Rewind to 1996. After my freshman year at University at Albany I had itchy feet. I wanted to live a life of adventure. I joined the US Marine Corps Reserves. As a young enlisted Marine, I did not get to travel abroad I got to see many places as a 19 year old Puerto Rican girl in Western NY didn’t get to see: Missouri and Kentucky! My senior year I ended up signing up for a study abroad program. It wasn’t that exotic (at least for me): I returned to Puerto Rico to spend a semester at Universidad del Sagrado Corazon. I needed the income from my reserve job and Puerto Rico had a unit I could work with. Fast forward to 2014: Did you know you can use your GI Bill while studying abroad?
Although I did not need a passport for that adventure, I was immersed back in my Puerto Rican culture. I spent my semester honing my writing and speaking skills in Spanish. Although I grew up in Puerto Rico, my high school studies were mostly in English. It was great to master the literary part of the Spanish language. I still use those skills at my work and my upcoming Spanish Language travel segment with Despierta DC.
Upon graduation, I was commissioned as a Marine Corps Second Lieutenant. My first assignment was in Okinawa, Japan. Needless to say, I was in a work/study abroad situation. I loved driving around the island and walking into small shops and ordering from a menu that I couldn’t even remotely read! I pointed at kanji script and prayed (everything was always delicious)! During that year in Okinawa, I also got to do extended assignments in Thailand and Australia (45 days each). Those assignments opened my mind and my palate to travel. My next assignment was just as exotic but dangerous: Baghdad, Iraq. There, I learned from talking to the locals working on base, eating the best hummus I’ve ever had, and reflecting on myself and humanity.
In 2005, I returned home physically and emotionally exhausted from my deployment to Iraq and decided to use my GI Bill and all of my savings to move to Belgium, where I found a Masters in Management and Business Administration from Boston University (the program is no longer available in Belgium). Before my big move I visited Brussels for the BU program and the Copenhagen School of Business. Although I was more keen to move to Copenhagen, I was turned off by the staff member I met with. She told me (by the way she was American) in a condescending tone: “you are aware that you have to have 5+ years of work experience to apply”. She automatically judged by my appearance as she had not seen my resume. When I told her everything I had accomplished since my college graduation, she was quite humbled. Needless to say, it was a turn off. I was happy that the BU staff was so open and eager to have me join their program.
Although I had lived abroad before arriving to Brussels: Japan, South Korea, and my deployment in Iraq, Brussels was a whole new world in so many levels. I recall getting my student visa at the Belgian Embassy in Seoul (where I was living at the time) and the whole process seemed so foreign to me. I arrived to Brussels with no sponsor waiting for me at the airport, no housing office, no tax-free benefits, and no paycheck! Being overseas in the military has a lot of privileges that I was no longer entitled to now that I was on my own. I’ll be honest, it was difficult to adjust, especially as a graduate student since the environment was much more independent than my undergraduate experience.
|Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium|
|At My Farewell Party in Brussels, 2012|