STORRS – The new director of the University of Connecticut’s Education Abroad department is trying to make programs more accessible and is promoting Cuba, Croatia and the United Arab Emirates as places of study for the first time.

Director Sarah O’Leary said the department partnered with Academic Programs International to offer these programs.

“We chose Cuba for obvious reasons,” she said. “There’s a long history between the U.S. and Cuba. I was there last year, and it’s deemed to be incredibly safe.”

In Croatia, UConn would like to establish a study abroad presence with a focus in Mediterranean studies, O’Leary said.

The American University of Sharjah marks a new landmark for business students interested in studying in the Emirates, where she said there was no prior UConn presence.

Since these three countries were so recently added, no UConn students have gone there yet.

O’Leary arrived in June and brings more than 10 years of experience in education abroad to UConn.

She also graduated from UConn in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.

She previously served as an adviser and then director of the University of Hartford’s study abroad programs.

Sarah O'Leary

UConn Education Abroad Director Sarah O’Leary. | Photo: UConn Education Abroad

O’Leary said she has already felt the differences between working at the U of H versus UConn.

“[The University of Hartford] was a smaller size, a tight-knit community,” she said. “It was easier to get things done.”

Although she said she succeeded in her previous position, she said she needed to move on to something more.

“I felt like I was one of the few champions in study abroad at Hartford,” she said. “I was looking for a new challenge, a change.”

O’Leary has already made changes, one of them being the addition of “Study Abroad 101” sessions that occur twice per week for an hour and are run by freshly-returned study abroad students.

The sessions include a presentation about the UConn Education Abroad website, study abroad programs, trip finances and application processes.

“It’s [in order] to have a place for students to get consistent information,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said that her overarching goal is to diversify UConn Education Abroad. One issue, she said, is the lack of programs for science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors.

Her proposed solution is to have discussions with UConn’s academic departments in order to create study abroad packages for more students.

“I’m trying to integrate study abroad into the curriculum,” she said. “I’m trying to hand students something from the time they get here.”

She said that she would also like to recruit more people to go to non-traditional countries outside of Europe.

There are still UConn students going abroad, though. Regardless of the location, they say that studying abroad was worthwhile.

Monica Sirera, a junior studying accounting and Spanish, spent the 2016 spring semester living with a family in Granada, Spain.

“It was different being in a city,” she said. “You could see the economic and political effects.”

Even though Sirera had already been to Spain, her father’s native country, she said she had still been set on going.

“I always wanted to study in Spain to attain that fluency [in Spanish],” she said.

An advantage of being in Europe, she said, was that she also could visit nearby countries like Morocco, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

She said that planning her own travels, navigating a foreign city and communicating in another language all contributed to her growth in independence.

“To be able to do everything that I do at home, over there,” she said. “It felt awesome.”

Monica Sirera on a hike in the mountains behind the Alhambra of Granada, Spain. Photo Credit: Monica Sirera

Monica Sirera on a hike in the mountains behind the Alhambra of Granada, Spain. | Photo: Monica Sirera

Sirera, who works in the UConn Education Abroad office, said that she enjoys giving advice to students about where to travel.

Another student participated last spring in a Semester at Sea program, travelling to various countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Julia Brzezinska, a junior accounting major, said she was raised to love different cultures since she grew up in a tri-cultural household: her mother is from Brazil and her father from Poland.

After struggling to decide on one place to go, she said she wanted a program that would allow her to experience many different places and gain a well-rounded perspective.

“I had never been to Asia or Africa and had never experienced cultures from those parts of the world,” she said. “It was definitely difficult to go out of my comfort zone instead of the typical European countries that most people decide to go to.”

Julia Brzezinska riding a bike during a visit in Vietnam. Photo Credit: Julia Brzezinska

Julia Brzezinska riding a bike during a visit in Vietnam. | Photo: Julia Brzezinska

Brzezinska had never been on a boat before and said she worried about seasickness, but she ended up pleasantly surprised.

“I just absolutely loved being rocked to sleep by the ocean waves,” she said. “It was also one of the most amazing feelings that I have ever felt. It was simply breathtaking.”

She said her time abroad has helped her developed a “hyper awareness” of her surroundings that will aid her in the future.

Brzezinska said her fondest memory was in Morocco camping overnight in the Sahara Desert, climbing the sand dunes to watch the sunset and then the stars.

“There were no lights around at all,” she said. “It was probably one of the best days of my life.”

For students who are unsure whether or not they want to go abroad, O’Leary made a recommendation.

“To live abroad and take classes,” O’Leary said. “You will never get the chance in your life to do this again.”

Sirera said that students cannot miss the opportunity to make unique bonds with others.

“It’s a completely different foundation for a friendship,” she said. “They’ll never [again] get to be with a group of 20-year-olds, travelling or sleeping on an airport floor.”

Brzezinska said she wishes that everyone could study abroad.

“It is imperative for our citizens to form their own opinions of the world around them,” she said. “The best way to do so is experiencing it for yourself.”

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University of Connecticut Class of 2019 Journalism & Political Science

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