Being Indigenous and pursuing study abroad

Courtney Hale in traditional Navajo dressBy Courtney Hale 

Hale is a two-time alumna of NAU and a member of the Navajo Nation; she studied abroad in South Korea and Japan during her time at NAU. She is a program assistant for Education Abroad and helps other students, especially Indigenous students, find ways to have an international experience while at NAU.

 Study abroad was never something I considered when I pictured myself in college. Native Americans usually never leave home, especially for something like that. I had never even heard of such a thing like study abroad until my second day of college. 

I come from a small community on the Diné Nation, where it was typical to hear the radio cackle to life at 5 in the morning, where my graduating class had a little over 30 people and where Diné was spoken every day. Everything I ever knew was contained to the arbitrary borders that marked reservation land; it was and will always be home, and nothing will ever change that. However, something in me always wondered what would happen if I pushed myself to see something new, something different. 

Courtney Hale in a kimonoThis is why I ultimately chose to study abroad. I wanted to challenge myself to see what the world had to offer beyond reservation lines and the bubble of my everyday notions and way of life. I wanted to experience something new, something I wouldn’t get by only sticking with what I knew. I wanted to see if a small-town rez kid like me could really do something…unconventional. 

Personally, the process of planning for study abroad was challenging for a number of reasons. No one in my life ever went abroad for the sake of learning and in the pursuit of education. No one ever showed me how it was done or what to expect, so it was something I had to navigate on my own, which was extra challenging since I started looking into study abroad when I was still a freshman. 

The cherry on top, though, had to be facing my family and talking with them about wanting to study abroad. I was almost finished with my application for a summer program in Japan, which I had been working on for about two months, when I decided to spring it on my parents one day. 

I could’ve and should’ve approached it differently, but I knew from the second that I let my curiosity for studying abroad take over that nothing about approaching my family or leaving home would be easy. Leaving home, leaving the natural boundaries set for us as Diné, is something of a taboo, and I was very used to hearing this rhetoric since I was a child. 

Yet, at the same time, I knew that I would never get a chance like this ever again. Who else from back home, from within my own family, could say that they did what I was preparing to do? 

My first study abroad experience took me to Japan in Summer 2017, and my second study abroad experience took me to South Korea in Summer 2018. It was through my study abroad experiences that I first learned about how much my identity impacts me in a global sense. This happened in small interactions such as people asking me where I was from (since I didn’t “look” like the average American) and in moments that allowed for cross-cultural exchange, such as teaching my international friends a little bit of Navajo and learning how to say colors in Japanese over a game of Uno. 

Study abroad has inspired me to continue pursuing and learning about my interests as they relate to international education and cross-cultural relations. I have continued learning Japanese and Korean in my spare time and have looked into opportunities to teach abroad, which was a career path I did not know was possible before studying abroad. I received both my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees in secondary education from NAU, and as I continue on my education journey, the opportunities available to me thanks to study abroad seem to never end. However, no matter where my future classroom might be, I know that part of who I will be as a teacher will involve telling students about the world that’s out there waiting for them to see for themselves. 

My desire to help students learn about and participate in study abroad stems from everything I’ve been able to experience as a study abroad student as well as the good that has come out of it. Anyone can hop on the internet and look up pictures or cultural customs of a given country; it’s a completely different thing to actually go to that country and experience it for yourself. I want to encourage students to study abroad because the resources and tools to do so are there for you to take advantage of. Everyone at Education Abroad here at NAU is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to help you through the best decision you’ll ever make as a college student. Ask questions from anyone and everyone who has connections with study abroad, whether it’s about life in a different country, how to fund study abroad or why study abroad is impactful. 

Courtney Hale at home with familyI would have never known just how big the world is if I hadn’t studied abroad. There are just so many things that don’t get translated through pictures or books, and there was only so much that my little corner of the world could teach me. 

Studying abroad was one of the most impactful experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve never once regretted my decision to do it. And really, that’s part of the beauty of study abroad: you’ll never know what it’s like until you actually take hold of the opportunity and do it for yourself. 

Study abroad opportunities are available to students of all majors and in many different countries throughout the world. Learn more, including how to fit it into your major plan and how to pay for a study abroad, at NAU’s Education Abroad website. 


NAU Communications