In celebration of Study Abroad Day, President Brian Sandoval hosts the President and CEO of the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) Alyssa Nota for this final episode of season 1 of “Sagebrushers.” With headquarters on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, the USAC nonprofit has more than 50 study-abroad programs across 27 countries, and more than 4,500 students study abroad each year.
In the 12th episode of “Sagebrushers,” President Sandoval and Dr. Nota explore common myths surrounding studying abroad, the experience of participating in a USAC study abroad trip, and the types of extracurricular, internship and volunteer opportunities available while living abroad. Nota also shares details about new program offerings, including a brand-new program in Vietnam that will begin in 2024. Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with a new episode every month.
Sagebrushers – Ep. 12 – Dr. Alyssa Nota
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and CEO and president of USAC Alyssa Nota explore the benefits of studying abroad, new programs offered by USAC and more!
President Brian Sandoval: Welcome to Sagebrushers, the podcast of the University of Nevada, Reno. I’m Brian Sandoval and I’m a proud graduate and president of the University of Nevada, Reno. I’m your host of Sagebrushers.
Each month at Sagebrushers, which by the way was our University’s first nickname, we take a closer look at the people, history and future of our University. We explain why the University, ever since its founding in Elko in 1874, has been about so much more than ourselves and why we remain Nevada’s best experiment in understanding who we are and what we are capable of achieving.
Today’s podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University’s campus. In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Alyssa Nota, president and CEO of the University Studies Abroad Consortium, or USAC for short. Born as a Basque studies program in 1982, USAC provides students with quality, authentic academic and cultural experiences around the world. The nonprofit has more than 50 study-abroad programs across 27 countries, and more than 4,500 students study abroad each and every year.
Dr. Nota has been involved with international education for more than 25 years. She joined USAC in 2000 and was named president and CEO in 2017. Prior to that, she was the resident director of the USAC Torino, Italy program for 17 years. She also spearheaded a number of programs around the world, including Thailand, Portugal and Vietnam. She’s a strong advocate of study abroad, language study and access for all students to international education. So, welcome to Sagebrushers, Dr. Nota We’re very happy to have you on the podcast, and happy Study Abroad Day.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here. Thank you.
President Brian Sandoval: No, excited to have you. Since today is Study Abroad Day, I thought we could start by having you debunk some common myths about studying abroad. So, let’s start with this one: studying abroad is only for learning languages and not relevant to other majors.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Right, thank you so much for asking because it’s so important to debunk and get rid of these myths that so, so many people hold and that really stand as obstacles to students really choosing or considering to study abroad. Well, this is a really important one, USAC really offers programs around the world for any kind of major or minor, so it’s not just limited to language.
Certainly, if you want to study language, it’s an excellent opportunity. You can be as immersed as you want into a culture and a language in any of the 27 countries we’re in, but you can find a course or internship that’s appropriate to you and to your interests academically. For example, USAC offers programs where you can study STEM or humanities or political science or history. So, anything that you want to study, we’re here to help you to find a program to match your needs and your interests.
President Brian Sandoval: No, I love to hear that. So, here’s another one of those myths that’s out there: studying abroad will extend the amount of time it takes to graduate.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: No, absolutely not true. In fact, there are lots of studies that show it actually helps you to speed up graduation rates, if that’s what you’re interested in, because of the number of credits you can actually achieve while you are abroad. There are lots of studies that also show institutions that it actually helps to improve retention rates and lower transfer rates. So, it definitely wouldn’t be something that would hinder you from graduating on time.
President Brian Sandoval: Okay, let’s, let’s debunk another one: when you study abroad, you’ll be “thrown” into a country.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: No, not at all USAC is really good at this. We really work hard to create welcoming, warm environments for our students. We have excellent resident directors and staff on the ground to take care of students, great staff here in the U.S. to prepare you to go. Then once you’re there, you are part of a community.
You’re part of a small group of USAC students. You are on a host university campus that we work very closely with, so you’re meeting local faculty, local students. You’re immersed in the culture very well. We have field trips, tours and overnight trips. You can be matched up with a language partner if that’s what you’re interested in or even a host family if you’d like to live with a local family or local students. So, there’s always something going on in our programs to form that sense of community and family.
President Brian Sandoval: Thank you for that. And here’s another one: studying abroad isn’t affordable, “It’s going to cost too much; we can’t go.”
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Yeah, that is quite a fear and quite false. That’s probably the most important one to spend time on because I think students sometimes don’t even consider it or their families also. But I want to make sure you know, it is affordable; there are options for every single student out there academically and financially, regardless of background or any kind of limitations you think you may have.
