Courtney Kutzler is a senior working towards an undergraduate Psychology and 
International Degree. Last year, she completed back-to-back abroad programs in Miguel de Allende, Mexico through IE3 International Internships and a faculty-led program in Costa Rica through the Department of World Cultures and Languages. Since returning, Courtney has spent her time advising students who want to go abroad with her position as an International Ambassador through the Office of Global Opportunities. Read on to learn more about her unique experience!

One of the 4 year old boys I worked with.jpgMy first few days in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I was overwhelmed and felt as though I did not know a single word in Spanish. Throughout my first week, I was constantly lost and confused. As I explored the streets, I learned that many of the people I met were welcoming, understanding, and helpful.With the progression of the next few weeks, I could not stop smiling as I walked around in the community and at the daycare I was interning at. I knew I belonged there because experiences like cleaning up poop from one of the kid’s pants or dissolving temper tantrums, that can be seen as difficult aspects when working with children, only motivated me more to continue interacting with them.

One stormy day, I was invited to play soccer with some of the friends I had made (other volunteers and locals). The plan was to get together at 3PM, but we didn’t leave until around 6PM. When my friends arrived, we all piled into the bed of a pickup truck that rattled as though it would fall apart at the next speed bump. There was lightning in the distance and I could see storm clouds rolling in. My initial thought was that if we had left when we planned to, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the storm. In that moment, I reminded myself that this was just part of the adventure.

My friend, Noel, drove a few miles out of town to a seemingly random field. We got out of the truck with our soccer ball and started to warm up. The teams were boys versus girls. The game was fast and with the wet ground and the lack of soccer gear (e.g. shin guards and cleats) we were covered in mud, sweat, and bruises by the end. Even more noteworthy, we all could not stop laughing. This experience was one of the many highlights from my experience in Mexico.       During my time abroad, I got to practice Spanish and learn about the culture. I did this with my friends, colleagues, and the children at the daycare. I learned and experienced important aspects of the culture by trying diffA friend and I on a weekend trip to Guanajuatoerent foods, learning about the history of the town, playing/watching soccer and boxing, and talking with an open mind and heart to everyone I met.

One of the skills I developed that I am the most proud of is the ability to adapt and be flexible. When something was supposed to start at a particular time and didn’t (like playing soccer), I always would think of it as part of the adventure. At the daycare, a lesson plan or activity would not take the time that was planned or the children would need extra time or support to complete it. Or there was some time for unstructured free time. In these moments, I got the opportunity to think outside of the box and problem solve.

The challenges above helped me grow both personally and professionally. The patience and interpersonal communication skills that I gained through speaking in a second language, attempting to understand individuals’ perspectives different than mine, and applying the knowledge that I’ve gained at Oregon State University about working with cultural groups and with children are invaluable. I knew at the end of this internship that I would utilize these skills on future trips abroad, working with individuals from different backgrounds in the United States, and in my future career.

Immediately after my return from Mexico, I prepared for a study abroad in Costa Rica. I knew this experience would be different than my internship. I was anxious about possible problems, but I was able to embrace it and I was excited for what might not “go as planned” because I’ve learned that those experiences are usually the ones that stand out and are the most meaningful.

After arriving in Costa Rica, I found myself homesick from Mexico. At first, I felt like I Ziplining over the cloud forest!shouldn’t be homesick over a place that I had only lived in for 10 weeks. However, after reflecting further, I was thrilled that I had such a meaningful experience in Mexico that I missed it so much. I was able to apply many of the social skills I had learned in Mexico, but I was aware that the culture was different and I continued to be sensitive and learn from and about those differences.

In Costa Rica, one of the most significant aspects for me was to have a host family. At first, it was uncomfortable. My family was very welcoming and friendly, but I was still a stranger occupying their house. It took time and many discussions for us to get to know each other before I truly felt at home. I got a better sense of the culture as I talked to them and was included in family activities. One important activity was watching soccer with the whole family and all of their friends. My host mom would make a huge meal and we would all watch the game together. This summer, Mexico and Costa Rica played against each other during the Gold Cup. Of course, I was asked who I was going to be rooting for. I made the mistake of outing to everyone that I wanted Mexico to win. The whole night my family called me Mexicana and made a point to cheer every time Mexico messed up or if Costa Rica got the lead. This experience made me feel more connected with my family because all families have differences, and in the end, we were all still having fun and bonding. I now know that I always have a home in Costa Rica.

