“When we’re comfortable, we tend to put ourselves into a little box and get used to traveling from our home to campus and back again, making that your whole world.” That’s what Mariam Sarkessian, a native of Malvern, PA, said about deciding to pursue the challenge of spending her junior year studying for two semesters at University of Nancy in Nancy, France.
Sarkessian, a business management major with a minor in music for voice, was determined to make the most of the opportunity. She enrolled in a bachelor of business administration (BBA) program, a nine-month course of study, which would result in her earning a bachelor’s degree upon completion.
Thanks to an adventurous attitude and the additional financial support, she received from the Phillip N. Stan, III and Andrea McHugh Study Abroad/Internship Professional Experience Grant, she was able to push herself out of her comfort zone. She did this not only by challenging herself through her education, but also by fully immersing herself into the cultures and experiences of a foreign land.
As soon as she arrived in France she found herself well outside of that comfort zone, both figuratively and literally. “Right as we got there, the apartments where I was staying, along with several other students in the study abroad program, had a power outage,” Sarkessian said. “We were without power for the first two weeks I was there. No computers, no internet, no blow dryers, no refrigerator, none of the comforts many of us were used to. So it was quite the introduction to the type of challenges I would be presented with.”
In addition to overcoming the challenges of just getting through her daily routine during the first few weeks, Sarkessian also faced the challenges of adapting to a new style of learning. “The set up and structure of the classes was one of the biggest culture shocks,” she added. “Everything was in one building, class schedules were different from week to week, the vacation schedule was entirely different, and each class was 3 hours long.”
One more challenge to add the list was acclimating herself to some teaching styles and philosophies that were very different from what she had grown accustomed to in the U.S. Each of her classes included two group projects, and in some, that was the scope of the entire class. “We were given a group project and then that was it, we just had to complete that project and not work on anything else for that class,” she said.
But these were the challenges she was prepared for when she enrolled in the program. Each of her business classes also called for participants to complete several group projects. “Through this entire experience, I was exposed to an amazing amount of different work styles and cultures,” Sarkessian added, “But after seeing how the work I might do would be applied in an actual international setting, I became much more confident about turning this into a career after college.”
Sarkessian took advantage of the different vacation schedules to see as much of France and the rest of Europe as she could. She made the most of her opportunity to live abroad for nine months, by immersing herself in the customs and cultures of her temporary home.
She tried her best to live as the locals lived, shopping at neighborhood grocery stores and enjoying the authentic local fare at many of the several nearby cafes. “It was a lot more relaxing pace and healthier lifestyle than life in the US,” Sarkessian said. “When we weren’t rushing to classes, we could walk to almost anywhere we wanted to go and nearly all the food was organic or locally grown.”
As a self-proclaimed sweet tooth, Sarkessian especially enjoyed the abundance of pastry shops and bakeries. “I thought I loved sweets before I went, but I had no idea,” she said. “Stopping several times a week to buy a fresh authentic French pastry that was made that morning has spoiled on mass produced baked goods since I’ve come home.”
The funding she recieved made it possible for Sarkessian to travel to 36 cities in ten different countries via train, plane, bus, ride sharing and driving. Along with completing an accelerated bachelor’s degree program, that is a pretty tall order for one college student to pack into a nine-month study abroad program.
Sarkessian says the experience made her much more self-reliant and helped her to learn a lot about herself. She has already begun to put the experience to use since she has returned to Bloomsburg. “Traveling by yourself in an unfamiliar place forces you to learn a lot about yourself pretty quickly,” she added. “You discover more about your own strengths and weaknesses and how you will respond to challenges when they come up.”
Leaving her comfort zone has helped Sarkessian to grow and increased her confidence in ways she has already put to use since she’s returned. At the recent Career Connections Expo held on the Bloomsburg University campus as part of the Professional U initiative, Sarkessian updated her resume to include her study abroad experience and approach employers in attendance at the expo and ask if their companies offered opportunities in the areas of international business and project management.