USAC works tremendously hard. That’s our mission – to help students, to make sure there are opportunities for every kind of student out there. So that’s, that’s the work that we do, and we want to help you to find the best fit for you academically, financially, whatever it might be that you’re most interested in.
You know, very often, it actually ends up costing less. I don’t know if I should say that, but it actually costs less than staying at home on your home University campus for that semester or that summer, you know, with everything included, housing and field trips and all the courses that you can take.
So, I recommend you really check out our website usac.edu because on there, all of our programs are listed. There’s an interactive budget sheet where you can go through and really see the true transparent costs. What a flight might cost, what your housing options are and so it’s very transparent. We also offer millions of dollars in scholarships and discounts every year. Financial aid we work very closely with here on campus, so trust me that we will find a way to help you to find the program that best fits you.
President Brian Sandoval: And the final one I’ll talk about is: “well, I’m not going to study abroad; I don’t speak Spanish, I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Japanese, so I’m not going to go to a place where I won’t understand the course.”
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Now, let me reassure you that all USAC courses are taught in English, all our staff speaks English and of course, the local language. So, it’s nothing to fear. Of course, it’s not required that you speak the language to go to a certain program site. But of course, it helps. If you speak a little bit, that’s great, you can immerse even more quickly.
But we offer a wide variety of language courses, everything from one credit, you know, Intro to Thai in Thailand or Intro to Italian, if you just want to, you know, dip your toe and get familiar with the language a little bit, or up to very intensive programs like our San Sebastian, Spain program where you can do two years of language in one semester. So, really a wide range of language opportunities if that’s what you’re interested in.
President Brian Sandoval: You said something interesting and not to personalize this, but you talked about San Sebastian. Well, my daughter who is a student at UNR studied in San Sebastian with one of the USAC programs, and it literally changed her life. I mean and I know you obviously have a lot of experience with this. So, can you talk a little bit about some of our students and what it has meant to them, and how it changed their lives?
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Oh, definitely. Yeah, that’s absolutely one of the most gratifying things about the work that we do at USAC is really watching that process that students go through. You know, I love that. Seeing the excitement in their face when they’re learning and they first step foot into that country off the plane and they can make new friends and, you know, see beautiful things that they’ve seen only in books before.
But even more importantly, is how it impacts their life and the growth that you see. You know, all those things that you learn outside of the classroom while you’re studying abroad, that stays with you forever, and builds your personal and professional skills – things like being flexible, adaptable, solving problems, being open and more sensitive to other cultures and people. It really makes you have a lot more empathy once you get back home, you know, maybe on your own campus working with international students or hearing other languages being spoken in your community. So, it really has definitely life-changing implications for students in very positive ways.
President Brian Sandoval: And another issue that I wanted to chat with you about is it’s not just students from UNR that you’re traveling with; you get to meet students from all over the country.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Exactly. That’s another interesting layer to USAC, as we were based here at UNR, we were born here at UNR so, we do have a lot of UNR students, but we work with hundreds of universities across the U.S. and so even that is a learning experience and growth opportunity for students. You know, you may be in a USAC group with somebody from Massachusetts and Florida and Texas and Idaho and be learning already from each other that way, in addition to what you’re learning from the international students that you’re with. That is really a powerful, beautiful combination of all those things.
President Brian Sandoval: No and to create some imagery, you talked about the students coming off the plane and into a strange place that they likely haven’t been before, but you can actually live with a host family or where else would be some of the opportunities to reside while you’re doing it.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Yeah, there’s a wide variety at each program. Some students opt to stay in their own private apartments with other USAC students or local students or in a dorm or residence hall that may be available on campus or nearby.
Homestays are very, very popular for example, in Costa Rica and in Spain, especially for those students who want to immerse into language and culture and that’s a beautiful experience. The host parents come to the airport, pick you up right off the plane (with the staff); they bring you home. You know, you have three meals a day with them. It really, you know, becomes another family. We have lots of students who can stay in touch with them, go back various times to visit and invite them to their weddings. I mean, it really is a lifelong impact.
President Brian Sandoval: As a student, you’ll get to live with the family and learn the culture and you’ll go to class, but there are opportunities to do some extracurricular things as well.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Definitely, yeah. We like to have that be like the full circle experience that USAC offers on-site, you know, field trips, immersion into the culture. You go to the stadium to see soccer games, you go to the theater together or have group dinners. You might have a language partner or buddy who helps you, you know, navigate the culture and the new city that you’re learning about.
