Lisle, Illinois ~ As a student at Benedictine University, Nayeli Vazquez didn’t hold anything back.
When an advisor pointed out that she could earn a second degree with a little extra coursework, she jumped at the chance.
When the opportunity came to study abroad – not once, but on three separate occasions – she went for it.
And when Vazquez walks across the Commencement stage on May 14 with her mom in the audience, she might just have to let the waterworks flow.
On that day, Vazquez will be the first person in her family to graduate from college.
“My mom is very proud,” Vazquez said. “She cries tears of happiness because I have done so much at such a young age. I think I’ve proven people wrong – all those people in my life who thought I couldn’t do it. It is a very touching subject because my mom worked so hard for me, and I took advantage of everything that was offered to me. I took it to the next level.”
Vazquez’s remarkable experiences both at Benedictine and abroad have inspired more students to expand their horizons and arrange their own trips, according to Marc Davidson, assistant director of International and Study Abroad Services at Benedictine.
“There is a Benedictine value of having an appreciation for living and working in community, and Nayeli took that to heart, except she made the entire world her community,” Davidson said. “Through her journeys, she was exposed to so many new people, cultures and ideas, and she helped increase the number of BenU students studying abroad by sharing her experiences with them.
"Studying abroad has truly shaped her into a more globally minded individual, and that will help her succeed in the next chapter of her life,” he added.
At age 11, Vazquez moved from Mexico to suburban Glenview north of Chicago. Speaking only Spanish at the time, she not only had to learn how to speak and write English, she had to learn how to understand all of the other subjects – mathematics, social studies, science, history – in a new language.
It was a daunting transition, but she managed to bond with another student in a similar predicament.
“The first friend I made was from South Korea,” Vazquez said. “I didn’t know any English – only the basics – and she didn’t know any English, so we didn’t really know how to communicate but we somehow made it work. She made me Korean food, I made her Mexican food, and we both shared our cultures.”
The friendship soon grew into a desire to visit South Korea. While in high school, she went on a campus tour of Benedictine and was not only impressed with the level of attentiveness and support she received from the staff, she was excited to learn about the University’s partnership with Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea.
“When I found out Benedictine had a partner university there, the first thing I did was stop by the Office of International Programs and Services (IPS) and tell them I wanted to go there,” Vazquez said. “Benedictine was filled with everything I was looking for. It had the perfect location and school size to afford me the experience I wanted. I could see myself here for four years.”
Vazquez worked at the University as a guide for high school and transfer students making college visits, was a member of the cheerleading team, the Intercultural Club and involved in the Intercultural House, a special residence hall where students are randomly assigned and encouraged to interact with a roommate with contrasting life experiences.
During her freshman year, she changed her major from Computer Science to International Business and Economics, which requires students to study abroad during their junior year. Not knowing if she could afford to spend an entire semester in Korea, Vazquez decided to go on a three-week, faculty-led trip to China.
“That was one of the best learning experiences,” Vazquez said. “When we all got on the plane, we were going to a foreign country that all we knew about was what we had read in books or saw on videos, and we were all going to learn about it firsthand. The following day when we arrived in China, we were climbing the Great Wall of China. Everyone was so excited that we were in this amazing place of history. That trip triggered my interest in study abroad, and I started going more and more.”
The following semester, Vazquez made plans to study Business at Kyung Hee University. Because of the partnership with Benedictine, Vazquez only paid a regular semester’s tuition. She also applied for financial assistance through the University’s Scholarship Tracking and Review System (STARS) and found airfare deals to make the trip even more affordable.
“That’s how I basically paid for all my study abroad trips,” Vazquez said. “I had to pay for my flight out of pocket and I brought along spending money for a couple little things and other travel arrangements. Eating out is really cheap over there, too. You can have a great meal for $2 to $3, and I never had to cook.
“The people are very welcoming and friendly in South Korea,” she added. “One day, I lost my cellphone and went to class and gave up because there was no way I was going to find it – it was a huge campus – and somehow someone returned my cellphone to the front desk in the library and I was able to find it. That’s how friendly and honest they were. They were always willing to help you.”
In South Korea, she studied Global Human Resource Management, International Organization Politics, Korean Society, Korean Culture and World Heritage: South Korea.
On weekends, she went on other educational adventures, including a trip to Japan and a Buddhist temple where she was able to live like a monk, engaging in several activities designed to harness spiritual concentration and meditation.
On another occasion, she took a guided tour of the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea, which included the Joint Security Area, where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed to bring a cease-fire to the Korean War. She also visited a divided conference area and table where diplomatic talks between the two countries are held.
“I was able to take pictures of one of the tables that are split between North and South Korea and get a photograph with a soldier,” Vazquez said.
When she returned to Benedictine for her senior year, an advisor noticed she had satisfied so many credits hours through the Spanish minor, she only needed a few more to earn a second major in Spanish and suggested Vazquez spend a semester in Spain at the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria to complete it.
“She suggested that I complete the Spanish major overseas and graduate with two majors instead of one,” Vazquez said. “I didn’t think twice. Being in Spain was a little less challenging because I spoke the language, but I definitely learned a whole lot more about my own culture.”
While in Spain, she studied Anthropology, History in Art, Spanish Language, International Relations and Spanish Literature.
Outside of class, Vazquez visited the Royal Palace of Madrid and attended a bullfight. She spent Christmas in Germany, visited Morocco for a week and made other trips to Paris, London, Denmark and Sweden, making lasting friendships along the way with other students from all over the world.
“If I ever want to go to Germany, I have a friend there, or if I want to go to Spain, I have a friend there,” Vazquez said. “My network has expanded so much. I can’t wait to go back and visit them or have them come here and visit me.”
Vazquez never imagined she’d be able to have a study abroad experience, but Benedictine helped to make it a reality, she said.
“I don’t think I would have done it without the support of the BenU staff, everybody from IPS, my advisors, financial aid and STARS, and everyone across campus,” Vazquez said. “They were very supportive of my dreams.
“For me to be able to go to all these countries and bring my mother something from Korea or something from Spain, it has meant so much to her,” she added. “It makes me feel very proud because I know I wanted to visit these countries, but I didn’t expect to be able to visit them at this young of an age as a first-generation college student.”
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among “America’s Top Colleges” for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. Benedictine University’s Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain’s Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2015.