Education Abroad Alumni | Stories Beyond the Stamp

UMW’s Education Abroad Alumni travel far and wide after graduation, using their experiences to the fullest in their future endeavors.

If you are interested in telling your “Story Beyond the Stamp” please email

Brooke Matta

My name is Brooke Matta, and I graduated in 2014 with degrees in International Affairs and Sociology. As a junior, I studied abroad with ISA in San Jose, Costa Rica.

I always knew I wanted to study abroad, and was especially interested in countries where I could improve my Spanish. I was torn between Costa Rica and Spain, and ultimately decided on Costa Rica because of its affordability, natural beauty, and down-to-earth culture.

During my time in Costa Rica, I made a really solid group of friends — who now live all over the United States. Since 2012, we have had eight reunions and celebrated two weddings. We live hundreds of miles apart and sometimes go a whole year without seeing each other, but still prioritize getting together and reconnecting. We bonded over our amazing study abroad experience, and will probably be friends for life.

I was lucky enough to avoid major challenges and culture shock during my time in Costa Rica. Life there was so simple and easy that I had no issues acclimating. My time teaching English in Spain after college was more of a challenge in terms of building a life from scratch and balancing work with socializing.

One thing that is interesting and different about Costa Rican culture is the “work to live” rather than “live to work” mentality. Coming from the United States, it was great for me to experience an alternative to the hustle and bustle that characterizes our professional world. Costa Rica’s “pure vida” lifestyle teaches you to slow down and appreciate what you have in your life while you still can.

Going abroad impacted me in so many ways — both personally and professionally. It sparked an interest in International Education, and was the reason I have taught abroad twice since graduation. I have worked in higher education and IE throughout my career, and I doubt I would have chosen the same path if not for my study abroad experience.

Tad Dickman

Class of 2012, Business Administration

Which education abroad program did you take part in?

Through GlobaLinks (now ISA), I interned abroad in the marketing communications department at the National Basketball League (NBL) of Australia.

How did you decide to study abroad? Who or what influenced you to go?

During basketball season in 2011, I attended an on-campus study abroad fair to see the interesting destinations that my classmates could choose for their study abroad programs. While wearing a UMW Basketball sweatshirt on my way to practice, one of the recruiters stopped me and told me about a few programs in Australia that focused on sports. The more we talked, the more fascinated I became with the idea of interning in Sydney, Australia and working for their domestic basketball league. The opportunity seemed like a perfect fit from the very beginning, and it turned out to be more than I could have ever imagined.

What is one of your favorite stories to tell people about your time abroad?

Besides scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef and skydiving in the Whitsunday Islands, my favorite work-related story during my time in Australia was my week-long assignment with the Australian Men’s Basketball Team, known as the “Boomers.” They were playing against the Chinese Men’s Basketball Team in Perth, so I flew to Western Australia and spent the week with the team’s manager assisting with publicity efforts. As a 21-year-old at the time, I spent some time with Dante Exum, a then-17-year-old who is now a guard for the Utah Jazz. It was his first experience with the Men’s Senior Team, and like me, we both were in awe of the entire experience. I coordinated several interviews, assisted with statistics and helped coordinate the postgame press conferences, which exposed me to the world of sports PR and how intriguing and rewarding a career in the industry would be. I valued that experience immensely, and I’ve enjoyed following Dante’s career throughout the years.

What is one challenge that you overcame during your experience? What did it teach you?

Living in Sydney, it was difficult to stay in touch with friends and family on the East Coast since I was 14 hours ahead of them. However, the experience pushed me to create my own network of friends in Australia. For the first couple of weeks, it was difficult to get in a new routine in a new city at a new job with new people. Once I embraced that challenge, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I took advantage of the opportunity to be more independent and through these experiences, I believe I matured and learned a lot about myself, including my time management skills, work ethic and goal-setting abilities.

What are a few ways that going abroad impacted your life path?

Immediately following my internship in Australia, I returned to the U.S. and knew that I wanted to work in the sports PR field. The internship really pushed me to seize this opportunity and devote the time and energy necessary during my senior year (and senior basketball season) to turn this dream into a reality. I started working for Mary Washington’s athletic department and learning as much as I could about the intricacies of the organization. Through my work with UMW’s athletic department, I coordinated a project with D.C. United, which eventually led to my first internship following graduation in May 2012. My internship with the NBL in Sydney has played a crucial role in my career path and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had while in Australia.

Julia Ruane

Class of 2013, English Major and Asian Studies Minor

The Education Abroad Network: Beijing, China, Spring 2012

How did you decide to study abroad? Who or what influenced you to go?

Since I was young, I always had a desire to travel and see parts of the world that were different from what I was used to. I always knew that I wanted to study abroad- what could be better than an entire semester to immerse yourself in a new place?!- and take advantage of an amazing opportunity to fully experience a new place and language. My sophomore year, I needed to take language courses as part of my general education requirements, and as an English major, I had just taken an Intro to Linguistics course. I was so fascinated by the linguistic differences between Chinese and English, so I started Chinese 101. Then I thought, since I’m spending all this time studying Chinese, why not go study abroad in China? If you’re looking for a place different from Fredericksburg, VA, then Beijing, China will definitely be different!

What is one of your favorite stories to tell people about your time abroad?

