TROY—For Dothan native and Troy University alumna Heather Smith, going abroad has always piqued an interest.
Smith, a Rehobeth High School graduate who graduated from Troy University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and Spanish and an art minor, is a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar who will spend the next year working on a master’s degree in Malaga, Spain.
“I’ve always been interested in international education,” she said. “At Troy University, I took advantage of the study abroad options in the international programs office.”
With an ability to use a TROY scholarship at a foreign counterpart university, Smith was slated for Belgium when the terrorist attacks struck the United States in 2001.
“Instead, I used my scholarship for several independent study courses and went on a semester-long ‘road trip’ with another student. It was amazing and I learned a lot about our country as we traveled as far as Colorado and the Grand Canyon,” she said.
It would be two years later before her dream of studying in another country would come to pass, thanks to a chance meeting with a Rotarian who connected Smith with a Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship through Rotary International. That sent her to Ecuador for six months and allowed Smith to immerse herself in the language and culture of the host country.
“In addition to learning new vocabulary and mastering new grammar concepts, I volunteered as an English teacher, spearheaded a toy donation project for an orphanage and learned, along with street children, how to paint from a local artist in an open-air market,” she said.
Now a freelance photographer, she took her experiences – that included scaling walls of an Amazon canyon, swimming with sea turtles in the Galapagos Islands and trekking to the summit of Machu Picchu in Peru – into the high school classroom teaching Spanish.
Rotary, however, wasn’t done with Smith. She was soon invited to join a Group Study Exchange for one month in India, where she shared Alabama opportunities and learned about her profession and industry from an Indian perspective.
“I come from a very poor family and would have never been able to achieve this type of international exposure without help from somewhere. The Rotary Foundation has now invested in me three times now,” she said. “I know first-hand that studying abroad is a life-changing experience. My time in Ecuador was brief and yet that experience pushed me into a career in teaching.”
“I think that a full year abroad is going to change me in even more drastic ways,” she added.
When her time in Spain is concluded, Smith plans to return to the classroom, but admits she’s looking to expand her career into the collegiate level.
“I want to be in a position to challenge young people to expand their horizons. Studying abroad forces a student out of their comfort zone and pushes them to grow – personally, academically and professionally. International exposure gives a definite edge to new graduates entering an increasingly tough and competitive market,” she said.
Through International Programs at TROY, students are encouraged to participate in a myriad of study-abroad programs that exist in nearly every department of the University.
“I would warn students to beware when first deciding to study abroad,” Smith said. “It is an infectious little bug and, once bitten, it rarely will let go of you.”