Three years ago, I was working as a janitor at a community college in Bellevue, Washington. It was an arduous grind to juggle work and school obligations as I commuted to the University of Washington in Seattle every day for classes. As a self-supporting student, I felt like studying abroad was simply not a reality for me – I had bills to pay after all! But when I was given the chance to go abroad and risk what little I had in pursuit of crazy aspirations, I knew what I had to do. I sold my car, moved out of my rental room, and left everything I ever knew behind to go to Japan.
From there, my experience was typical of international exchange students. I experienced the highs of a culture and society I had always dreamed of seeing. I felt the lows of isolation in a land where few people spoke my language and for the first time in my life, I was the outsider. My Japanese skills improved dramatically, and I took on mannerisms of Japanese culture that my friends tell me I still do by course of habit today (Nodding emphatically with several “mm!” sounds when listening to somebody talk, for example).
While in Japan, I was blessed with the awareness to know that the one year I was granted to study abroad could change my whole life if I leveraged it properly. I made friends, made business contacts, got a job writing English articles for Japanese publications, and considered what path I might take after graduation. I studied abroad for my senior year and had only one quarter remaining upon my return to the United States, so the future was looming for me. I knew two things about myself very clearly. One, I wanted to invest in myself a little longer before reentering the workforce. Two, I wanted to go abroad more. A lot more.
When I started at the University of Washington, I had a goal of working in education after graduating. I felt that the best use of my talent would be to spread my love of the language arts as a part-time writer and full-time teacher. I held tenaciously to the field of education, knowing that my primary goal is to contribute to the lives of others rather than (to me) “just get a good job.” That’s why I overlooked the multiplicity of positive points to working in diplomacy when I first learned about the U.S. Foreign Service several years prior.
A life of travel, a mission to promote peace – these aspects naturally appealed to me. But in the end I felt like the Foreign Service was looking for a set of skills I did not possess. I loved exploring other cultures and languages, but I had no experience or ability – and little interest to be honest – in economics and political science. I needed to contribute directly to serving people. So, I forgot about the U.S. Foreign Service and pursued working in international education. That began to change when I heard about how I could work in international education as a U.S. diplomat.
During briefings for the CLS scholarship in Washington, DC, they brought in former diplomats and other US government employees to market to us. I appreciated how they placed such value on our cohort, assuring us that we were the type of people they’d like to have in their offices. However, I knew it wasn’t for me; I was set on working in education. Then they briefed us on the work of the Foreign Service, and touched upon one specific field that persuaded me to reconsider my career goals: Public Diplomacy.
After the seed that briefing planted, I spent over a year in Japan being challenged and growing as a person. I’ve always said that the one year I spent in Japan was more formative than the three I spent at home in a U.S. institution – and I went to a good university too! If I could help other students to benefit from study abroad programs like I did, I knew that would be a worthy pursuit in the field of education I believe in so strongly. This led me to apply for the Pickering Fellowship in the Summer of 2018 shortly after my return to the United States, and the rest is history.
Now I’m studying on a full scholarship to earn a master’s degree in Global Policy Studies at UT Austin. It’s a new world for me, and one in which I am regularly challenged as I seek to prepare myself for the work of professional diplomacy. This is just a brief overview of the tangible ways in which my life has changed as a result of having the opportunity to study abroad. However, the most important benefit I gained was not in my career prospects, but in my world view.
While it can sound trite or generic to speak of expanded world views as reason to go abroad, I believe that the perspective I gained overseas could make the difference between war and peace. More than language training or career prospects, I learned experientially, for the first time, what it means to be a minority in society. I learned that our cultures are the basis of so much of what we think is fundamental to our understanding of the world. I learned to see a place I had dreamed of visiting as more than a fantasy; it was a whole society with more pain and joy than I was capable of conceiving from the outside looking in. In summary, Japan became personal to me.
Face-to-face interactions, while declining in this generation, are yet the basis of interpersonal understanding and intercultural understanding by reflex. Laughter and tears and shared experiences with other people contradict the sentiments of fear and uncertainty with the unfamiliar (which we are all subject to) that can metastasize into bigotry and culminate in division, violence, and war. To provoke peace and the exchange of ideas that I believe can benefit or even save the world at large, I continue to work toward promoting, funding, implementing, and facilitating study abroad programs.
I hope that Gilman Scholars and hopefuls will have experiences abroad as exhilarating and life-changing as mine was. But more than that, it is my hope and belief that the lessons you learn in your study or internship abroad are not soon forgotten. That you would take with you the names and faces you meet and remember things what were once foreign became personal and those who were once strangers became friends.
I am Marshall Sherrell, 2019 Gilman Alumni Ambassador, and I believe in you!