The Alum of the Month for December is CIEE Global Navigator High School Study Abroad alum Denise Alvarez. Denise received the Global Navigator Scholarship in 2015 to spend a summer term in Tokyo, Japan on the Japanese Language & Pop Culture program. The scholarship allowed Denise to go after her dream of finding something more outside the classroom. The experience was educational, cultural, and transformational. Studying abroad in high school even helped her look more competitive on college applications! Now in college, Denise is already planning her next study abroad experience. Most recently, she was able to return to Japan to visit old familiar sites and spend time reuniting with her host family. Learn more about the impact high school study abroad had on Denise:
How did you hear about High School Summer Abroad? How did you know it was right for you?
I had done tons of research at the end of my sophomore and beginning of junior year about different study abroad programs. All the programs I have looked into didn't give the financial aid that CIEE did, and although the programs seemed more costly, in the end with all the scholarships and financial help it was much, much cheaper. With CIEE there were so many more opportunities and it definitely looked like CIEE catered to everyone from all backgrounds; it made me feel like going abroad was an actual possibility.
What made you interested in studying in Tokyo?
Since I was young I've always liked Japan and my uncle and aunt who are from there have always told me about the cultures, legends and history – it was very hard to not fall in love! As I grew older, I knew it had to be Japan despite everyone telling me it's expensive, it's on the other side of the world, and the language is a whole other writing system. I went intimidated but came back braver and content with the decision I made.
How did your study experience fit in with your academics at the time?
I was a high school student when I went to Japan and, at that time, I knew that I already did very well academically. However, I felt like I had nothing else to show for myself besides my good grades. This experience abroad definitely taught me about culture, the Japanese language and customs, and more about myself and my ambitions.
I really did feel like this program added to my college applications tremendously, and I always have people ask me "You went to Japan!? Please tell me more!" It has definitely made it easier for icebreakers and such. The trip also helped me realize that I want to have a career related to international relations. Now I am an economics major and hope to continue to learn more about people and how markets and capital influence our history and actions.
How did studying abroad help your Japanese language skills?
Tremendously. I haven't been learning Japanese as intensely as I did around the time of the trip but when I returned to Japan I found myself lost and asking directions with the exact Japanese I learned while on program with CIEE. I was in shock that I managed to remember all the words and details, and I still know how to read and write the Japanese alphabet (except Kanji). Not only were our teachers great and were passionate to get us to remember the language, but being immersed among people and in situations where you have to use Japanese also helped with my memory retention.
You mentioned to us earlier that the experience helped you become more motivated and focused. How is that so?
I've always tried my best in school however it came to a point where I wondered, “why am I trying so hard to get good grades and where do I want to take my skills?” I've always been focused. However, during junior year, I dealt with a lot of personal problems that really put a strain on my motivation. I also felt that I've always been limiting myself due to my family income and I wasn't so involved as to not cause trouble to my parents. I realized that I needed a change of scenery and needed to change myself. After Japan, my confidence and determination grew. My friends even noted that I have become different in a positive way and that I was more happy and glowing, and to this day, I still am. I like to think that this trip has motivated me to work hard to continue to experience the thrill of travel and, to be honest, it has also influenced me to be able to host in the future as well and hopefully be able to change the life of another.
It’s amazing that you were able to return to Japan and visit your host family. Tell us more about that trip!
After the Japan trip I got in a slump over the summer because I thought, “how can I make something like that happen again when the only reason I went this time was because of a scholarship?” However, I still remember the words of my teacher who told us, "If you guys really want to experience more of Japan you can; it's all up to how much you actually want it." In the spring semester of my first year in college, I got my first job and I learned to juggle both school and work. I worked hard to maintain my grades and scholarship as well as my job and all the duties that came with it. It was hard at times because I found myself studying occasionally during work and during school I would just be tired and not focused. However, my grades came out great and my paycheck was enough for me to go to Japan. I returned to see my host family who was in utter awe that I even returned (despite me promising and messaging that I will!). They took me and my friend to a sports festival to see Yoshi, their daughter, and when we saw each other again she ran out of shyness because she wasn't actually expecting me to return! I am glad I did. However, they treated my friend and me with so much kindness and respect. I revisited the old places I went with CIEE and even went to the Olympic Center where we slept! It was very nostalgic but I am glad I could do it all again and I know this is all thanks to CIEE for giving me the opportunity to go the first time.
What is your advice for high school students who are thinking about studying abroad?
It is very much possible to study abroad in high school despite it being seemingly not. I think the worst mistake one can do to themselves is to create limits. CIEE offers so many opportunities for those who struggle financially and if you have good merit, they acknowledge it and reward you for it. It has definitely changed my life and made me look much more competitive to colleges. I got memorable friends and a wonderful host family who, despite only knowing me for one month, still call me and text me TWO YEARS after the trip!
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