The classes I had in Costa Rica and the experiences with my family improved my Spanish speaking and understanding. Both experiences gave me the ability to be more culturally aware, tested my adaptability, and improved my understanding of two very different cultures. Mexico was an experience that centered around my work environment and colleagues while Costa Rica focused on learning Spanish and utilizing it with my family and the rest of the community.

My best advice to others planning on going abroad is to connect with as many people as possible. This can be done even with a simple genuine smile or by spending time talking to a stranger. These connections will be helpful while abroad and can be life-long academic, professional, or familiar contacts. Lastly, make sure to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities that occur when abroad. (I was told once to always say “yes”…of course, within reason.) These are the experiences that will create massive personal growth and memories that will always be with you.Dia de Guanacasta

To learn more about the international opportunities are OSU, click here!

Beginning her love for travel during her own study abroad experience, Diana Arízaga has the pleasure of living in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico as a Resident Director for IFSA-Butler. She uses this position to help students make the most of their study abroad experience and learn about the culture of Mexico. 

Diana Arizaga - IFSA Butler RD Mexico (1)
Diana is the third from the left.

What brought you to be a Resident Director?
My own experience as an exchange student –back in the day– provided me with the basics of learning to navigate and negotiate different realities. I soon realized that the world out there is so interesting and cultures and culture-learning is complex and fascinating at the same time. I started to apply this learning to my every-day activities: new jobs, professional relationships, and the way in which we learn and teach began to made more sense! Then I decided that this is what I wanted to do and I have been, for the last 25 years working as an assistant director and now as a Resident Director, dedicated to fostering an environment conducive to this type of learning for my students.

What are some unique aspects of your city and country?
Mexico is an amazing country, full of contrasts, rich history, wonderful food and interesting traditions. Despite the current situation, it is worth getting to know. Mérida, located in the South-East of the country is still, in my opinion, waiting to be discovered. This city is a living laboratory of the ancient Mayan culture and the contemporary ones. The Mayan influence is present everywhere: architecture, food, traditions and rituals. This mixed in with the non-Mayan (Spanish descent, Lebanese and Mestizo) populations, make for an incredibly diverse and interesting place. Although, it does help to be located so close to the Caribbean.

What is one thing most of your students may not know about you?
This is a tough one; they seem to know everything about me (and my husband). Particularly towards the end of the semester we become very familiar with each other. Perhaps the fact that had I not had this job, I would be doing something related to art.

What are some of your favorite aspects of being a Resident Director?
Watching students go from very shy, afraid and quiet to self-confident, independent and outspoken in a very short time. I truly think it is an honor to be able to witness this change, it is something their own parents may not see. I truly appreciate this.

Diana Arizaga - IFSA Butler RD Mexico (2)
Day of the Dead Celebration

What are some of the challenges of your job?
With Mexico being so much in the news for the wrong reasons currently, my biggest challenge for the last four to five years has been trying to very intentionally change the narrative of war and destruction, to one where we can showcase and try to focus on the good things about this place. We still have beautiful sunsets on the water, are able to taste the freshest of foods, discover beautiful things and meet people that warm our hearts with their actions. Ultimately, just trying to see beyond the negative and focus on the amazing and the positive. This can be very exhausting at times.

What have you seen as the biggest challenge for incoming students?
Context and awareness. I know this does not say much, but when students begin to think about the appropriate contexts for pretty much everything and start to become aware of this, they really start to appreciate their experience. This, obviously, is one of the most difficult things to do, and it does not happen automatically upon stepping foot in a different country. It happens with time, preparation and patience…a little sense of humor comes in handy too.

What is your advice for students planning to attend your program, or to study abroad in your country?
Embrace change, be flexible and enjoy everything, the little and the big things. This experience will not repeat. You may be back to Mérida a million times after being here for a semester, but the way you will see this place for the first time and the people you will see it with, will always stay with you. The thoughts that go through your head when you see Chichen-Itzá or Uxmal, etc., for the first time, are indescribable and yours only. This can be applied to everything you do when you study abroad in a different country for the first time.

What is one thing you think students shouldn’t forget to pack for life in your country?
Flexibility, a positive attitude and a great sense of humor. Everything else, you can find here.

What do you think is the most important take-away for education abroad students?
Develop a sense of context and awareness. This can be applied to everything in life.

To learn more about studying abroad through Oregon State University, check out this link!