Studying abroad in China definitely gave me some great stories about crazy foods (duck blood or scorpion, anyone?). I think the best stories I have are about all of the crazy, out-of-my-comfort-zone situations I ended up in during my time abroad. From taking a 36-hour train ride, to hiking a desolate part of the Great Wall at sunrise, to just trying to figure out a campus map in another language, I had so many new experiences that make for great stories. Mostly funny stories- though not always funny at the time, it’s amazing to look back on your time abroad and even look positively on the discomforts.

What are a few ways that going abroad impacted your life path?

I definitely think I am a more adaptable, flexible, and understanding person as a result of my study abroad experience. Living in a completely new place where I barely spoke the language made me so grateful for the patience and kindness of others, and that is something I keep in mind whenever I interact with people to this day.

What is one interesting fact or custom about the culture of your host country that learned from visiting/living there?

I learned a lot about Chinese history while I was there and kept up with current news, just because it was much more “real” to me to actually see it and live it! As far as customs, I definitely appreciated taking off my shoes each time I entered someone’s home. Even though it’s a small gesture, it’s an easy way to show respect and tidiness. It’s still the first thing I do when I walk into my own house today.

What is one challenge that you overcame during your experience? What did it teach you?

The language barrier was a huge challenge for me. Since Chinese uses characters, I couldn’t even sound words out or try to guess their meaning! It definitely pushed me to improve my language studies. While I had studied some Chinese at UMW before going, the power of immersion was incredible…needing to learn the language in order to order food and eat was a strong motivator! If you are ever overwhelmed by studying another language, I can’t recommend enough immersing yourself. Beyond learning the language to survive, there are so many conversations and experiences that I never would have had if I had not studied another language. I am very grateful to all my Chinese teachers, not only at UMW, but also at my Chinese university, and all of my Chinese friends and even people in my neighborhood. I learned from so many people!

Darrell Graf

Class of 2004, Business Administration

Program: 2002 Inaugural Summer Program at Universidad de Deusto

How did you decide to study abroad? Who or what influenced you to go?

I wanted something different for my life.  I grew up in the same town and had only left the East Coast once in my life.  Coming from a larger family, we never traveled far, but I always enjoyed meeting new people, learning new cultural customs and hearing about where people have been. Leaving the country never occurred to me and seemed unobtainable, especially due to the cost. However, after speaking to Dr. Sainz about what I would experience and see, I pushed on my parents and came to an agreement. I’m fortunate they believed it would be a great learning experience and provide personal growth. They took an additional loan out on the house and I took a job as a bank teller before and after the trip to pay them back.

What is one of your favorite stories to tell people about your time abroad?

My favorite story is one I cannot tell, but the most memorable story was from our second night in Bilbao. We had traveled around Madrid the first few days doing various excursions as we made our way to Bilbao. During that time I made friends with Brandon and Matt, who went to different schools. All of us were beginner Spanish speakers and we made a pact to try and only speak Spanish. Our first day in Bilbao, the three of us sat with some local students in the dorm cafeteria and they invited us to hang out the following day/night. They showed us the ropes, how things worked and then we all went out to the discotecas. It’s been 16 years since my trip and I’m still friends with Brandon.

What are a few ways that going abroad impacted your life path?

Studying abroad taught me valuable life lessons, which have allowed me to navigate the world with more fluidity. You’re so far out your comfort zone between language, culture, food, isolation from family/friends, etc., that you quickly realize the only way to succeed in having a good experience is to go all in and forget everything you knew about “how to live.” What you knew yesterday may not matter for tomorrow – you have to be open-minded and adapt. I take that with me today and even tell my children: there is more than one way to get somewhere. Whether you go left, right or straight, it just matters that you arrive. It’s like when you see two people arguing, but they are saying the same thing, just in a different way. They are so wrapped up in their own personal vision that they cannot see they are actually agreeing.

The second life lesson I learned was a deeper sense of empathy and a realization of how similar humans are no matter where they are from. You become the immigrant when living overseas: the struggles with language or adapting to the culture, having things feel out of place, and missing certain cultures of the U.S. I can now relate on a smaller level to those who struggle in the US with the same issues. We all look for a bond and connection to one another.

Lastly, studying abroad gave me the love of travel. I’ve now been to a number of countries across Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Australia. I hope to see Africa and Asia in the near future.

What is one interesting fact or custom about the culture of your host country that you learned from visiting/living there?

Looking back, it was ignorant of me, but I realized how different each region of Spain is. I studied in the Basque region, where we were learning two languages, Spanish and Euskara. We would take classes in Spanish, but also have a class on the history and culture of Euskaldunak.

What is one challenge that you overcame during your experience? What did it teach you?

My biggest challenge to overcome was the fear of making mistakes. After the first few days, the local students went on summer break and we were with only American students. It was easy to communicate in English, especially at times when you felt like you were struggling with the language. This taught me that it is simply a matter of time before you begin to master a skill. I remember the last week, being in a bar, having a full conversation with the bartender, and in the middle of the conversation thinking, “holy s—t, I’m speaking Spanish!”.

Being willing to take a chance and make a mistake has served me well in life. Every big chance I’ve taken has put me in a better position in the long run. I definitely have my share of failures/mistakes both personally and in my career, but I do my best to self-reflect and correct and most times it has led to great growth.