Stories that Shaped Us: ISA Program Participant Turned ISA/TEAN Staff Member
Katie Chaffin is an ISA Prague and University of Massachusetts Amherst alumna who is today the ISA Program Manager for Czech Republic and Germany! Her experiences abroad during the Spring 2016 semester transformed the way she sees the world and herself, as well as introduced her to the field of international education.
We reached out to learn more about why she chose to study abroad with ISA in the Czech Republic and later join the ISA/TEAN staff! Check out her unique story below and hear her advice for others wanting to follow a similar path!
What inspired you to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic?
My passion for travel began when I took an Ancient Civilizations course in middle school! I had this amazing teacher who made class a very immersive experience for us. This is where my curiosity for exploring different cultures began. However, my initial draw to Prague was that I really knew nothing about it! The culture, traditions, geography, and language were all completely foreign to me. I was excited to live somewhere that I had no prior judgements about or basis for understanding. The more that I prepared for my trip, the more attractive studying there became! I was drawn to the gorgeous photos of the well-preserved Old Town, the affordable cost of living, and the great location in Europe.
What did you learn about yourself through these experiences and how did your time abroad impact your understanding of the world?
I learned that I am capable of a lot more than I realized! There were a few times abroad that I wanted to stay in my shell and not explore or put myself out there, but I did it anyway, and I feel very proud looking back on those small victories. Another big takeaway from my time in Prague is the impact that study abroad has upon students. Sometimes when I was abroad, I felt like a ghost – I would move through the city and take everything in, but I wasn’t always connected to what I was doing. This allowed me to learn A LOT because I could listen and observe. But other times, I felt a big weight on my shoulders. I felt that all eyes were on me in a room and it was daunting to be in a position of having to speak about myself, my hometown, my university, and my life with these people. I felt similarly when interacting with exchange students from other countries – there was a lot of pressure in being that American student abroad. However, this part of my journey made me stronger, and it helped me to realize that pre-conceived notions of other countries and cultures are not always helpful or true!
What is one of your favorite memories or stories from your time abroad?
I stayed in a tiny town in Italy over Easter weekend called Portici. The town did not have much tourism, but it was located conveniently between Naples and Sorento. I stayed in a hostel in town and went exploring one day with my friends. We walked up and down the streets, but they were pretty much empty – there was really no one out at all, and we found many stores to be closed as well. But then, we turned a corner, and there was a tiny well-lit bakery with a huge line out the door. The bakery was selling gorgeous Italian pastries, everyone looked so happy, and the food looked so good. We waited in line for about 30 minutes, and I ordered a lobster tail, which is one of my favorite pastries. It was the single most delicious thing I have eaten in my life. This story stands out to me because I am not sure if it was the quality of the pastry, or if the experience leading up to it made it taste that much more amazing, but I remember that moment as pure joy! I am an avid baker myself, so for me, that experience was eureka!
Did you have any experiences abroad where your identities shifted or became more salient?
I am queer, and studying abroad as a queer person can be very challenging! In my program, I was one of the only ISA students I knew who was queer and open about it. I luckily experienced minimal issues with my identity while abroad, but I know that being in the LGBTQIA+ community and going abroad can be challenging and folks can feel othered. The more we progress as a country, the more students we will have abroad who are comfortable sharing their identities. I think it is important to have conversations about this because the more that we are silent about our identities, the more othered that people feel. Prague is progressive compared to much of Eastern Europe but is a bit more behind the times compared to other European cities in terms of LGBTQIA+ rights. This made it challenging at times for me, but I was lucky to have extremely supportive roommates and friends abroad, and even met other queer exchange students through my host university!
Tell us about your professional journey since study abroad and your current role at ISA/TEAN.
Since graduating college, I’ve worked in a few different fields, but usually with students. I spent a service-year with AmeriCorps in Austin teaching K-12 students literacy skills. I also spent two years working at an Outdoor Education program teaching K-12 students about science and led hiking and kayaking excursions. I have also worked on two farms with many different animals! I really enjoy helping others grow as individuals. This lines up very well in my role at ISA as Program Manager for Czech Republic and Germany!
Any advice for students interested in going abroad to Prague?
Don’t forget about Prague! Many students try to travel every weekend when they are abroad, but save some weekends to get to know Prague, and the Czech Republic, better! Prague is so beautiful and interesting and there is so much to see.
Inspired by Katie’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in a study abroad program? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!