Studying and Working Abroad: Q&A with Candace Ricks

Candace Ricks is a Towson University alumna who graduated in 2013 with her Bachelor of Science in Psychology. During the fall semester of 2012, she studied abroad with International Studies Abroad (ISA) in Meknes, Morocco, earning a certificate in language, politics, and culture. She is currently living and teaching abroad in Guangzhou, China.

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Q: What (or who) got you started and how did you choose your program? What would you consider to be the benefits of study abroad?

“One of the main questions I’m asked as an expat is ‘How did you get started with international travel?’ I’m always excited to reveal that my initial experiences were with Study Abroad. Travel had always been a life goal of mine, so when a friend revealed her plans to study in Africa with her school, being the curious Kitty that I am, I looked into opportunities at Towson’s Study Abroad office.

In search of real culture shock and growth, I finally chose Morocco, an ensemble of vibrant colors, music, and beautiful language. Navigating the database of programs was simple, so it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon International Studies Abroad. This Texas-based Study Abroad Company had been around since 1987 and offered a variety of programs in over 30 countries; I chose the Language, Culture, and Politics track.

Participating in Study Abroad was one of the best decisions I could have ever made during my undergraduate career. That semester I was the only Towson student to travel to Morocco, but I returned with many lifelong friends and new professional skills. For example, while there, I had the opportunity to lead a panel on Intercultural Communication Strategies, participate in a language exchange, and to visit historical sites throughout the country. This experience nurtured a new confidence in communication, offered perspective on real world issues, and gave me a true cross-cultural experience.”

Q: How did study abroad prepare you to work abroad? What is your daily life like working in China?

“Often I muse over how studying in Morocco exposed me to an alternative way of life in regards to scheduling, planning, and communicating. Where I’m from, we are direct, move quick and with a purpose. I learned fast that every country has its own personality and stride; tasting life abroad as a student first undoubtedly prepared me for being a professional in the real world.

I’m an educator so I’m constantly tasked with discovering new ways of being innovative and sensitive to the needs of those around me. The third largest city in China, Guangzhou is a hot, commercial center, with menus to die for. Home of Cantonese food, the Canton Tower, and the infamous Canton Fair, this is a city for the ambitious. Working in China is quite the experience for me, as I am employed by one of the largest language schools in China, and have my own personal pursuits on the side as a designer and mentor. Since I have an evening schedule, during the morning I usually attend mandarin classes, scour the markets, or discover the city in some other way. In the evening I head to work where I manage 16 classes of varied level students, and am tasked with planning creative lessons to keep them excited about learning. This isn’t always as easy as it seems, especially when you consider the differences in school culture across the world.”

Q: Have your experiences abroad met your expectations? Exceeded them?

“As I prepared to embark on this journey, I made sure to have no real expectations of those around me, only of myself. There were three things I promised I would do:

1)    Say yes more often

2)    Really pay attention to the people around me

3)    Take heed to the signs and opportunities for personal and professional growth

The friendships, family, and professional connections that I’ve created since stepping outside my comfort zone have empowered me to peel back the layers of humanity, revealing the world, revealing me. Of course there have been frustrating moments, scary moments, and plain disappointment, but with each of those comes an opportunity to learn, teach, and grow.”

Q: Your study abroad experiences were a large part of your time at TU and beyond. How have they affected your career path?

“Study abroad was an expansive experience that allowed me to see the true value of international education. Learning in the classroom is wonderful, but there are many things that a person can only gain through real world experience. Being exposed during undergrad equipped me with the idea that there were more non-conventional paths to the life that I desired. Teaching, public speaking, and organizing travel on my own, were only a few activities that led me to think outside the box.”

Q: Many study abroad alumni speak about an “ah ha” moment or a particularly powerful memory. What’s yours?

“The Western Sahara is extremely cold at night, especially just before dawn. Our group traveled out to the middle of the desert to camp for a few nights, and it was there I felt the sky, and tasted reality. This night I ended up alone, watching my group go off in front of me, scaling up and down the tall, soft sand dunes. I was tired, so once I reached the top of a particular dune, I planted my body right there. The shadows dwindled in the distance and it was just I, stretched out at the top of this mound, being flattened by the sky, and covered in the silence. I began to meditate, then to cry as I wondered how I got to be in such a beautiful place, with such beautiful people. I’d come so far and I didn’t want to go home, I felt at home right there on that dune, laid back watching nature go wild above me. On that dune, my love of a good view was born, and I was reminded that no matter what, whether alone or in a group, I would always honor my dreams and keep home inside me.”

Q: What would you say to students worried / concerned / afraid of studying abroad?

“Honor those feelings, and then immediately challenge them, along with the narrative that is leaving you afraid of going after what you want. You really only have two options, do it now or do it later, because it will not go away, the desire.

One of my favorite books of all time is The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. This story is probably one of the most favorited amongst travelers because of the emphasis placed on the importance of ‘the journey’ for the protagonist. I suggest they read this book and make their own assumptions; I can guarantee they won’t regret it.”

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