February 26, 2020
By Chelsey Boykin
Studying away as a first-generation college student offered me more than my wildest dreams. I remember when I first came to UC Santa Cruz, going to OPERS Fest and receiving the Study Abroad Booklet and thinking, hmm, interesting, but this is not for me. I even gave the book to my roommate because I was sure I never would go. Being from a family that did not know the different opportunities that going to a university can bring; I spent my time just focused on my studies. For me, getting into college and graduating was my ultimate goal. Studying abroad was never an opportunity that I thought I could partake in. It was not until my second year when I found myself needing a break from UC Santa Cruz. Being a Black Woman on this campus can sometimes make you feel isolated when your classes do not have lots of people from your background. I decided, since I did want to graduate, that perhaps doing a study away program would be my best chance of motivating myself. With this in mind, I chose the beautiful Caribbean island of Barbados (through UCEAP’s University of the West Indies program) – a place where I would not be the minority in my classes.
I remember every step of the application process. I would think, is this something I am really about to commit myself to, going out of the United States for the first time, leaving my family and friends, stepping into this unknown place? I was worried that I was not going to fit in or that I would make no friends. Though it was an exciting time, in the moments leading up to my flight’s departure, I felt worried that I was making a bad decision. Tears began to fall as I walked away from my family and towards TSA. I was so nervous about leaving them, not knowing what was to come.
Looking back, I am so happy I did not stop myself from getting on the plane. I learned more about myself, made life-long friends, and enjoyed being immersed in a new culture. I truly loved taking classes and learning the history of Barbados, surrounded by Black students, educators, and staff. I was able to learn what Blackness meant to people from the Caribbean and how it differed from my perceptions. Being Black, I found similarities with lots of my peers, however, we faced different challenges with navigating our Blackness due to where we grew up. Learning that being Black doesn’t have to fit into one way of being was so validating to me.
My biggest challenge was adjusting to a new cultural environment where the ideals and values I learned did not match up. Growing up, I had the privilege of being taught about the inclusiveness of different identities and experiences from different types of people. The way I looked at the world, compared to my peers in Barbados, was different in some aspects due to my privilege of being able to talk and express the different identities I have. At times, it was hard for me to see why I was being challenged or questioned on certain things that came naturally to me. Through this, I learned that because of one’s placement in the world and the history that comes with a location, I shouldn’t judge someone simply because they think differently than I do.
My experience studying away truly taught me how to be more open-minded and welcoming to things I might not initially understand. I learned a lot by hearing Caribbean students share their lived experiences. I was able to see that some things are not made for an outsider to understand and that this is okay. Being abroad has taught me that I can do anything I want to do. If I can move to another country and immerse myself in a new culture, the possibilities are endless. I am no longer scared of change and feeling out of place.