Michele Arenas ’14 volunteers for the nonprofit organization Stepping Stones
More than halfway through her 20-hour journey, Michele Arenas ’14 starts to feel nervous about her first experience outside of the United States. She is tired, uncomfortable, and overflowing with anxious excitement.
Unable to sit still, she reads the documents and instructions for her trip over and over again. This does little to calm her excited nerves; she still has so many questions.
Deciding to take the first steps to ensure a successful semester abroad, she starts a conversation with the Chinese woman sitting next to her, hoping she speaks some English.
“She was so extremely helpful,” Arenas said. “She answered the questions I had about China, like weather, prices, where to eat, transportation, and so much more.”
Communicating with strangers in a different language is an experience Arenas would become comfortable with every day during her semester-long trip to China. Arenas, an Accounting and International Business double major, is currently studying abroad at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. She is participating in an international business program through the Alliance for Global Education.
“China just made the most sense to me,” Arenas said. “I wanted to study abroad in a country where I could learn a lot about international business. Shanghai is, what I believe to be, one of the centers of international business, so what better place to study international business?”
Upon her arrival there, Arenas definitely wasn’t disappointed by her idea of a bustling, business-centered location.
“Shanghai is a vastly developing city that literally has everything you could possibly need or want,” Arenas said. “It’s a very fast-paced city, similar to New York City.”
While the city atmosphere seemed familiar, it did take some time for Arenas to adjust to the cultural differences of the Far East.
“Squatting toilets are still something that I am getting used to,” Arenas wryly admitted. “The food is also really different. Some of the foods they serve here are things that I never thought I would try in my life. But, since coming to Shanghai, I’ve had frog, turtle and lamb testicle.”
While adapting to her surroundings, Arenas has also had to handle schoolwork in this new environment. She is taking two business classes and a Chinese language course for a total of 15 credits.
“My business classes are similar to ones that I would take back at Rider but are geared toward China’s economy and culture,” Arenas said. “My Chinese language class here is very rigorous and intense. It involves a lot of assignments and assessments and it does take up lot of time.”
Though the workload is daunting at times, Arenas is excited to improve her knowledge of the Chinese language.
“Since Chinese is my minor, I also wanted to become more proficient in speaking the language when I decided to study abroad in Shanghai,” Arenas said. “It’s great because the teachers have our best interest in mind and really push us to reach our highest potential in the language.”
With classes, homework, and sightseeing, Arenas has a hectic schedule that is sometimes difficult to balance.
“There are so many things to do here in Shanghai,” Arenas said. “It’s so hard to focus on studying and schoolwork when you’d rather explore the city or take a weekend or day trip to surrounding towns.”
While visiting historic sites, towns or cities, climbing mountains or trying new food, Arenas says that her favorite experience so far has been volunteering. Arenas, along with other students from her program, volunteers for the nonprofit organization Stepping Stones. Once every two weeks, she teaches English to about 50 fourth-grade Chinese migrant school children.
“The children are absolutely adorable and they’re all so eager to learn,” Arenas said. “I always look forward to seeing them and it is such a rewarding feeling to know that I am making an impact on their lives, especially since their schooling is not always stable. Most of their parents move from town to town to look for work.”
Even though she is constantly busy, and is enjoying her semester abroad, Arenas says she does occasionally get homesick. In attempts to keep her family and friends updated about her journey, Arenas blogs about her experiences for the Alliance for Global Education.
“I got an e-mail inviting us to be student bloggers,” Arenas said. “I sent my application in and a few days later, I was accepted for the position.”
Since then, Arenas has been keeping everyone at home up to date with pictures, videos, and stories about her many adventures abroad.
“Sometimes I’ll blog about my day, a weird food that I have eaten or stumbled upon, a new place that I’ve visited in Shanghai or outside the city, and anything and everything else, really,” she said. “For me, it’s nice to look back on things that I have done so far in the semester here in Shanghai and it’s also a great way to share my experiences with friends and family back home.”
Though the work is hard, the place is new, and her days are exhausting, Arenas believes that studying abroad was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“It’s so cool to just have the opportunity to be able to see things that I have wanted to see in my life and learn firsthand about China’s culture by interacting and talking with their people, eating their food, and seeing these amazing places,” she said. “I have met so many amazing people and have seen so many amazing things that I never thought I would be able to see.”
Arenas now encourages other students to get out of their comfort zones and study abroad.