With each turn of the page, a young Nathalie Guevara ’19 was able to travel the world with companions like wizarding student Harry Potter and the mild-mannered mouse Geronimo Stilton. Guevara grew up in a single-parent household in a mostly Mexican-American community in Phoenix, Arizona, and coming to Pomona College was her first opportunity to meet people from all over the country and world.
“I knew I wanted to study abroad before I even applied to Pomona,” says Guevara. “I swore I would study abroad in London as an undergrad because of how much I loved Harry Potter.”
However, when it was time to apply for a study abroad program, Guevara was torn — should she apply to a program that would help fulfill some of her neuroscience major requirements like those in England or Denmark, or go for a full language and cultural immersion, like the programs in Cuba, Hong Kong or Brazil?
One of her faculty mentors, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology Richard Lewis, gave her some advice: “He said ‘You should really do something that is exciting to you, not just what makes sense.’ And I was joking about Korea because my little sister was really into K-pop.”
Although Guevara was taking a Korean language course, she’d heard that the South Korea program didn’t have a language prerequisite, so she decided to meet with Nicole Desjardins Gowdy, the director of the Office of Study Abroad, who told her that Korea was indeed an option.
The idea of spending a semester in Asia, specifically in South Korea, felt like something Geronimo Stilton would do. The main character of the international children’s book series of the same name, Stilton is a mouse who is, in Guevara’s words, bit of a “scaredy cat” but somehow always manages to end up around the world on exciting adventures. “He accidentally went skydiving once, and I feel like I identify with that, I am sometimes very scared, but I do things in a ‘it’s too late to back out now’ way so I can’t psych myself out of a potentially amazing opportunity… That is how I approached my study abroad.”
“I had never left the country before, let alone by myself, so it was just intense in that sense,” says Guevara of her spring semester abroad in South Korea.
“I did a home stay because ‘go big or go home’,” Guevara laughs adding that it was tough to communicate — her Korean family knew little English and she knew very little Korean. However, she committed to learning quickly through intensive language courses and they were able to make it a positive experience.
Guevara’s trip not only provided her with the opportunity to interact with a different culture, but it also gave her a different perspective on her own identity — as an American and Latina. In South Korea, she was seen as an American — and even though she explained that her parents were from Mexico, to the Koreans she met she was an American first.
“I also learned just how to be spontaneous and a little braver, to go out and explore on my own,” she says, adding that she and her friends would take off to explore cities, taking the train to a city they’d just heard about.
“My mom still can’t believe I did some of those things…but I could never do what she did — she did the bravest thing — she came to this country for a better future despite not knowing the language that well…it makes me emotional.”
That’s why after her study abroad experience, Guevara applied to work as a peer mentor for Pomona’s Office of Study Abroad to help other students, especially first-generation and low-income students, navigate the experience of being in a different country for the first time.
“It was surreal for me to see other [U.S.] friends in South Korea who were first-gen and low-income from public universities whose flights and food were not covered and how they struggled. I realized I would have been in that position if I didn’t have Pomona’s financial support.”
Guevara has enjoyed her experience as a peer mentor and has even considered going into working in the study abroad field, but she’s currently set on becoming a doctor. Her advice to other first-generation and low-income students, especially students majoring in the sciences, is to not shy away from the life-changing experience of study abroad.
“A lot of times I hear students ask if they will finish their major requirements on time [if they study abroad] but I think it’s such a rewarding experience… if it’s just fear, don’t let that hold you back. If it’s fear because of a financial situation, there are resources. I am a resource, and I’m easy to talk to and I can be real with them.”
As Guevara wraps up her final semester at Pomona and is figuring out her gap year before entering medical school, she has only one regret: she wishes she had studied abroad a full year. “I had to work a little harder in my major because I did not take any neuroscience abroad but what I got back from South Korea, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”