Gateway to the World Julia Hernandez took a Spring Term class in Ghana and studied abroad in France and Morocco, proving that W&L is a gateway to opportunities all over the globe.
“I certainly would not have been able to have so many international experiences had it not been for the generous aid of W&L.”
~ Julia Hernandez ’20
Hometown: Pueblo, Colorado
Majors: Sociology and French
Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies
As a Senior Admissions Fellow and tour guide, you’re accustomed to explaining why prospective students should attend W&L. Why did you choose W&L and what are the main reasons you advocate for attendance now?
I will be the first to admit that I had no clue what I was looking for when I applied to college. At the time, I applied to 21 different schools on the Common Application, maxing out the number of apps that the website allowed a student to send. On my list, I had schools ranging from large research universities to smaller liberal arts schools such as W&L.
Having attended high school at a small boarding school in the middle of the cornfields in Indiana, I initially thought that I wanted a big college located in the middle of a city. As a small liberal arts school located in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, ironically, W&L is the exact opposite of what I thought I wanted. But when I visited W&L’s campus for the first time and witnessed the unique environment and community, I knew that W&L was the perfect place for me.
Given my initial indecision in applying to colleges, upon coming to W&L, I knew that I wanted to help prospective students really figure out what they wanted and what they were looking for in a college. As a tour guide, I have the unique opportunity to share my own college decision experience, while also being able to talk about the aspects of W&L that I love. As a Questbridge scholar, one of the biggest things that drew me to W&L was the amazing financial opportunities provided by the school. Outside of financial aid for tuition, there are so many different scholarships and grants that can be used to cover summer internships, research projects, travel/study abroad, etc. I certainly would not have been able to have so many international experiences had it not been for the generous aid of W&L. So, while W&L may be small and located in the middle of the mountains, for those who are interested, opportunities at W&L stretch far beyond the red bricks and white columns of our campus.
You have been involved in so many extracurricular activities at W&L. What are some of the others and why did you decide to include those in your college experience?
Outside of the Admissions Office, I have done a lot of work as a tutor within the Lexington community, as well as on campus. As a Languages for Rockbridge tutor, I volunteered weekly at Maury River Middle School, where I taught French and shared the French culture with students. I also volunteered as an aide in 2nd grade classrooms at both Central and Waddell elementary schools. On campus, I was a French peer tutor. I have always loved working with children, so I knew that I wanted to find a way to get better involved within the local community. I have loved working at the local schools and being able to extend my network outside of my W&L peers and professors.
Tell us about your time in Ghana in spring 2018 and summer 2019. What were the main lessons you took from those visits?
I first traveled to Ghana for Spring Term in 2018 with Professor Stephanie Sandberg’s course, The Ethnography of Modern Day Slavery. As a film course, our class worked with local non-governmental organizations to produce documentaries about child trafficking in Ghana. My class was split into three student groups, with each group assigned to a specific organization. My group was assigned to work with an organization called Ghana Make a Difference (GMAD). GMAD is a transitional home for children who have been rescued from human trafficking; it aims to rehabilitate and reintegrate children into their home communities.
In summer 2019, I received a grant from the Center for International Education to return to Ghana and work with GMAD on a project I developed with another W&L student, Kana White, entitled “Targeting Child Vulnerability in Ghana through Education.” While working at GMAD with Professor Sandberg’s Spring Term course, we noticed that GMAD lacked a proper educational facility; “school” was held in a converted chicken coop. As children who are trafficked often do not have the opportunity to attend school and therefore easily fall years behind in their education, having a proper school is essential for successful rehabilitation and reintegration. Consequently, our project aimed to improve the conditions of the school and create a more favorable learning environment at GMAD. For this project, we were fortunate to partner with W&L’s ITS Department, which donated eight iPads and a projector to the school. We also worked with GMAD’s technology coordinator and purchased a solar-powered generator in order to increase the stability of the power source at GMAD’s school.
Both of these trips were incredibly impactful and enlightening in many ways. The Spring Term course was my first time working with NGOs on an international scale, something I hope to do more of in the future. Both experiences raised many questions about how to best approach working with diverse communities and how to find sustainable solutions to certain inequalities.
You spent an entire semester in France and even had to sign a contract saying you wouldn’t speak English for the entire time! What did you like most about that experience?
As a French major, I knew that I wanted to study abroad with a program which emphasized cultural and linguistic immersion. Middlebury’s language programs are well known for their rigorous language expectations and language pledge. Therefore, when deciding where I wanted to study abroad, my sights fell on a Middlebury program in Bordeaux, France.
