For 21-year-old Liz Vaala, traveling to Belgium in the summer of 2017 proved more fruitful than she ever imagined.
When she received an email from her professor last year nominating her for a position in a summer class 4,115 miles away in Ghent, Belgium, she accepted the nomination and went through the application process. She was not expecting to be selected. One morning at 5:30 a.m., she opened her email to discover she had made it into the program.
“It was too amazing of an opportunity to pass up,” Vaala said.
For two weeks, Vaala spent time abroad in Flanders, Belgium, studying at the University of Ghent. Flanders is one of the three official regions in Belgium, with Ghent being one of the most populated cities within Flanders. The program she participated in, called Taalunie Zomercursus Nederlands, focused on learning and speaking Dutch as a second language.
With only 120 students selected from countries around the world, Vaala made friends with students from Sweden, Italy, Romania, the UK and Slovakia. The program split the students into four smaller groups, each focusing on a different aspect of learning the language. Vaala was placed in the translation group, where she attended lectures, speaker events and workshops and participated in field trips.
Her placement in the translation group motivated her to decide on a different career path after she graduates in May of 2019. Although she fell in love with language learning as a sophomore in high school, she didn’t think it would lead to a career after college. In fact, prior to her experience in Ghent, she thought her life path was leading her to become a nurse. Now, she knows that she’ll be involved in language translation when she graduates.
“I discovered that what I really want to do with my life is not to be a nurse but to study languages and translation,” Vaala said. “Being surrounded by other students of languages and translation studies really helped ignite that fire in me . . . My time in Flanders honestly changed my outlook for the rest of my life and what I am able to do with it.”
Her decision to commit to languages and translation wasn’t as simple as it might sound, and she struggled a bit while in Belgium before realizing her path. She was completely overwhelmed when she first arrived. As her program was taught entirely in Dutch, she was thrust into communicating solely in the language much more than she ever had to before. After a frustrating first day, she went home and looked at herself in the mirror, reminding herself that she will continue to get better. And she did.
“After a few more days of very hard work . . . something just clicked. I walked through the center of the city with some friends from my group . . . and I just suddenly realized I was holding the conversation completely in Dutch and it was going fluidly,” Vaala said. “It was like the language finally lit up in my mind.”
Elizabeth Vaala's study abroad group at the University of Ghent
As a declared Spanish major and an intended International Studies major, Vaala is no stranger to language learning (and the frustrations that often come with it). Now that she’s back on campus for her junior year, she’s also hoping to complete a Dutch certificate before her time at the UW comes to an end. She sees herself attending graduate school in the U.S. or in the Netherlands. Vaala loves her language skills and although the learning process is challenging, it’s rewarding for her at the same time.
“My language skills have allowed me to navigate more confidently through the world,” Vaala said. “It has also made me more curious. When you learn a new language, it opens up an entirely new world, culture and people for you to explore.”