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Keys to the World

Student sitting on the Great Wall of China

Keys to the World: Special education junior shares how study abroad opens doors to opportunities, self-discovery

image of Kellen
Within the short span of two weeks, Kellen Foyt gained decades of life wisdom while studying abroad in the colonial town of San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica. Perhaps his biggest aha! moment happened haphazardly when he tipped over a glass of water at his host family’s dinner table.

“I was frantically apologizing and wiping down the table when they stopped me and said, ‘Tranquilo,’ which essentially means ‘Calm down; it’ll be OK,’” says Foyt, a junior majoring in special education at UT Austin. “In that moment, I felt a lot better and instantly relaxed. Now whenever I get overwhelmed with school, projects and essays, I just say to myself, ‘Tranquilo.’”

After returning from Costa Rica with a renewed sense of self-confidence, Foyt decided to sign up for the DDCE’s four-week summer course Entrepreneurship in China and the U.S., in which students live and work in Beijing, China. Both trips are signature programs offered by the Office of Global Leadership and Social Impact that are designed to give diverse populations of students access to life-changing overseas experiences.

“I didn’t feel as nervous in Beijing as I did in Costa Rica,” Foyt says. “Because of that experience, I just felt ready. My time in Costa Rica—and ‘Tranquilo’—gave me the confidence to do this.”

Throughout his Eastern world journey, Foyt and his fellow undergraduates learned how to adapt to a different way of life, from questionable bathroom facilities to curious, camera-toting villagers to language barriers in restaurants and subway stations.

“It can be pretty scary finding your way in a place where you don’t know the language,” Foyt says. “The locals kept taking photos of us because we really stood out, which was fun at first but later got tiring. Whenever I felt overwhelmed or mentally drained, I’d take a deep breath and remember what I learned in Costa Rica.”

The trip included volunteer work at local schools and visits to historical landmarks, rural villages and big cities. Hong Kong, however, was not on the itinerary due to the political upheaval in the streets.

“It was an interesting time to be in China,” Foyt says. “The protests paired with the tension of the U.S.–China trade war added some challenges to our daily activities.”

Amid the looming tension, Foyt found a moment of solitude while exploring Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 student democracy protests that led to hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties.

“I’ve only seen this place in photos, and there I was standing in the very spot where so many Chinese students were fighting for their rights,” Foyt says. “That’s when I felt the privilege of being able to attend school in the U.S., where I have so many freedoms.”

Those feelings of gratitude reached a crescendo while he hiked along the Great Wall of China—a bucket-list destination that he scratched off for both himself and his father.

Image of Kellen
“While hiking up the Great Wall, there was a point where I didn’t see anyone, which is pretty rare since it’s such a crowded place,” Foyt recalls. “In that moment I felt like my family and best friends were right there with me. I felt my father the most since he always wanted to climb the Great Wall. He even wrote me a note saying, ‘I can’t do it, but I’m going to live this dream through you.’”

Now well into his junior year in the College of Education, Foyt is paying it forward by inspiring more students who, like himself, never considered the possibility of studying abroad. As a fellow of the DDCE’s Global Leadership and Social Impact program, he has visited local schools, including his alma mater Webb Middle School, to promote the 100 Passports initiative. Launched in the fall of 2018, the program provides free passports to Austin-area eighth-graders so they can study abroad—along with the UT Austin group—in Beijing in 2020.

“If you can get this passport, that opens doors,” Foyt says. “I didn’t think about traveling the world until I got to UT, and I think that’s a problem. If more students in less affluent neighborhoods can get the key, the door will open.”

Foyt hopes his experiences overseas will inspire more family members and friends to grab their passports and travel the world.

“When I landed in China, I remember thinking to myself, ‘My future’s going to change because I’m here right now,’” he says. “I got to be the first person in my family to leave the country, which is really huge.”

by Jessica Sinn