Study Abroad Alumni Interview: Dr. CJ Swanlund

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CJ and a kangarooTell us a bit about your study abroad experience.

During the last semester of my senior year of college, I studied abroad in Fremantle, Western Australia at the University of Notre Dame-Australia (UNDA).  My advisor highly encouraged me to study abroad and shared that it was a unique opportunity to explore another country and engage with a different culture for half a year, which would likely be nearly impossible after graduation. I am so glad that I could make it work -- studying abroad has been one of the best decisions in my life!

How does study abroad still have an impact on your life today?

My study abroad experience impacts my life every day! I had originally planned to pursue medical school following graduation, and while abroad, I had the opportunity to take classes that were pre-requisites for med students in Australia. One of those classes was an Introduction to Counseling class, where we learned basic motivational interviewing and active listening skills and then practiced on each other during lab. I absolutely loved it and the skills felt natural to me! Once I returned to the U.S., as I was studying for the MCAT and working at a hospital, I reflected upon my experience in the counseling class in Australia. After much deliberation, I decided to pursue a graduate program in counseling instead of medical school.  Fast forward ten years...and now I am a psychologist. :)

Explain a situation you experienced abroad in which you gained a new skill:CJ learning how to kick an Australian football with a famous "footie" player

After spending a bit of time reflecting, I realized that I had so many experiences where I learned a new skill that it is hard to choose what to talk about!  One example was attempting to learn the rules of Australian Football ("footie") and how to kick a footie ball.  Footie is somewhat of a mix of American Football, Soccer, and Rugby and is a central part of Aussie culture. One major skill I learned was being able to navigate on the trains and light rail system. I was raised in suburban Minnesota, so if I wanted to get somewhere, I usually had to drive. Learning how to plan my trips according to train routes and schedules was a completely new, yet transferable skill that I have put to good use many times since!

How did study abroad change your perspective of the world and yourself?

Prior to studying abroad, I did not realize the extent of the impact the U.S. culture and media has internationally. It was common for the topics of conversation (inside and outside the classroom) to be about U.S. politics and pop culture. At times, whatever was going on in the U.S. seemed to influence how my Australian peers viewed me or felt about Americans in general.

During the program, we spent a week tenting in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia's Outback. The trip was guided by members of an Aboriginal family from the area. To get to our destination, we flew from Perth to Broome and traveled by van for three hours on a red dirt road.  The temperature was in the 100s and we were only able to bring a small back pack of clothing that would likely be stained by the red dirt. At the time, I had no concept of where I was, there was no escape, and we were in the middle of wilderness in the country with the deadliest creatures (snakes, spiders, sea creatures, etc.) on earth! For someone who had little to no experience with "roughing it," that week had a powerful impact on me. I began to realize the limits of my control on the things around me, which allowed me an opportunity to be more open to and engaged in new experiences and learn to trust myself and others more fully.

CJ in the outbackEach night we would gather by the fire and the guides would tell stories about their lives and history and the impact that colonization had on their family and community. After each story, we were provided with an opportunity for reflection and journaling. In these moments, I started to question my understanding of history, challenge my beliefs, and examine my core values. 

How did study abroad positively affect your personal, professional and academic life?

In so many ways!  Personally - I met one of my dearest friends, who was an Australian student at UNDA. It was such a wonderful experience to develop a friendship and share with her about my home country, while she showed me around hers. She invited me to movie nights and family dinners at her house, which made me feel like I had a family abroad, reduced my feelings of homesickness, and definitely let me experience Australia in an unexpected and deeper way. Professionally - I can confidently say that my study abroad program directly impacted my career trajectory. I often wonder if I would have ended up as a psychologist if I had not taken that Intro to Counseling class in Australia. Academically - I never would have considered studying abroad if it had not been for the encouragement of my advisor. I cannot imagine having missed out on the transformative experiences that I had abroad!   

May 17, 2018