A CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview with Catherine Brooks
Photo: Looking out over the Atlantic Ocean in Portugal
Meet Catherine Brooks, one of the first students to study abroad with CAPA Buenos Aires, way back in Fall semester of 2012. We caught up with her to find out what she's been up to since her return to the US: quite a lot! Read on as she talks about her recent travels in Europe, shares her advice on dealing with culture shock and talks about her experiences in Argentina and their lingering impact on her mindset and life choices today.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
CATHERINE BROOKS: My name is Catherine Brooks and I'm from Buffalo, New York. Usually when I tell people that they reply with, "Oh, so NYC!" Actually, Buffalo is about the farthest away you can get from NYC while still in the same state, but it's nonetheless an incredible place to live.
My first time out of the country (minus Canada which is 10 minutes away from my house) was my sophomore year of college when I studied abroad with CAPA in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For four months, I lived with a host family while taking classes and exploring neighboring Chile and Uruguay.
After that, I returned to Buffalo where I finished up my Bachelor's in Psychology at D'Youville College. All I could think about after that trip though was a way to go abroad again. A few months after graduating I landed a job teaching English in South Korea. Though I went for a while, ultimately, it didn't work out but it did help to better inform my future. Now my free time is usually spent exploring nature by finding new spots for hiking or kayaking. I'm also always down for a live band in a crowded bar, an ice hockey game, or a road trip to Toronto!
Photo: University students during a social activism display
CW: Why did you choose Buenos Aires? What was your favorite part about the culture in Argentina? What surprised you?
CB: I have been in love with the Spanish language and Latin American culture since elementary school. While everyone else dreaded going to Spanish class, I was right there in the front raising my hand to answer every question. So, when the opportunity arose to visit a Spanish-speaking country, I of course jumped at it.
When I arrived in Argentina, I was pleasantly surprised by how heartfelt and passionate the culture is. Not only were many people friendly and eager to talk, but it seemed like all of their activities had zest in them. For example, protests and rallies happen quite frequently there. It's not just an important exercise of free speech, but also a genuine community social event. I once went to a political demonstration at a university near my house. Instead of seeing people holding signs and yelling, there were people grilling next a group of people dancing while inside bands played over the commotion of everyone excitedly talking.
I was, however, fairly shocked by the poverty I saw. Never before had I seen so many mothers with crying infants sitting on the sidewalk begging for food or buildings with cardboard doors and no roofs that housed entire families. While we too have similar social issues in the US, it's nowhere near the extent as in other countries. I think that for the most part we tend to be fairly sheltered from that which is one reason why traveling and actually seeing how the other half lives is so incredibly important.
CW: You recently had the opportunity to travel quite a bit more. Where have you been recently and what have you been doing while abroad this time?
CB: Towards the end of this summer, one of my good friends from France got married. The timing worked out well and after the wedding, I was able to spend three months doing some solo backpacking through Europe. While there, I visited France, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal and England. In addition to sightseeing, I met family for the first time and did some networking for potential jobs abroad. I also just gained dual citizenship (Polish and US), so that now allows for the exciting possibility of living and working in Europe!
Photo: Me at "The Top of Europe" in Switzerland. The summit of Jungfraujoch is home to the highest alpine railway station in Europe.
CW: While in Buenos Aires, you had the opportunity to volunteer. What were some of your responsibilities and accomplishments while you were there? Would you recommend this to other students?
CB: Many schools in the south of Argentina are located in extremely rural areas and serve socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Often it's a challenge to make sure students are equipped with even the most basic of school supplies. A.P.A.E.R. is an organization that collects items which students need and sends them down to these areas. While in Argentina, I visited their headquarters and translated some of the company's brochures and flyers into English. It was a small help, but something I'm glad I did and something I recommend that others try. My program director encouraged me to examine not just what I could gain from my time in Argentina but what I could give back as well. That's important to remember because cultural exchange is always a two way street. Even with everything you can soak in, there's always something you give back. Why not make it something which improves the lives of others?
CW: Where do you see yourself taking your career next? Did your experience abroad in any way shape your career goals and aspirations? If so, how so?
CB: It's almost impossible to explain how much of a profound impact studying abroad has had on my career aspirations. After having such a wonderful time abroad, there's nothing I want more than to be able to facilitate similar experiences for other individuals who are eager to discover the world. I truly believe that one of the ways to make the world a better place is to increase cultural awareness and to share knowledge from all over the world. The field of international education very much appeals to me and I hope to one day work for either a company like CAPA or in an International Student Office at a university.
Photo: Attending a Brazilian Festival in Toronto. This famous Canadian city is about a two hour drive from Buffalo.
CW: Talk a bit about returning home. Is reverse culture shock real? What were some of the emotions you experienced and how did you deal with them? Where can other study abroad alumni look for support?
