#StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll never forget it or regret it!

Stasia Lopez's picture

Brianna Gasgonia grew up in Southern California and is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, double majoring in German and Russian and pursuing certificates in Russian and Eastern European Studies and European Union Studies. Her interest in international affairs began shortly after high school graduation, when she had the opportunity to study abroad in Germany as a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholar. She learned about the importance of cultural understanding and inequalities affecting minority communities, while experiencing the German culture, and becoming fluent in German. Inspired by this international experience, Brianna interned at the US Embassy in Berlin’s Public Affairs Section. Brianna aspires to pursue a career in international relations and become a Foreign Service Officer.

Brianna Gasgonia: #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll never forget it or regret it!

Were you always interested in studying abroad? What motivated your decision to go abroad? 
After stepping off the plane from Germany after my 10 months as a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholar, I knew two things: I was jet-lagged and I wanted to go back to Germany. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to study abroad in Russia and spent last summer interning at the US Embassy in Berlin's Public Affairs section. This was one of my main motivations when I looked to study abroad this past summer. I discovered the U.S. Department of State Student Internship Program, which offers unpaid internships around the world during the summer, fall, and spring terms. After about 8 months of waiting, first on my application status and then for my security clearance, I was flying back to Germany to intern at the US Embassy in Berlin.


What was your study abroad experience like? Describe the courses studied and basic outline of your experience. 
When I arrived, the Public Affairs team was short-staffed and I was immediately plunged into organizing educational and cultural events and coordinating the Embassy's "Meet Us" program, which brings German high school students and American volunteers together to open the dialogue between the two countries on a person-to-person basis. Every day was different in its pace and tasks. One day I would be doing research for a speech or event and the next I would be accompanying the Ambassador to speak at the Bundestag. I can honestly say that in the entire 12 weeks I was at the Embassy, there was never a dull moment, whether it was serving as Entertainment Liaison at the Embassy's Independence Day Celebration, helping draft talking points for the Ambassador, or talking to school groups about the multicultural American identity.

Brianna Gasgonia: #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll never forget it or regret it!

The interns with Ambassador Emerson on the Embassy terrace, in the background is the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Chancellery and the Hauptbahnhof.


What skills did you develop from your experience abroad? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad? 
I was able to apply the skills I learned from my majors, German and Russian, in a practical, business setting. The number one thing I learned from my study abroad was the universality of a humanities education. I was able to transfer the skills I learned in my major. The strong writing, reading, and analytical skills honed in various literature and culture courses proved to be extremely valuable. The fast-paced nature of the internship also demanded a great deal of flexibility in both my schedule and my language skills, whether it was conversing in Tagalog at an event hosted by the Philippine Embassy, drafting debriefing reports in German, or sitting in on a discussion on the crisis in Ukraine in Russian.

Brianna Gasgonia: #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll never forget it or regret it! With another intern at the German Chancellery, in front of where Angela Merkel makes her announcements to the press!

With another intern at the German Chancellery, in front of where Angela Merkel makes her announcements to the press!

What were some challenges that you observed that happened on your study abroad experience?
One of my initial challenges was getting used to the German business culture, which is more formal than the typical American office. A major difficulty for me was balancing my personal life with my professional life. The demanding schedule meant sometimes my workday wouldn't officially end until 9 PM or I would have a work function during the weekend. I realized very quickly that work can take over your entire life if you let it.

How did you prepare to go abroad? What steps did you take that really helped you? What advice would you share with other students? Did you have to attend a pre-departure orientation?
Since I was doing an internship that was outside of my university, I did not have to attend a pre-departure orientation. Based on my past study abroad experiences, including this one, my number one advice would be to not have any expectations and to set both short-term and long-term goals for yourself. It's easy to get overwhelmed, but having little, daily goals as well as longer-term goals help keep things in focus and in perspective.

Brianna Gasgonia: #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll never forget it or regret it! From one State Department to another! With the other interns at the German Foreign Office, where we took a tour and had a discussion with German diplomats.

From one State Department to another! With the other interns at the German Foreign Office, where we took a tour and had a discussion with German diplomats.

Many students worry about the cost of going abroad. How did you pay for you study abroad experience? Were there any scholarships and grants available? Any tips you would recommend to students who’re interested in going abroad? 
Since my internship was unpaid, I looked into a variety of ways to keep costs low. I was able to get a scholarship from my university's European Union Center of Excellence, which helped pay for my flight and ease some of my living expenses. My former host family was gracious enough to welcome me back into their home for this summer so I didn't have to find a place of my own and pay rent. I would recommend staying organized and applying for scholarships or grants as soon as possible. You don't want to miss out on a funding opportunity because of a missed deadline.

Did anything about your study abroad shock or surprise you? Do you have a favorite memory to share from your experience abroad?
I was surprised by how much trust and responsibility I was given. The staff at the Embassy really depend on their interns and I was never doing menial tasks like making coffee or filing. My input and point of view were always valued and taken into consideration. I was able to take the lead on short-term and long-term projects. My favorite memory was accompanying Ambassador John Emerson to the German Reichstag to welcome this year's Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange scholars. It was a nostalgic and emotional moment for me. It felt like I had come full-circle in a sense and I was able to see the people from my exchange organization, Partnership International, who mentored me during my initial CBYX year. Of course, Ambassador Emerson mentioning me in his speech at the Reichstag is something I'll never forget!

 Brianna Gasgonia: #StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll never forget it or regret it! The interns with the Deputy Chief Of Mission (who I like to call Vice Ambassador) on the Embassy terrace.

The interns with the Deputy Chief Of Mission (who I like to call Vice Ambassador) on the Embassy terrace.

Once you returned from your experience, how did you reflect upon your study abroad experience?  
One way I reflected on my experience was keeping a diary and portfolio of my tasks. I found it helpful when I returned to look back on all that I was able to accomplish (or in some cases, not accomplish) so I can see where I need to make more progress or improve on for the future. I also participated on a diversity/returnee panel hosted by the German Department at Pitt, where I had to opportunity to participate in a q&a session about my experiences in the summer.

Did your study abroad experience ever come up in a job interview? Has your experience helped you get to where you are today? 
Yes, my study abroad experience has come up in job interviews. In fact, my first study abroad experience in Germany came up when interviewing for the intern position at the Embassy. As a senior, I'm currently applying for jobs and I'm interested in working for the government and NGOs so interviewers are always interested in knowing more about the times I studied abroad. I think we live in a world that is more interconnected and international than ever so having an understanding of the world around you is an important quality to have. I think employers also see beyond the language skills you learned while studying abroad. While abroad, I gained valuable qualities such as flexibility, responsibility, and time management skills.

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?
Growing up as a first-generation American, I always had this concept of a multicultural identity. In my case, my family blended Filipino customs with American ones. After studying abroad, I've become more aware of the importance of communication. It's an incredibly humbling experience to be in a country where you don't know how to order food. I think I've also been more sensitive to issues regarding integration and assimilation. My family assimilated fairly easily into American culture and American culture was very welcoming to us in that our "American-ness" was never doubted because we looked different or spoke a different language at home. However, being abroad made me realize the difficulties of integration into a society, especially one where you stick out like a sore thumb. In addition, I found that learning more about other cultures of the world has helped me better understand my own culture(s). I was able to pick out common threads and themes of daily life in other countries, which helped me see the human condition and clarify my understanding that across the globe, people share common concerns, but find solutions in different ways.

#StudyAbroadBecause... you’ll never forget it or regret it!

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 Brianna Gasgonia