So really, really beautiful immersion opportunities like that, and actually, some other ones would be all the internships that we offer. With internships and volunteering, I find today that students are really interested in giving back to the community, and I think that’s really fulfilling to see what students are not just going to learn from and absorb from that culture, but they truly, sincerely want to also give back in a meaningful way. So, our staff is really good about creating opportunities like that too.
President Brian Sandoval: And you raise an important issue because another myth, I suppose, is that potential employers don’t care about travel abroad.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Oh, yeah, this is a big one, and as an employer, I can tell you, that’s the first thing I look at, honestly, who has international exposure and experience that could be a benefit to the company or the organization. And certainly, language skills are good and important, but all those other skills that we mentioned are just as important if not more.
So, there are lots of studies that show that, you know, students who have studied abroad, find jobs more quickly, after graduation, maybe even get a higher starting salary, and it truly is connected to these skills that they’ve developed, you know. I can send somebody to a business meeting in Japan, if I know they know the culture well and can sit around that table with various cultures and do it in a respectful and effective way. So those skills, any student, I recommend, greatly put that on your resume, talk it up in any interview that you have because that will truly, truly set you apart. You’d be surprised how many organizations have to give up opportunities because they just don’t have the staff who can do that for them.
President Brian Sandoval: So, shifting gears, obviously, we’ve just had the back end of a really serious pandemic and with the travel restrictions, I’m sure it impacted USAC greatly. So, can you chat a little bit about that?
Dr. Alyssa Nota: It did, yes and it impacted as you know, the whole field of education and travel. So, students weren’t even able to travel to the locations. I want to highlight the USAC staff, especially because they worked so hard throughout those years to keep USAC moving forward and in a very productive way to find more and more opportunities for our students and quickly to recover. So, you know, we’re almost back to pre-COVID enrollment numbers. We’re booming. We get applications every day. The interest in study abroad is stronger than ever, so that’s a great, great sign. We also did studies of students who went abroad during COVID, when they could actually get into certain countries like Thailand and Korea and England. In spring of 2021, when the borders were reopened, they really reported a deeper, even more meaningful experience because of it. They had to learn to navigate in this very interesting historical moment in time and still made friends and went to class and learned in such a deep way and didn’t let the pandemic stop them – in, of course, a safe and responsible way too.
President Brian Sandoval: So, we’re emerging out of the pandemic, have you developed new programs or new places that would really entice the students to study abroad?
Dr. Alyssa Nota: That’s always exciting to talk about that stuff. Absolutely. During the pandemic, we actually kept moving forward. During that time, we created our new Portugal program which is really popular in Lisbon. We created new programs in Scotland and England at that time and just recently reopened our program in Cuba, which is really successful in summers and January terms.
We just recently created a brand new program in Uruguay and Argentina, which is a combined program where students can go for three weeks and visit both countries. And I can unveil something secret here today for the first time to everybody that we just created a brand new Vietnam program, which will start in spring of 2024. I’m really excited to see students have that opportunity to go to Da Nang, which is a city right in the central coast of Vietnam.
President Brian Sandoval: We broke news today, so that’s exciting. I want to go to Vietnam. In any event, you know, we’re approaching our time here. But, we likely have parents of students that are listening today and again, everyone knows, maybe there are some travel abroad opportunities, but what would you tell them right now?
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Oh, I would tell them, it’s absolutely a possibility. It’s realistic. It is possible and that’s our job – to help you through that process and we want to help you. It can only help and bring positive benefit to your student, to yourself personally, professionally, and it will absolutely change their life in an extremely positive way.
President Brian Sandoval: And the credits they earn while traveling apply towards their graduation.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Absolutely, yes, very important point. All the courses that we offer are vetted by UNR, all the professors and syllabi. So, credits transfer; transcripts are not a problem. So yes, absolutely. It’s a full-circle experience in that sense.
President Brian Sandoval: And my final question, this not may not be a fair one, but what’s your favorite place?
Dr. Alyssa Nota: I cannot. I’ll get in a lot of trouble if I say any one place. They’re all fantastic in unique ways.
President Brian Sandoval: So, I appreciate that, and they all are and I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot, and every place you go you learn something new. You learn culture; you learn about food; you learn about people.
Dr. Alyssa Nota: Yes, absolutely and that’s one of the beauties of it. Go somewhere where you know, maybe it’s completely unfamiliar to you. Say yes to those opportunities that come up because you don’t know what incredible opportunities are going to be for the rest of your life.
President Brian Sandoval: Well, unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Nota.
Next month we will bring you another episode of Sagebrushers and continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I’m University President Brian Sandoval and go Pack.