Name: Jackie Laulainen
Program Term: Year 2003-2004, Fall 2005
Q: Tell us the story of when/where you studied abroad. How you chose where you went, if what you ended up doing matched what you first expected/planned to do.
Costa Rica: My first time studying abroad, I knew I would choose to go for one year because we had hosted a German exchange student in high school and she told me, “whatever you do, go for a year.” I chose Costa Rica because I knew I wanted Latin American Spanish, not Iberian Spanish, and Costa Rica had been on my radar for a few years already. I chose Heredia over Puntarenas because I’m a mountain girl and didn’t like the idea of living at the beach (crazy to think of that now!).
To be honest, I don’t recall giving it a whole lot of thought before I left. It’s just something I knew I would do as soon as I was able, and I didn’t have very many expectations except to learn Spanish. What happened is that my life completely changed. I was fortunate to have an amazing and loving host family, with whom I am still in touch. I met one of my best friends there – a travel buddy for life – and she was even in my wedding last year. I fell in love with Spanish. I also fell in love with the Latin culture, the food, the dancing, the beaches, the forests, the people, and most of all, travel. I have never been the same, and I truly couldn’t have asked for more from my first experience abroad.
Turin, Italy (Torino): Torino was the only option USAC had in Italy when I went in 2005, otherwise I’m sure I would have chosen small town Viterbo had it been available. That being said, I believe everything happens for a reason, and I can’t be happier that I spent a year in Torino. I knew almost nothing about Italian culture before I left, but I should have guessed that I would fall in love with that, too. I learned to speak fluent Italian, made some of the most amazing friends from all over the world in and out of the program, worked during the 2006 Winter Olympics, traveled through most of Italy and much of Europe, and became an even bigger soccer fan than I was before. Again, I hadn’t gone with a lot of expectations, and I was absolutely blown away, and now I’m part Italian at heart. It was the best thing that ever happened to me next to my year abroad in Costa Rica.
Q: I imagine those experiences are touchstones for you. As you look back, how did who you are as a person and your work or identity now transform over those points in your life?
I can’t say enough about the positive impact travel has had on my life. I feel like I discovered who I was as I spent that time abroad. The real me was finally unveiled, and I was in my element. I was meant to travel. I was meant to speak foreign languages. I was meant to be comfortable when I wander far outside of my comfort zone.
My travel abroad experiences did not stop at studying abroad with USAC. After I graduated from college, I backpacked through Central America, studied abroad in Brazil, continued to explore Europe, and have traveled through a bit of Asia. With the experience I have gained, I have become a resource to anyone and everyone around me for all things travel. I am now a travel blogger and just published my first book, The Aspiring Traveler’s Handbook: A preparation guide to international travel. I literally would not be who I am today without having taken the opportunity to study abroad when I did.
Q: What are some of your favorite highlights from your time studying abroad?
Costa Rica: Our group trip to Tortuguero and Bocas del Toro, Panama (still one of my favorite places in the world), spending time with my amazing life-long friends from Montezuma, becoming Herediana de corazón and supporting EL TEAM (soccer), learning vocab words from my host dad, dancing the night away every weekend.
Italy: My core group of friends from 7 different countries, the first time I saw the Colosseum in Rome, bartending during the Olympics, actually the entire Olympics was a highlight, mini-vacations to Spain, Germany, and around Italy, getting stuck at my friend Jose’s apartment during a bus strike and learning how to make carbonara while I waited, the open air markets, the FOOD, oh the food.
Q: How did your academic career change as a result of studying abroad (change your major? Etc)
I was a Spanish major from the start and I finished it within two years, so it was a minor that I had to change. I had originally declared French, which I later switched to Italian (not a huge change, but very significant). I fulfilled almost all of my major and minor requirements while abroad for those two years, so during my last year I had nothing but 100 level classes to catch up on and a few electives (including French and German). I suppose I did it a bit backwards.
In May of 2013 I launched my travel blog “The Budget-Minded Traveler” (www.TheBudgetMindedTraveler.com). I’ve had a personal travel blog since 2008, but this is different. Rather than posting stories about where I’ve traveled and what I did, I am posting specific, resourceful information that will help prepare others to travel abroad. It is meant to go hand-in-hand with my book. I am a writer at heart, and I want to help people. I believe that with the experience and passion I have for travel, I also have the responsibility to share it and inspire others to reach their potential through traveling as well.
I recently self-published my first book which I mentioned previously. This is one avenue for me to reach out to those who are considering traveling, or who want to travel, but have so many questions that they are hesitant or simply don’t know where to start. Ten years of international travel experience has been poured into that book, and my hope is that through the book and the blog, I will be able to equip and inspire others to travel the world as well, on a budget. It is possible, and it is worth it.
Q: A related question, when you first studied abroad, could you have imagined what you are doing now?
I could not have imagined doing what I am doing now when I first studied abroad. Part of the reason is that I didn’t know travel blogging existed (in fact, it might not have at that time to the extent it is now). I didn’t know then that I was meant to be an entrepreneur, an author, and a world traveler. I have discovered my dream job, and the best part is that it doesn’t feel like work to me.
Q: What advice would you have for a student currently considering studying abroad for the first time?
First and foremost, “whatever you do, go for a year.” That was the advice given to me – I know the value of it – and I would definitely suggest the same. Second, if you are even considering it in the slightest, YOU MUST GO. There are too many people who never even consider going abroad, and they don’t know what they are missing. If you have any interest in it whatsoever, you must go and find out for yourself what it will do for your life. Third, don’t overthink it. Don’t come up with expectations. Just get your paperwork sorted, get yourself over there, and start living.
Don’t let this opportunity pass you by, your life will never be the same whether you do or you don’t. You’ve just heard how it has changed my life, wouldn’t you rather see what it holds for you than never find out? Make it happen.