Since long before they ever stepped foot on the UNCG campus or cracked open a college textbook, Mackenzie Winslow and Alexis Overdiep have wanted to study abroad as part of their college experience. It took four years but this summer both were able to cross that item off of their respective bucket lists, though the experiences couldn’t have been much more different for the duo.
Winslow visited Italy for three and a half weeks as part of the “UNCG in Rome” program, a speaking-intensive course featuring quizzes and lectures provided by professors and students on-site in and around Rome and Naples. Each student is required to give two 20-minute lectures focused on a specific monument in the Eternal City. While the group was stationed just down the street from one of the city’s biggest sights, The Vatican, Winslow estimates that she and her classmates walked over 100 miles taking in everything Italy’s capital has to offer.
Much further east, Overdiep spent a month in Vị Thủy, Vietnam as part of the Coach for College program. The program may be a familiar one to Spartan fans, it’s the same one women’s basketball alum India Timpton participated in a year ago. Contrary to your typical study abroad program, the group was tasked with teaching Vietnamese eighth and ninth graders academics, sports and life skills at summer camps. Then on the weekends Overdiep and the other student-athletes would travel around various areas of Vietnam.
For Winslow, studying abroad was something that she had been planning on right from the start of her college career. However, due to the rigors of being a student-athlete, she had found it difficult to find a program that worked into her schedule.
“I’m a part of the International Honors College so I had to study abroad,” said Winslow. “With softball, it was really difficult finding a program that worked. My program had to be Honors College approved plus it had to be in the summer so this was really my only option. It was really imperative that I was able to do this one now. This was pretty much my only chance to graduate with honors so I was really lucky to be able to do this one.”
Although the decision to go overseas was far more spur of the moment for Overdiep, she was also fortunate to find a trip that didn’t conflict with softball.
“I’ve always wanted to study abroad ever since I was younger but the opportunities just really weren’t there because every trip was too long to do with softball,” said Overdiep. “Then I was in a SAAC meeting and heard about the Coach for College program through India and thought that sounded cool. I did a little research on it and kind of impulsively decided to apply and the next day I was told I was in. I was like ‘oh my gosh, this is really happening.’ I just kind of winged it and it was a great decision.”
When it comes to the culture shock of visiting a foreign country, once again the experiences couldn’t have been more different for the pair.
“There was a little bit of a shock in some aspects but not as much as I would have thought,” said Winslow. “Rome is very urban so it’s very similar to a major city here. There was some shock with the police there as they have a lot of young guys carrying very large guns everywhere. That was something I had to get used to but by the end I didn’t even really notice them. I’ve never really lived in a huge city like that. I’ve been to big cities but never lived in one so being able to use the metro every day and find my way around I think I really grew as a person.
“Most people under 40 or 50 spoke English there so that was really helpful. We learned some Italian but there wasn’t really a huge language barrier while we were in the city. And the food was great, it wasn’t hard to find food at all. There were some things here or there that were different but overall it was very similar to a U.S. city.”
“On the other hand, my experience was completely different, there was a huge culture shock,” said Overdiep. “We rarely saw police officers and if you did the only weapon they had was a baton. You would sometimes see military personnel but that was because we were near a military base. Everything was completely safe, you never felt unsafe at all and people were super friendly. We would go to the market and people would just hand you their babies. We would go to the market and they would hand us fruit for free so we got to try things. They don’t have stores like we have or supermarkets, it’s literally just an outdoor market. If they’re selling fish, the fish is swimming around in a bucket and they butcher it right in front of you. So it’s completely different from what I was used to.
“The living conditions and everything were different too. A lot of Vietnamese kids share rooms and beds and immediately after I got off the plane I went to my hotel room and had to share a room with a girl from Germany that I had never met before and didn’t even know her name. It was completely different and foreign to me but at the same time I’d go back and do it again in a heartbeat.”
Whereas Winslow had no problems with a language barrier, it was much tougher for Overdiep to find people that spoke English.
“In Vietnam not many people speak English,” said Overdiep. “They teach the kids English but especially where we were they don’t know much English at all. We were paired up with Vietnamese college students and they were able to help translate for us. We worked together with them but anything the kids said they had to translate to us and vice versa. Sometimes in the city you would find a couple people that knew English but not many at all so we really had to rely on our Vietnamese students and we learned a lot of Vietnamese while we were there.”
While the experience of traveling abroad was vastly different for the Spartan teammates, one thing was completely the same. For both, it was an opportunity of a lifetime that given the chance, neither would think for a second about changing a thing. So what advice do Winslow and Overdiep give to student-athletes considering studying abroad?
“Do it. Even as a student-athlete it’s possible, said Winslow. “A lot of student-athletes don’t think they have time but if you really want to do it you can find a program that is over the summer and that fits your schedule. I think it was so enlightening to be able to experience another culture. It made me realize some things about our own culture that I really wasn’t aware of. It made me more aware of how I acted and how we as Americans act compared to Italians. It was cool to see someone else’s culture but also my own in a different light. It really expanded my thinking and I would encourage any student to participate.”
“I totally agree, do it,” Overdiep concurred. “It was the greatest decision I have ever made. It was super impulsive, I barely planned this trip out and I’m all of a sudden getting on a plane for 29 hours to go with strangers to Vietnam. You really do learn a lot about yourself and your own culture. I couldn’t even sit here and tell you in an hour all that I learned about people, cultures and about myself.