I remember thinking “what have I gotten myself into?” when I first arrived in France, jetlagged and confused, and immediately had to plunge into full-on French mode. I was the only student in my program to be dually enrolled in two French universities, one where I took French literature courses and the other where I took sociology courses. As the only international, let alone American, student in many of my courses, the learning curve was very steep. Not only did I have to acclimate to having all my classes in French and the universities themselves, but, as the “American exchange student,” I was often called on to share my unique point of view. So, even if I had wanted to hide in the back of my classroom and not speak up due to the fear of wrongly pronouncing a word or not knowing the vocabulary, I was not given the choice.
Looking back at my time in Bordeaux, I often wonder how my experience would have been different if I had not been required to speak French the entire time or been directly enrolled in a French university. If I could do it again, I certainly would not change anything. This program pushed me outside of my comfort zone in many ways. Not only did my French drastically improve, but I became much more confident in my ability to create a new life and a new community all while speaking a foreign language. Speaking French every day became my new normal! To this day, I still keep in contact with my host family and hope to meet up with them sometime soon once everyone is able to travel again.
Any other abroad adventures you’d like to share?
Following my semester in France, I decided to continue my studies abroad and picked Rabat, Morocco, as my next destination! I spent a little under five months in Morocco, where I lived with a host family, continued practicing French and started to learn Arabic.
While I was lucky enough to spend the night in the Sahara Desert and travel around Morocco during my semester abroad, I found that the simple actions of my everyday life were the experiences that held the most significance. Over the course of my semester in Rabat, eating dinner with my host family became a cherished, nightly tradition. To this day, I often think about the nights I spent at our dinner table, listening to my host mom yell “kuli, kuli” (Moroccan Arabic for “eat”) as I ate more than I could have possibly imaged. One night, as I sat with my host sister talking about various aspects of Moroccan and American culture, my host mom happened to find an old Bible, written in Arabic. As we both attempted to decipher the ancient calligraphy script, I remember taking a step back to consider the situation. Here I was, halfway across the world, attempting to read an Arabic Bible in a Muslim country, all the while discussing it in French with my host sister. While I only spent a semester in Rabat, Morocco’s unique convergence of languages, cultures and people certainly left a lasting impression.
Has anyone been a mentor to you at W&L?
My advisor, Professor Jon Eastwood, has definitely been a huge source of support and mentorship throughout my time at W&L. With a double major and a minor, I knew that studying abroad for a year was going to be difficult, specifically in terms of making sure I had enough credits to graduate with the three areas of study. Professor Eastwood was there to help throughout the entire process, encouraging me to go in the first place, helping to get courses approved, and helping navigate all the credit transfer applications. Over the past year, Professor Eastwood has been so helpful in helping me to figure out what my post-graduation plans will look like, always volunteering to write letters of recommendation or talk over Zoom, despite his busy schedule. Whether listening to him talk about the importance of moving the ball down the field or how it is okay to admit that you don’t know everything, I will certainly miss having class with Professor Eastwood!
I also have to give a big shout out to everyone in the Admissions Office. They are the best work family and have always been a constant source of support throughout all my adventures!
What are your plans now that you’re about to graduate?
As a French and sociology double major with a minor in poverty and human capability studies, my diverse schooling has certainly molded my interest in the relationship between language, education and public service.
Following graduation, I plan to spend some time abroad, further developing my language skills and diving deeper into different social and policy issues on the international level. I have an offer to return to Morocco with the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Volunteer. I was originally scheduled to leave Sept. 8, but given the current pandemic situation, my departure date has been pushed back to Oct. 1 at the earliest. While in Morocco, my job will encompass a wide variety of activities which aim to develop life skills in youth by conducting classes, clubs and camps, and co-facilitating service-learning projects.
In terms of long-term goals, I plan to pursue a masters in international relations and work within the policy field, where I can hopefully utilize my language skills and experience abroad.
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More About Julia
Q: What’s your favorite restaurant or shop in Lexington? What do you usually get there?
Napa Thai for sure! My go-to order is chicken pad Thai, spicy level 2!
Q: What one book or film do you recommend to everyone?
“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi
Q: Favorite W&L event?
The winter holiday dinner in D Hall
Q: Favorite spot on campus?
The big green chairs in the Tea House
Q: Favorite class?
SOAN 276: The Art & Science of Survey Research with Professor Krzysztof Jasiewicz
Q: Favorite W&L memory?
Being part of a school of tuna for the Mock Con Parade
Q: What do you miss most during the quarantine?
Tuesday lunches with friends in Hillel’s E Cafe for the General’s grilled cheese and tomato soup!
Q: Who is the first person you’ll hug when you get back to campus for Commencement?
Scotty Ashworth in the Admissions Office!