#StudyAbroadBecause...the world isn't too big to try to see it all!

Stasia Lopez's picture

Renee Corbett is a “super” senior pursuing a Civil and Environmental Engineering major and a Communication certificate. Throughout the course of her time at Pitt, she has had numerous opportunities to travel abroad. She traveled to Haiti for 3 one-week sustainable development trips and she traveled to Trujillo, Peru for 6 weeks to construct sustainable VIP (ventilation improved pit) latrines. This past summer, she traveled to South Africa for 2 months for a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) water resources research project and she traveled to Iquitos, Peru for 2 weeks to present research at a conference focusing on river morphodynamics and geomorphology. She has also spent the past 2 years CO-OPing for Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, a full-service civil, geotechnical, environmental, and traffic engineering company in Pittsburgh, PA. 

 #StudyAbroadBecause...the world isn't too big to try to see it all!

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

I lived on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands for four years (from 4th grade to 7th grade) for my dad’s job. During my time living there, I was exposed to a variety of different cultures because many people from around the world lived and worked on that island. Kwajalein is an extremely small island in the Pacific Ocean (it is only 7 miles in circumference) that is currently rented by the US government as an Army Base. Living on an island in the middle of nowhere (literally), my family decided to make the most of the opportunity and travel every chance we got. We traveled to a variety of countries during those 4 years including Australia, Singapore, China, Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia. I learned that going abroad will teach you more than you can ever learn from a book and it will open your mind to new ideas, cultures, and beliefs every time. When I moved back the United States in 8th grade, we did not have as many opportunities to travel, so I knew that I would change that when I went to college. 

As to choosing where I would go for the different trips, I would say that the locations came second to the actual experiences offered. I never said “I want to go to Haiti” or Peru or South Africa, but I did say “I want to do sustainable projects that will actually help people” and “I want to do international research.” Once I found those opportunities, the actual location did not matter to me.

What was your experience like? What is your favorite memory? What were some challenges you observed?

I’ll speak about my experiences this summer in South Africa. Every travel experience is different, but something that I’ve learned is that nothing ever goes exactly as planned. My research project in South Africa was supposed to be measuring water quality for a newly constructed water collection and distribution system in a small village outside of Thohoyandou, but when we arrived, we learned that the water system had not yet even been designed, let alone constructed. Our project took a 360 and it turned into designing the water system and playing hardball with a local contractor to get the construction costs within our budget. Even though our actual “research” turned out to be unsuccessful (since we could not collect water samples since there was no system to collect samples from), I would say that the experience was directly more successful for the community because we played a major role in the design of their new water distribution system. Learning to go with the flow and be able to make adjustments to plans is absolutely vital when working on international projects. My favorite memory from my 2 months in South Africa was the excitement that I felt when I saw my first herd of wild elephants. We were driving a car through the Kruger National Park and a herd of elephants (including cute babies!!!) walked across the road in front of our car. Knowing that these animals were wild and that “Disney” didn’t place them there for my enjoyment absolutely blew my mind and it is something that I will never forget.

Renee Corbett: #StudyAbroadBecause...the world isn't too big to try to see it all!

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad?

Putting a finger on the exact skills that I developed during my time in South Africa ischallenging because many of the skills are not quantifiable but more related to my personality. What stands out the most to me is that I have an even better understanding of the challenges people face when they work on development projects in developing communities and countries. Everything either moves more slowly or more quickly than expected and there are always bumps in your plan. Even little things like not having reliable internet service or not having reliable roads to take you to the project site can make projects go much slower than anticipated.

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today?

My experiences abroad have 100% shaped my goals and the plans I have for my future. After graduating in the Spring, I hope to find a job with a company that does International Development work (contractors for USAID, for example) or I hope to find a job with an NGO that focuses on water and/or sanitation related projects in developing communities. Without my experiences abroad, I would not know that this is where my passion lies and that this is what I hope to do for my professional career.

What advice (on finances, the experience, etc) would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?

Pitt offers so many study abroad and intern abroad opportunities for their students, but many students cannot fit these specific opportunities into their schedules for any number of reasons. Look for other ways to go abroad if you can’t study abroad and I promise that you will find a thousand more opportunities. None of my experiences have been directly through the University. My trip to Trujillo, Peru was through a club at Pitt called Nourish International that teamed up with an NGO called MOCHE, Inc. My trip to Iquitos, Peru was through my research advisor at Pitt, Jorge Abad. My trip to South Africa was technically through the University of Virginia, but funded by the National Science Foundation – and I even got paid to go there! Look everywhere you can!

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?

Absolutely! Living and working directly with people of other cultures has made me learn a lot about myself and my culture that I never would have noticed otherwise. From the way that Americans eat, dress, and speak to the way that we exercise, bathe, and learn, a culture makes up a bigger part of oneself than most people realize and you won’t know it until you travel abroad and see the differences and similarities.

 #StudyAbroadBecause...the world isn't too big to try to see it all!

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Get out and travel!!


#StudyAbroadBecause...the world isn't too big to try to see it all!


Stasia Lopez is the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators and is also a Career Consultant at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University and earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Stasia is passionate about international education, travel,  and loves working on a college campus. She’s lived in four different U.S. states (Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania) and also studied and lived abroad in Rome, Italy. Stasia lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Fernando.


Photo courtesy and copyright Renee Corbett