#StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll discover yourself in discovering your love for a new country

Stasia Lopez's picture

Jessica Pelland is a senior biology and psychology major at the University of Pittsburgh. Jessica is very involved on campus serving as the President of Pitt’s Animal Lovers Club, a Laboratory Assistant in a neuroscience and psychology lab, a Peer Leader for the Academic Resource Center, and a Undergraduate Teaching Assistant for Biology 2. She intends to complete her PhD in the future and do research and teach in veterinary medicine for a career. Jessica studied abroad in South Africa during the summer of 2015 with the help of the Vira I Heinz and Benjamin A Gilman scholarships.

Jessica Pelland - #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll discover yourself in discovering your love for a new country

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

I had never been out of the country before and I knew that there was no better time to do that than when I am young and relatively uncommitted. I knew I wanted to go to a non-Western country, as I believed learning about a culture vastly different from my own would be the most beneficial to my personal and professional growth. South Africa is incredibly beautiful and full of people from every background and walk of life. I made sure that the classes offered in the program would help me finish my degree at Pitt and then followed my gut about where I would be the happiest. South Africa felt like a second home to me. 

Jessica Pelland - #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll discover yourself in discovering your love for a new country

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

My experience was very eye-opening to how similar countries are in terms of issues that people face. I saw the United States in a whole new light. My favorite memory is going to Betty’s Bay, a penguin colony home to an estimated 58,000 penguins. The ocean was so beautiful and seeing penguins in their natural habitat was something that I never imagined would be so breath-taking. I can still imagine the sea breeze blowing my hair, the sound of penguins calling to each other, and the fluffy brown baby penguins cuddling with their parents.

Of course, study abroad is never perfect. I struggled with the stigma against Americans, including the stigma created by some of the Americans in my program. It was difficult to separate myself from the behaviors of other Americans while still trying to portray a positive image of Americans to my friends from Africa, Europe, and Asia in the program. I felt it was important to be a positive ambassador of my country to encourage travel and relations with America. Ultimately, I believe that I left a positive impression of Americans in the minds of my friends abroad.

Jessica Pelland - #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll discover yourself in discovering your love for a new country

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

The most important skill that I took away from my experience was the ability to listen more than I speak. I was lucky enough to make friends with citizens from many different countries—South Africa, Kenya, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Singapore. Each of these people had a different background, set of skills, and perspective to share. Learning to listen more than I spoke allowed me to learn and take back much more from my study abroad experience than I ever thought possible. I learned how to be sensitive to other’s background and identity, which is a skill that I will use for the rest of my life as I meet new people and travel to other countries.

I do feel changed from my abroad experience, but it is a very subtle change. I feel more prepared to graduate from Pitt and move onto my next experience. I feel more mature and capable of interacting with others in a professional setting. I feel as though I discovered a more complete picture of myself while in South Africa. This experience has forever left a mark on my heart.

Jessica Pelland - #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll discover yourself in discovering your love for a new country

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

Because I so recently returned from my study abroad experience, I don’t think it has yet had an impact on my standing in academia. However, my experience interacting with people from all over the world while in South Africa will help me to one day conduct research abroad and collaborate with scientists globally. I believe that my study abroad experience will help me stand out to employers and graduate schools.

What advice would you share with other students who are thinking of going abroad?

I would suggest that students overestimate the cost of food, their program, and other travel expenses. It is always better to have more money than too little money. I would also suggest not bringing an expensive phone to the country you are studying in. A number of things can happen to it. Any item that you could not live without should not be brought abroad. I’d also suggest packing lightly, because you will want to bring many souvenirs home! I found myself with at least three paintings from South Africa and I am so grateful I had room for them in my suitcase. The most important piece of advice I’d give is to fully research the country you are traveling to before arriving. It is very important to understand cultural norms, conversion rates, crime and personal safety information, and the country’s history. History impacts countries in different ways—in South Africa it is important to every individual living there now. A little bit of research can go a long way in showing your respect to citizens of the country.

Jessica Pelland - #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll discover yourself in discovering your love for a new country

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?

South Africa’s history has caused a strong importance of identity in its citizens. Seeing how important identity, including race, was to the people of South Africa made me think about my background more. It allowed me to appreciate both my religious and ethnic background. In addition, hearing about the issues that other countries face made me more grateful for the security and freedom I experience as an American. Although studying abroad increased my hunger for traveling abroad, it also showed me how much I appreciate and love my own country and the rights I have here.

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

I wouldn’t have been able to go abroad without the generous scholarships from both the Vira I Heinz Program for Women in Global Leadership and the Benjamin A Gilman International Scholarship. I felt much more prepared for my abroad experience with the guidance of the VIH program and Pitt’s study abroad office.


#StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll discover yourself in discovering your love for a new country




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.


All photos courtesy and copyright Jessica Pelland