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Dreams Without Borders

Elizabeth Vanegas ’22 shares her study abroad experience in Prague! After going through some adjustments to her original plan and thinking she might not be able to study abroad due to the pandemic, a new opportunity arose and with the support of her community, she was able to embark on this unexpected journey.

To say that my college experience has been unconventional is an understatement. As I am writing this, I am sitting on a train on my way back to Prague from a trip with my friends in which we visited two countries, Germany and Switzerland, over the weekend. Never in a million years would I have imagined spending my first semester of senior year studying abroad in Europe, however, if living through a pandemic has taught me anything–it’s that life takes you to unexpected places.

In a perfect world, my journey to study abroad would have gone smoothly and I would have experienced this my sophomore year of college. However, when the pandemic struck in the middle of my second semester of sophomore year, all the security I felt from planning my entire college career in freshman year fell apart. My original plan to study abroad for 6 weeks in Spain was canceled and I felt heartbroken. I grew up dreaming of visiting Europe one day and I knew that the opportunity of a lifetime had slipped away by something completely out of my control.

However, apart from academic hardships, the pandemic brought upon other emotional and physical hardships that I did not expect. Similar to many of my peers, I felt defeated by online school and experienced a personal loss in my family during the course of the pandemic. Furthermore, I was given a health diagnosis that changed the course of my lifestyle forever. Though these were things that left me feeling lost and hopeless, I am grateful to say that I was surrounded by a supportive community that encouraged me to continue pursuing my dreams.

Though it seemed almost impossible to study abroad during a pandemic, I reached out to faculty around NC State to see what my options were. It took months to finally get a definitive answer on whether or not I would be able to study abroad. I had another cancelation for a summer program I wanted to do and it seemed as though my dream of studying abroad in college would not happen. However, thankfully, there was one last option in which a last-minute decision allowed me to decide whether or not I wanted to study abroad for the semester, meaning that I would have to go away from home for almost four months.

I wish I could tell you that I jumped in excitement when I was given this decision, but I felt a sense of doubt and almost talked myself out of taking a chance in studying abroad. I grew up in a tight-knit family in the small town of Sanford, North Carolina a mere 40-minute drive from campus. I had never been away from my family for more than two weeks and anytime I felt inclined to see them during my time in college, I would make the short drive home. Going away for such a long time made me hesitant in my pursuit of my dream.

It takes a village to support a student who is in pursuit of study abroad. After long discussions with the closest members in my village, I decided to study abroad in Prague. These discussions allowed me to self-reflect and recognize that my past experiences have given me the skills necessary to pursue study abroad. If I could survive a year and a half of online school, I could definitely survive a semester abroad with in-person classes. It also allowed me to realize that despite not being able to see the majority of my village because of unforeseen circumstances, I was not alone and I had a loving and supportive community backing me. Furthermore, it made me appreciate even the most temporary members of my village. There were many people that I had not spoken to since freshman year that reached out in support of my study abroad. From the incredible staff at the Goodnight Scholars Program that have seen my growth the past 3 years to faculty members that I interacted with a few times in freshman year, people wanted me to succeed and it was up to me to not get in my own way.

In all honesty, nobody’s college experience is “conventional” and there is no point in comparing your journey to someone else’s. As I spent almost half of my college career in front of the computer screen, I am the first person to understand how comparison can be the thief of joy. I felt the need to grieve the college experience that was taken away from me. However, I quickly realized that if I focused on the “what-ifs” instead of the present and what I could change, I could learn a lot once I stopped standing in my own way. Deciding on studying abroad was not an easy decision, but it was definitely one of the most important life-changing decisions I have made.

As I experience living in Prague, I continue to not only fall in love with the greater world around me, but I also fall more in love with the place I come from. As I prepare myself to be an educator in North Carolina, I am excited to practice my own advice and guide my future students to be fearless in the pursuit of their own dreams. I hope to pay forward the lessons that have been given to me by my village and my own experiences in Europe to the students who come into my classroom.

Though it is easier said than done, try to not stand in your own way. Especially, during your time in college. Even in the small everyday things, choose your own joy. Sometimes that means doing something outside of your comfort zone on your own, but remember that you have a village alongside you. You never know how far you will go until you start the actual journey. Who knows, maybe you will end up more than 4,000 miles away from home like I did. No matter where you end up, you have the ability to thrive and succeed.