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My Student Experience: Monica Meza ’22MED Studies Abroad as NC State European Center in Prague’s First Graduate Intern

Monica Meza in a classroom in Prague.

When Monica Meza ’22MED was a first-generation undergraduate student, studying abroad seemed out of reach. However, she never gave up on the idea, and when she joined the NC State College of Education to earn her master’s degree in higher education administration, she saw a window of opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed her plans, but this summer, Meza was finally able to study abroad as the NC State European Center in Prague’s first graduate student intern. There, she also conducted research into the experience of first-generation students studying abroad.

In addition to scholarship support from the NC State College of Education, Meza credits the college’s faculty and staff, especially Ajaya Jonas, the NC State College of Education’s director of global programs, for helping make her study abroad experience happen.

“I have been so lucky in my life, in my academic life, that people are just willing to support me,” Meza said.

While the program normally hosts anywhere from 40-60 undergraduate students in the summer, this summer there were about 100 undergraduate students. To help the center’s staff prepare, Meza worked on the handbook students received when they arrived, helped put together the welcome packet and, in general, did what she could to support the center in advance of the influx of students.

“What I really appreciated is that not only did they welcome me as if I was one of their members, but everyone was super sweet, and they really wanted to hear my input into how to prepare for the American students,” Meza said.

Once the undergraduate students arrived, Meza settled into a routine. Every day, she would take the tram and walk over to the center, where, in the mornings, she would get a cappuccino and meet with the staff to discuss what was on the agenda for the day. In the afternoons, Meza would sit in on virtual meetings with NC State stakeholders, where she gained a better understanding of how the program was run. As a higher education administration student, it was the perfect opportunity.

“I really connected with the group, and I really wanted to get up in the morning and go to work,” Meza said.

Not only did Meza enjoy working with the center’s staff and the undergraduate students who were there, but she also fell in love with the city itself, which she described as something almost out of a Disney movie.

“Just walking there, it was unbelievable, just beautiful and out of this world,” Meza said.

While working as a graduate intern, Meza also wanted to discover how more first-generation students like her could have out-of-this-world study abroad experiences of their own. As part of her independent study course, Meza conducted research to understand the disadvantages first-generation students experience when considering participating in a study abroad program.   

“I really got to focus on the inequities of students who are traveling abroad,” Meza said. “Are the groups of students going abroad diverse? And the students who are not going, why is it that they’re not going and how can we help them go?”

The desire to help first-generation students goes all the way back to Meza’s personal experience as an undergraduate student, when real-world concerns made traveling to somewhere like Prague felt impossible. She hopes her research changes that for other undergraduate students.

“In higher education administration, we want to study why some students are not being as successful as others, and we want to help them,” Meza said. 

After her internship, Meza also traveled to France and Spain, and said now that she has had an experience to travel abroad, she feels ready for some solo travel of her own. 

“Now that I have this experience, it really just gives you that independence and confidence to not just call an Uber or know how to call for help but to just be confident to enjoy the moment” Meza said. “It gave me that courage.”