Insights from a virtual study abroad

Studying 'abroad'—even online—holds immense value

October 25th, 2021   |   Nepal, SIT Study Abroad

By Tiffany Padilla

A young woman near a highly decorated wooden structure.
Tiffany Padilla

The sun rises gently, and the rays of light catch my eyes through the window. I stretch, squinting in the morning light. I’d left the blinds open the previous night, knowing that I’d need to wake up with the sun. I don’t mind, though. I’ve always wanted to be an early riser. I throw on a T-shirt, leaving my pajama pants on—the business-on-the-top, party-on-the-bottom look we’ve all come to know and love. I grab my morning coffee, turn on my computer, and ...

I’m there.

Not in Nepal, no, but in the special place between worlds: this matrix, this virtual space where we all agree to meet, instantaneous connection from 13,000 miles away. The faces on my screens are not real. But the people behind them, the stories, the bonds—these are real. I am learning Tibetan, speaking to real Tibetan exiles of Kathmandu—teachers, mothers, painters, nuns. 

I am learning Tibetan, speaking to real Tibetan exiles of Kathmandu—teachers, mothers, painters, nuns.

Throughout my Nepal-based Tibetan language program, my language partners fondly recounted their stories, their celebrations, their traditions. One woman spoke admirably of her husband, who hiked to the peak of a mountain every single morning to meditate and take refuge in the Buddha. Others told me of their plans to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday, lighting candles, praying, singing, dancing, the way their ancestors did. Though they are far from home, the Tibetans I met have a resilient spirit and a vibrant culture that they cultivate every day.

Many interactions brought me closer to the beauty and kindness of humanity, though they might have been missed if I weren’t paying attention. One woman I talked to worked for a nonprofit organization that helped provide emergency supplies to the community. My classmates and I didn’t know it, but some areas of Nepal were struggling with major flooding and natural disasters during our course.

My language partner ... risked her life to help people she had never met. I didn’t know her language, I hardly knew anything about her, but the interactions I had with her touched me.

My language partner was on the front lines, providing food and supplies to struggling families all around the village, people who had lost their homes or their loved ones to the floods. She risked her life to help people she had never met. I didn’t know her language, I hardly knew anything about her, but the interactions I had with her touched me, creating a lasting impression of the potential for human compassion in the midst of impossible circumstances.

Online school has been difficult for everyone. We are still not out of the woods with some study abroad programs, and it may not seem worth it to consider online alternatives. However, if I have learned anything from my own virtual study abroad, it is this: There is immense value in experiencing a study abroad of any kind—even online—if one simply takes the time to pay attention and take the leap.

Tiffany Padilla studied Tibetan language with SIT in summer 2021.