CB: Culture shock is a very real experience, one I deal with every time I return home from abroad. Many times I’ve been frustrated, fearful and angry. I even feel out of touch with family and friends sometimes. After traveling, you see the world around you differently. It can be extremely challenging to accurately explain to others not only your experiences but also your changed mindset. It can also be hard to accept the fact that not everyone is as passionate or interested in the rest of the world as you are. That doesn't devalue the impact of your experiences in any way though. Your experiences can continue to be meaningful even after you return home. For me, when I share my global knowledge with others and encourage them to explore the world, I feel as though I'm putting to good use the experiences I was blessed with. Additionally, I continue to update my travel blog and my YouTube channel with stories from abroad plus I keep in touch with friends I made while traveling. I also volunteer with CAPA and my college's International Student Office when I can. Finally, I make it a point to seek out multicultural events within my community. That way, I can still feel connected to the world even though I'm back in my hometown.
CW: How do you maintain the traveler's mindset in your life back home while you're fueling your wanderlust for the next adventure?
CB: This one I'm still trying to figure out! The travel bug isn't something you easily shake. I think being realistic about your responsibilities and priorities helps ground you when all you want to do is hop on the next plane to wherever. There are still many more places I would like to visit but at the moment I have other things to take care of and that's okay. There's many ways to find meaning and satisfaction in your life in addition to the ones you experience when traveling. The person you become after having visited other places doesn't have to revert back to your old self; often times you'll find that you cannot. Things like work or volunteering, even the articles you read or the conversations you have can all be ways to sharpen and retain that brilliant traveler's mindset until you do set off on your next big adventure.
Photo: Budget airlines like Ryanair can also save you money. I once flew from Paris to Warsaw for $20! You just might find yourself waiting on the tarmac at some point though.
CW: What are some of the best travel resources you've come across that would be useful for other CAPA students and alumni?
CB: One of my friend's introduced me to an app called Rome2Rio which I used all the time while in Europe. Instead of searching numerous individual sites for the fastest time and cheapest price to travel between two locations this app has all that in one place. It even links to partner sites where you can immediately purchase your tickets. You might not think of taking a ferry from Italy to Spain, but it very well could end up being significantly cheaper than flying. I also like the Citymapper app which is a more detailed version of Google Maps complete with public transportation schedules and timetables. If you're looking for a great way to meet fellow travelers and not break the bank, but you're also concerned about ending up in a sketchy place, then definitely utilize Hostelworld.com or hostelbookers.com. Here you can see photos and reviews of all the hostels in a selected city before you choose which to book. Finally, if you're using your phone to take pictures instead of a camera, make sure you have them stored in a cloud and not just on your phone. If anything happens to your phone - say it gets stolen - you won't have also lost those irreplaceable photos.
CW: Where were the places you carved out as "Your Buenos Aires" - the places you found outside of the tourist sites, the places that were most meaningful for you? What was special about them?
CB: My friends and I found a local tango club where we went for tango lessons, performances, and all types of open dances. We could always hear music playing even before we got to the door and once we were inside we were greeted by a lively crowd of all ages. It felt like we had found our own place to practice our tango moves with the locals and mingle with fellow travelers.
One of my other favorite spots is Cementerio de la Recoleta. The design is so different from your typical U.S. cemetery. It felt like I was walking through a miniature city and there was always another uniquely designed tomb or mausoleum around every corner.
I also spent way too much time and money at the bakery and ice cream shop across the street from my host family's house. Individual food shops like bakeries tend to be more abundant outside of the US and that's definitely something to take advantage of. I brought home a magnet from the ice cream shop that says "We deliver!" though I have yet to test if that applies to the United States.
Photo: La Viruta Tango Club
CW: What changes have you seen in yourself since you began your study abroad program? What has your experience taught you about yourself and the world around you? What has your travel taught you about the bigger global issues of the world?
CB: After studying abroad, I’m certainly more appreciative and accepting of cultural matters that are foreign to me. I’ve seen that diversity brings strength to so many places all over the world. I also think I see life in terms of the bigger picture more frequently. Instead of just seeing the immediate consequences, I tend to also think of the far reaching and long term global implications of something. Through my travels, I’ve become less fearful about taking chances and more passionate about global social issues like women’s rights and access to education.
As for the world around us, there's so much occupying our time now that I think people get caught up in their everyday lives. It’s easy to forget that there's so much more out there beyond ourselves to contribute to so that we all have better lives. Ultimately though, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that something doesn’t always have to be categorized as right or wrong. Sometimes, it’s just different. Variety really is the spice of life and there’s always many ways of approaching things that are seemingly set in stone.
Whether it’s desired or not, we live in a highly globalized society. Issues in one part of the world do affect other parts of the world either directly or indirectly. Being so interconnected and reliant on others can lead to fearful reactions which I think is fueling a lot of the issues we face today. To me, that’s why there is a great need for accurate education on an international level to increase productive cooperation and lower the threat felt from something that is not understood. The best part is that anyone, anywhere can be an advocate for a more informed and prosperous society. You can’t help but become a better person yourself by learning about and exploring our big, beautiful world.
If the chance arises to travel, take it. You won’t regret it, I promise.