Wednesday, December 11, 2013

UK's Global Scholar Program: The World is Ready. Are You?

Madalena Pierangelino, Marketing Intern

It was an ordinary summer night when I made a decision that would change the rest of my life. I was sitting in my backyard during my senior year of high school, roasting marshmallows on the fire and talking to my life-long neighbor, who, at the time, was a student at the University of Kentucky (UK). She knew in the upcoming months I would have to make an important decision: which college to attend. I had already been accepted to UK and Furman, but I was utterly torn, so she was advising me on how to make the best choice and what I could expect from UK. Talking about her own experience, she mentioned things I already knew about: tailgating, large classes, joining a sorority and, of course, UK basketball.

But one thing she mentioned stood out in particular – the Global Scholars Program. It was a unique business honors program unlike any other I had heard about. It included an array of ways to get involved and a semester of studying abroad, which had been a dream of mine ever since visiting my relatives in Argentina. I applied to the program that night, was accepted two months later, and my decision became easy. Looking back over the last four years, I realize that going to UK and joining the Global Scholars Program was the best decision I could have made.

When August of my freshman year finally arrived, I attended the Global Scholar orientation. I was a shy, nervous freshman and out of the 40 new students, I knew no one. I awkwardly tried to start a conversation with the girl I was sitting next to (she was just as awkward as I was, but it’s okay to say that, since now she is one of my best friends.) Then the senior Global Scholars proceeded to make their way on stage to present their experiences abroad. Some had gone to South America, others Europe, and some even China. Their amazing stories made it clear that a one-week vacation was not enough to capture the true essence of another culture. I couldn’t help but feel excited for my future travels.

Unfortunately, I had to wait what seemed like a never-ending two years to leave the country. But, in the mean time, I took advantage of other Global Scholar opportunities to volunteer in the Lexington community, and I happened to make some friends along the way. One of my favorite memories is when I attempted to get all 10 of the required service hours in one night by joining the Global Scholar Relay for Life team. What began as fun, “glob” bonding quickly turned into a cold, muddy, midnight walk around the Johnson Center fields. But, the announcers made a valid point - all those fighting cancer were going through a much more difficult time. We then gathered around for a candlelight vigil to remember those who had passed away. That part really hit me - hard. I realized that walking around the track was more than bonding with friends; it was saving lives and making a difference to others in the community. I felt touched, inspired, and ready to find other ways to volunteer.

Soon after, I started to volunteer at the Lexington Village Branch Library, a place where primarily young Hispanic children go for after-school tutoring. I had taken Spanish in high school, but did not use it very often. While at the library, I found out two things. One, that I frequently had to use Spanish to communicate; and two, that I loved using the language as a bridge between cultures. Without hesitation, I added a Spanish major to my diploma. Yet despite the great Spanish classes at UK, I knew the only way to become fluent was to live in a Spanish speaking country. And so, the intensive search for my future study abroad location began. 

Months of research finally narrowed it down to two countries: Peru and Spain - two completely different locations, cultures and Spanish accents. Did I want to go off the beaten path to South America or travel Europe? My decision: both! No one in the history of the program had ever gone abroad for an entire year before, but my best friend (remember that awkward girl at orientation?) and I were determined to make it happen. So we did! And we got the best of both worlds.

I spent my first semester in Lima, Peru, a giant, roaring city with 10 million inhabitants. There I stayed with a Peruvian family that ended up becoming like my real family. I tried local cuisine like guinea pig and alpaca. And I went to school with Peruvian students where I was the only blonde in the entire class! Besides the language barrier, certain cultural differences like time made group projects challenging - Peruvians would talk for hours before ever coming up with an answer! Their priorities were different and a big part of going abroad was learning to be flexible. Beyond academics, I had once in a lifetime experiences – I witnessed the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, swam with pink dolphins, fished for piranhas in the Amazon River, and cruised in buggies around a desert oasis.

(Me while I explore the ruins of Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.)
The comparison between cultures only grew once I went to Europe in the spring semester. Though many people gasped at the fact that I was missing basketball season, I would not trade the experience for anything. Living in the little city of Granada, Spain, I had a historical Moorish palace in my backyard and a grocery store in my basement. I immersed myself in the romantic language and learned to adapt to the Spanish lifestyle of midday siestas, three-hour lunches, and late night tapa bar hopping (tapas are small Spanish plates of food that come with every drink you order, basically like a free meal!)

(The Alhambra, a Moorish palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site, towers beautifully over Granada, Spain.)
Taking what I had read in my Spanish textbooks and applying it in a real life setting over the course of my year abroad made my entire education come full circle. Most of all I gained confidence and independence as I learned how to reach out and relate to others from divergent backgrounds.

Returning to UK was a hard transition. To be honest, all I wanted to do was leave and go back to my foreign homes. I realized that my view of the world had broadened, and the American things I once loved (like oversized latt├ęs and driving my own car) had actually become foreign to me. People had different interests, too. I found it harder to care about formals and fraternities when I was focused on my Spanish friends and Peruvian family. But, like all things, it got better with time, and I started to remember all the reasons I came to UK in the first place, the Global Scholars Program being one of them. The program has allowed me to go places I never imagined and to discover qualities in myself I never knew existed. I am traveling to Argentina over Christmas break. And, I now plan to one-day live abroad - in Spain, Peru or perhaps somewhere new - and I have to thank UK and the Global Scholars Program for making the rest of my life story an interesting one. The world is ready, and now so am I.

For more information on the Global Scholar Program visit:

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