Last semester I was abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina with a non-Duke program called “Transnationalism and Comparative Development in South America.” With a group of 14 other American students, I have taken classes on comparative development, transnationalism and research ethics. Through the program, I visited Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay. Our program was affiliated with the Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social (Institute of Economic and Social Development), which is a research non-profit. Our program was not affiliated with any American university.

I made two unusual choices: studying abroad in the spring of my junior year because I wanted to take econometrics in the fall with Duncan Thomas and choosing a non-Duke program, because Duke offers no semester study abroad programs in South America and, truth be told, I just wanted to be edgy.

The typical response when people learn that I’ve just returned from studying abroad is, “OMG!!!! How was it??”

The narrative of study abroad is that it’s a semester of sheer, unadulterated pleasure—tourism, food and clubbing. But I don’t want to give people the easy, automatic answer they expect: “amazing!!!” 

With this series of columns, I want to complicate the narrative of study abroad and help other students make decisions about it. Sometimes it was amazing; sometimes it sucked. 

I have cried more this semester than I have any other semester. I didn’t always know it at the time, but 1. Being in a foreign country for the first time for this long with new people is really hard and 2. My routines and communities at Duke were more integral to my personhood than I thought. I have been really lonely, homesick and insecure sometimes. 

Honestly, I waffled around on studying abroad at all for a long time. The relaxation and fun promised by study abroad were at odds with my “type A for anal” personality. The advice that finally convinced me, though, was “nobody ever says that they regret study abroad.” (As if study abroad were a randomized controlled trial—those who choose to study abroad are those who are most likely to enjoy it. They’re a self-selecting group. Thanks, Dr. Thomas!)

But in the end, I am choosing to believe it was worth it. I say “choose” because value is self-constructed. I have learned so much here that I could not have in a normal semester at Duke. Of course, another semester at Duke would have taught me different lessons, but from research, rigorous classes, and my closest friends here, but trade-offs are trade-offs are trade-offs. Study abroad is not for everyone, but I’m glad I did it.

“How was study abroad?”

My answer lies in this summer series of columns for The Chronicle where I will share the special experiences I have had. Special in two senses: first, personally important to me, and second, particular to my experience. During orientation, the program staff and psychologist gave us a mantra: “everyone has a different study abroad experience.” These stories are mine—not my program’s and not yours. 

A roadmap of the topics my summer column will cover. First, I’ll explore race as a global, complex construct with my experience being Chinese-American & Asian in Argentina. Then, I argue that if you’re interested in “Latinidad” or “Spanish,” you have to study abroad for a semester in Latin America. However, through the privilege of study abroad/travel, you paradoxically interrogate American privilege. As a lighter article, I’ll also give some tips on how to improve your Spanish while abroad, tips on trips to make in Argentina, packing essentials etc. I also am an advanced speaker of Spanish and Chinese, but still feel undecided on whether learning foreign languages is worth the investment. Finally, feeling incredibly lonely for much of abroad led me to reflect on family. Some families are chosen; others are given. Is the blood of the covenant thicker than water?


Grace Mok is a Trinity senior. Her summer column about studying abroad will run weekly on Thursdays.