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Summiting the Mountain

Moody College senior shares how studying abroad forever changed her path in life 
Adriana Aguilar study abroad UT Austin

Adriana Aguilar will never forget the day when the acceptance letter from UT Austin arrived in the mail. Plagued by financial concerns, self-doubt and anxieties about leaving her home in South Dallas, she wasn’t convinced that college was the best choice.

“I thought I wouldn’t fit in and that I wasn’t smart enough,” Aguilar says. “I was considering staying closer to home, but this was a big opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Deep down, Aguilar knew she had to take a leap of faith, so she set forth on her journey to UT Austin with the goal of earning a degree from the Moody College of Communication. Yet before her freshman year could even begin, a family crisis almost brought it to a screeching halt.

“When I first came to UT, my dad was hospitalized and laid off from his job,” Aguilar says. “It was a very stressful time, and I made up my mind to move back home, get a full-time job and help my family financially.”

Before leaving, she decided to end her time at UT Austin on a good note by attending a class taught by her favorite history professor.

“I remember it was a Wednesday, the day of Dr. Leonard Moore’s Race in the Age of Trump class,” Aguilar says. “I was going to skip it, but something told me to just go and have one last memorable moment at UT. Turns out, that was the best decision I ever made.”

Little did she know at the time, that decision would lead her to another major turning point.

“Professor Moore asked to speak to me after class, and I thought he was going to scold me for not paying attention because I was very distracted during the lecture, but it turned out he wanted to talk to me about studying abroad in South Africa,” says Aguilar, who is now a corporate communication senior.

When she told him about her plans to drop out due to family obligations, he convinced her to stay on the path—and to keep making the impossible possible.

“Not only did he convince me to stay—he also inspired me to fill out an application to study abroad,” Aguilar says. “I was so inspired, I applied that night.”

She soon booked her very first plane ride to South Africa to travel with her fellow classmates in the Global Leadership and Social Impact (GLSI) program in Cape Town. Despite her feelings of uncertainty, she knew—once again—she had to take full advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Every time I felt overwhelmed, stressed and homesick, I would remind myself to be in the present moment, and to be grateful for this opportunity,” Aguilar says. “Sometimes, I just had to take a step back and soak in every moment in the now.”

Upon arrival, Aguilar couldn’t wait to soak her feet in the sandy beaches and see the ocean for the very first time. To this day, she will never forget the moment when she gazed out into the vast blue sea.

“I was so mesmerized of how blue and how endless it was,” Aguilar says. “I couldn’t see land, just water. In that moment, I was consumed by so many emotions and wanted to cry, thinking about the metaphors of water, and how it keeps moving as does life.”

During the month-long voyage, the days whirled by in a blur as Aguilar and her classmates immersed themselves in volunteer work at a local orphanage, took classes at the local university and played beach volleyball games. Her great memory of all, she says, was conquering one of the Seven New Wonders of the World: Table Mountain.

“Reaching the top of Table Mountain required both physical and mental strength,” Aguilar says. “During the long hike, I wanted to give up plenty of times—and I even started crawling while crying, which is symbolic of how life is.”

Looking back at this pivotal moment in her life, Aguilar is grateful for the people who encouraged her to keep pushing her limits—surprising herself along the way.

“The best advice Professor Moore gave me was this: ‘Loans? You can always pay them back. Experiences? You can’t ever get that back—so just go,’” Aguilar says. “Don’t let the fear overpower you—and apply, apply, apply! Then, you can think about what comes after.”

Now, as Aguilar looks toward the spring 2022 semester, she’s excited to pursue another GLSI trip to Abu Dhabi, where she plans to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. And this, she says, is only the beginning of her world travels.

“After graduation, I plan on continuing to travel abroad and possibly use my photography to tell a story about how an inner-city Dallas Latina girl made it out to travel the world,” Aguilar says.

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More about Global Leadership & Social Impact

Housed within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, the Global Leadership and Social Impact program provides accessible study abroad programs that offer project-based academic internship opportunities with real-world work experience in three dynamic, rapidly changing cities : Beijing, China; Cape Town, South Africa; and San Jose, Costa Rica. New additions to the program include trips Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and Puebla, Mexico.

GLSI General Stats

  • Years 2013-2019: 442 students participated in GLSI programs
  • Years 2018-2020: More than 100 students (45% first-gen) on average enrolled in GLSI programs per year
  • Years 2018-2020: 95%  of participating students graduated or were on pace to graduate

GLSI Survey Results (196 respondents)

  •  Demographics: 55% Black, 25% Latino, 33% First-year students
  • 35% of students never traveled out of the country prior to trip
  • 95%  of students reported feeling more confident in themselves due to trip
  • 96% of students reported feeling more confident navigating ambiguity
  • 97% of students reported feeling more confident taking risks
  • 90% – of students reported feeling confident leading a project
  • 97% of students reported that going abroad was more valuable than other extracurricular experiences at UT Austin