Studying abroad isn’t just about traveling. It’s about growth—in knowledge, in world view, and in how students view themselves.
O’Neill International offers students multiple program options for both Spring Break and Summer Break, alternating some locations from year to year. The destinations and programs are all unique, focusing on a different area of study, from cultural management to conservation, homeland security, healthcare management, and more.
Olivia Ellenwood considered many of those options. She’s a double major in Civic Leadership and Global and International Studies, with a special focus on African Studies. When she heard about the program in Senegal and Gambia, she jumped at the opportunity to pack her bags and fly to Western Africa.
“I think this program in particular is just really special,” she says. “It was once in a lifetime opportunity for many of us.”
Oftentimes, students assume they can’t afford a study abroad program. There’s tuition, travel expenses, and spending money to think about. But Ellenwood took advantage of scholarships from O’Neill and the university that are available to all students to help offset those costs.
She knew this was the right time to take what has been the biggest trip of her life thus far.
“I knew in the future it probably would be easier for me to travel to Europe by myself, whereas going to Senegal and Gambia would not be easy on my own,” she says. “But if I went there during college, I would have support from the university and from program leaders who had lived there before and knew what they were doing.”
Ellenwood’s program focused on topics like soil conditions and farming—topics that helped her feel at home even when she was thousands of miles away.
“I’m from a really small town, very agricultural,” she explains. “I’ve been around FFA and farms a lot, so that part didn’t intimidate me. It was interesting to see how similar the areas we visited were to my hometown in some ways.”
Despite that feeling of familiarity, her experience still took her well outside her comfort zone. She flew by herself to a new continent to pursue a program that wasn’t in her area of study. But she stresses there were countless benefits to doing so.
Students aren’t required to major in a program’s specific topic to attend one of the study abroad trips. In fact, Ellenwood says her trip’s faculty leader provided students with the flexibility to pursue their own interests in addition to the core program.
“He had us write down any academic topic we were interested in researching while we were there,” she recalls. “I chose women’s and girls’ education and economic opportunities.”
Other students researched traditional medicine, West African dance, pharmacies, and other topics that allowed them to learn directly from locals.
“He let us have the freedom to talk to local people on our trip about the topics we wanted to learn about,” she says. “Then we all shared what we had learned with each other. So, in addition to learning about the program topic, I also learned about 10 new fields of study I hadn’t even considered before.”
She says that’s the type of experiential learning that can’t happen in a classroom. And many of her biggest memories came from those experiences and the seemingly small moments spent with people they met during their trip.
“What I’ll remember most are those little moments of connecting with people, when there’s really no specific purpose, it’s just walking around with kids, playing tag, talking to our host families,” she says with a smile. “Just those simple things that don’t seem like they’re a big deal, but in the end they mean the most.”