Episode 75 │ The Good Kind of Challenging (GERMANY/RUSSIA)
Updated: 13 hours ago
"It wasn't all great, but it's definitely one of those things that I look back on and just think that I'm so glad I did that. 'Cause it was a really cool experience, and it's fun to talk about, and it's just not an experience that a lot of people would have." (Tiera, Episode 75)
Continuing on with the handful of lovely new guests I recently found on Twitter, this week's guest is not only a former study abroad participant but also a former study abroad advisor! Tiera DiGiorgio had impactful short-term experiences that included an intensive German program in Germany and volunteering at a summer camp in Russia. Following those experiences, she pursued a career in higher education which included working as a university study abroad advisor for a number of years.
For as long as Tiera had known what a "study abroad advisor" was, she had wanted to become one. She discovered in high school that she enjoyed learning languages (starting with Spanish and German), and the first of her numerous study abroad experiences to come was a two-week student exchange trip to Germany. She and classmates from her school went to the eastern city of Chemnitz (near the Czech Republic) through the German American Partnership Program, or GAPP. While this wasn't Tiera's first time traveling outside of the States, parts of the trip were still difficult for her to deal with: from the culture shock, to "regular high school nonsense", to having to rely on her host sister since she didn't yet know enough German to communicate or do much on her own. The short duration was also a factor, because right when Tiera was starting to get the swing of things, it was already time for her to leave. Nonetheless, she still remembers the trip being incredibly fun, and she was proud of pushing herself out of her comfort zone.
Next came Russia, while Tiera was double-majoring in German and Spanish at the University of Georgia. She'd narrowed her choices down to Russia and Austria, and a study abroad advisor encouraged her to choose the former. She would undoubtedly have a great time in either country, but the advisor thought Russia would probably be a better fit if Tiera was "looking for something that's really, really unique". So along with 20 students from UGA and other American universities, Tiera went to volunteer at a Russian summer camp. This was a faculty-led Russian language immersion program as well as a partnership with an organization called Camp Counselors USA. Participants learned the Russian alphabet and basic phrases before the trip, and after a two-day orientation in New York, a 10 to 11-hour flight to Moscow, and another two-day orientation in that city, they were split up and sent to their respective camps. Tiera's camp—the name of which translates to "Forest Fairy Tale"—was an 18-hour overnight train ride from Moscow, and the closest town to the camp was Yoshkar-Ola.
Tiera explained to me that this camp was akin to a typical American summer camp, except with everything in Russian and composed of Russian staff and campers ranging from ages 7 to 16. The Russian counselors were similar in age to their American counterparts, but understandably were more in charge and had more responsibility. Each American counselor was paired with one or two Russian counselors, and duties included helping the campers with their English, planning cultural experiences, and getting to know the campers through various outdoor games and activities. Despite never having been to a sleepaway camp before and not being used to doing so many outdoorsy things, Tiera embraced the challenge of stepping out of her comfort zone (once again), connecting with people, and picking up what she could of the Russian language. Additionally, she got to savor elements of Russian cuisine such as kasha (similar to oatmeal), "some sort of chunky pancake", and a pink minty beverage she couldn't remember the name of that was like "hot jello". After those four weeks at camp, Tiera spent another two days in Moscow to debrief before heading home to the U.S.
Two years later, Tiera returned to Germany in the summer for a month-long intensive German language program. This time she was in the southwestern city of Freiburg, near Switzerland, studying at a renowned German linguistic and cultural association called the Goethe-Institut. She and her fellows had class four to five hours a day, and then went on tours and excursions that their faculty leader had planned outside of class. Compared to her previous high school exchange trip, Tiera enjoyed her time in Freiburg way more because now she had enough language experience to get out and do things on her own. As she remarked to me, "It was probably the best thing I could've done for my German... It was literally my job to just learn German and explore Germany, so that's what I did." Ironically enough, while Tiera didn't venture to very many other parts of Germany due to time constraints, she was able to visit Switzerland with her friends and take advantage of a weekend trip to Paris that Goethe had organized.
Since most of her previous research on becoming a study abroad advisor had indicated needing a master's degree in student affairs or something similar, after undergrad Tiera pursued a master's degree in higher education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. And as part of the international education track, she took a comparative higher education course that had her and her classmates visiting universities in Spain and Portugal for a few days. Once she was hired at a university study abroad office, her work included site visits to Chile and Uruguay, and yet another trip to Spain to attend the annual meeting of University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), one of the study abroad providers that her university frequently collaborated with. On top of all that, she and her husband also went to Costa Rica for their honeymoon in 2019. So although Tiera didn't get to do an immersive program in Spanish like she had with German, and she notices differences in the confidence she has with the two languages even today, at the very least her wide array of international experiences has evolved to include Spanish-speaking countries as well.
When I asked Tiera how the reality of being a study abroad advisor compared to the ideas she had about what her career would be like, she was very candid about struggling with the expectation to always be available. She hadn't anticipated how customer service-oriented the advising roles would be at her particular office, and that workflow was not ideal for her introverted personality. As eager as she was to help students ascertain their needs and interests, match them with the programs or information they needed, and do outreach to get more of them interested in going abroad, when students showed up without an appointment and she had to drop everything to assist them, she often felt like she couldn't give her best because she was unprepared to fully help them on the spot. Tiera still works in higher education today, but she has transitioned out of study abroad advising and her current role focuses more on international students seeking to enroll at U.S. universities.
"There's almost always going to be one that is a good fit for you."
As for anyone else looking to be a study abroad advisor, though a master's degree may be required for most positions, Tiera personally doesn't agree that a master's should be necessary. She believes that training, having a solid rapport with students, and especially being a good listener are more important factors when it comes to doing the job well. And as for people who want to study abroad, Tiera's advice to them is threefold: saving money for it as soon as possible, working the timing and course requirements into their academic plans as early as possible, and being open-minded about the available options. In her words, "There's almost always going to be one that is a good fit for you. So even if you have your mind set on a particular location or program, still keep your options open... so you don't potentially close yourself off to something that could be a really good experience for you."
Given prolonged coronavirus-related travel restrictions, at this point Tiera is "really just ready to go anywhere". But more specifically, her future travel aspirations include visiting Asia and Australia for the first time, returning to South America, and going to the plethora of European locales that she hasn't been to yet. At the top of her list is a Norwegian island near the North Pole called Svalbard, which she became aware of thanks to a YouTuber who lives there. Tiera can be found on Twitter (@tdigiwrites) and Instagram (@digiorgiotiera).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "The Good Kind of Challenging (GERMANY/RUSSIA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Cecilia Blomdahl (YouTuber in Svalbard)