voice to make them heard.


How were your classes abroad different than if you would have taken them at UNC?
At the University of Guanajuato, my class sizes were incredibly small, and the professors sought out to have a close relationship with their students. I found that because there was significantly less homework to complete out of the normal class time, more value was placed on the experience of learning rather than the product of learning. I was given a lot more time to think about and fully digest the readings we were provided, and class discussions were longer and spanned several days. Additionally, deadlines were more like general guidelines. It was a weird adjustment, but a difference I grew to appreciate.


How do you identify?
Rural County Resident


Could you share any experiences where your identity played a role in your time abroad?
I grew up in a lower-middle class family on a rural island off the coast. I had never even been on a plane before I left for Mexico, let alone had left the country. I got my very first passport so I could go abroad. Studying in a different country, entirely on my own, was the most terrifying thing I had ever done. Even more, trying to get advice from anyone before I left was alienating and almost embarrassing, as they would all be incredulous to the point of meanness. I had to find my own strength and rely on my own instincts to make it there.


Is there any advice you would give to other students who share your identity?
Ask your questions. Understand that it will be terrifying. Exist in that space of discomfort- it is the only thing that will help you grow.


If you faced any challenges abroad, where could you turn to get the support you needed?
The locals around me. My host family, my new friends who were native to the university, even people on the street or employees in shops. These people were thrilled that I was trying to communicate with them in their language and coming to them for help instead of pushing through and making assumptions. The kindness you will find in the people around you will lift you high and change your life forever.