Cassie Gianni: Summer Abroad in Colombia
Cassie Gianni, a 2010 Tier One Scholar, has difficulty remembering a time when she was not fascinated with going abroad. “I think the thought entered my mind in the third or fourth grade,” she says, musing laughingly, “I went to a really diverse elementary school and was randomly put into the international students’ class.” This unexpected, early exposure to different cultures and peoples sparked an interest in international outreach that drives her focus at the University of Houston.
It will come as no surprise then that the summer after her freshman year, Cassie, an economics major and Honors College member, chose to go abroad. With a wealth of programs to choose from though, deciding on a perfect experience proved challenging. But, as seems to be a pattern with Cassie, she serendipitously found herself at an informational session for an organization called AIESEC, “I was walking down the hall and I heard people talking from one of the classrooms about exchanges and international jobs and it immediately clicked with me – I have to crash this meeting!” AIESEC, pronounced ‘eye-sek’, is the world’s largest international student-run organization. It is found in 110 countries and has over 60,000 members and its mission is to provide experiences for emerging young leaders by giving them opportunities such as international internships and by allowing them to participate in a global learning environment. For Cassie, the opportunity to work and teach abroad for the summer was just too good to pass up.
Having had seven years of Spanish language from middle school and high school, she found herself well prepared for her chosen country, Colombia, a nation that does not always have a good reputation. “Going into it, a lot of people had the idea that, oh, you have drugs, you’ve got kidnapping, rape, rebel forces in the mountains… but truth be told? I never experienced any of that,” she says plainly. “I felt safe and comfortable at all times.” Her responsibilities were wide-ranging and rewarding. For three months she taught English at the University of Magdelena and encouraged high school women to become productive members of society by planning and leading informative workshops on topics such as environmental sustainability and social responsibility. “I was also an ambassador for the university,“ she adds, “I got to emcee events like an American Idol-type competition, a dance competition and helped organize 3,000-4,000 students.”
During her free time, Cassie made sure to experience the country in every possible way. She grew very close to her host family and learned how to cook Colombian cuisine, which she shares with her own family today. “Outside of work, I traveled for three and a half weeks. I climbed up waterfalls, went whitewater rafting and zip lining. I went to beach paradise and partied in some of the biggest cities in the world.”
Cassie left Colombia with a deep sense of accomplishment and a thirst for future adventures. “Now I know I can tackle a challenge and go into something unknown and as long as I apply myself, it will turn out okay.” When asked about her favorite part of the experience, she replies, “Honestly, I felt so empowered, even with the fears of my family and friends, and even myself – everything turned out okay, and it was even better than I could have ever possibly imagined. I have a new family and new friends. I got to relax, and expand my perspectives and discovered new things about myself. The culture supported me in my experimenting with new interests. That’s something that never would have happened here.”
Upon her return, Cassie took language proficiency tests and received credits for 3 hours of advanced Spanish and will continue as a Heritage Speaker in her Spanish minor. As the newly elected President of the UH Chapter of AISEC, Cassie is now leading the effort to spread the word to other students about the benefits of study and work abroad.
For the future, Cassie is already preparing for her next study abroad experience. She is working with Dr. Veronique Tran, the Tier One Scholars Program coordinator, on her Boren Scholarship application for study abroad in China and is looking into programs that will take her to Africa. Luckily for her (once again), all these programs fit in perfectly with her degree plan and with her Tier One Scholarship, she’ll receive financial support to achieve her goals. Cassie is making the most of her time at UH and gaining experiences that will prepare her for a future career as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State.
To learn more about AIESEC, click here.
To learn more about study abroad programs offered at UH or about designing your own personalized program, Tier One Scholars may contact Dr. Veronique Tran or the Study Abroad Office.