When Mercer University senior Alyssa Fortner came to college, she had never left the country. Next semester, Fortner will be graduating having traveled abroad three times.
The summer following her sophomore year, Fortner participated in a Mercer On Mission trip to South Africa and extended her stay to work in a local internship. She enjoyed herself so much that she returned to South Africa her junior year for a semester-long research project. Last summer, Fortner went with Mercer On Mission to Mongolia, where she spent three weeks teaching English to young children.
Each experience was formative, she said, and Mercer’s Office of International Programs helped her plan along the way.
“Within our office here at Mercer we work to help students from all backgrounds participate in global learning opportunities. Not only do we help students find a study abroad program that would be the best fit for them, but we also work to help students find and apply to the scholarships and financial aid that they need in order to be able to participate,” said Rebekah Anaya, study abroad coordinator at Mercer.
With the help of the Office of International Programs, Fortner applied for and received the Gilman Scholarship to fund her Mercer On Mission experience in South Africa.
“Without them, I would not have known about the Gilman; I would not have known how to apply,” she said.
Fortner is an international affairs and global development double-major with a minor in anthropology.
On each of her trips to South Africa, she gained a new skill. With Mercer On Mission, Fortner tutored in three primary schools in Khayelitsha and helped create Model United Nations programs within the schools. When she returned during her sophomore year, she spent 10 weeks conducting research on the effects of generational trauma on youth activism.
During her internship, Fortner worked on community development in Khayelitsha and helped facilitate educational programs for the youth in the community. After this experience, she knew she would continue living, working and learning abroad for the rest of her life.
“I was so nervous leading up to that,” she said. “I was kind of left alone and had to assimilate to this new work environment with people I didn’t know who were speaking an entirely different language and I thought, ‘I kind of like this.’ I liked the challenge; I liked overcoming the different adversities. It was oddly comforting. In that moment, I knew I wanted to live abroad and keep doing these things and eventually bring the lessons I learn back home.”
After her time in South Africa, Fortner became interested in the possibility of serving in the United States Foreign Service. This led her to a Mercer On Mission trip to Mongolia with Dr. Jonathan Addleton, adjunct professor of political science and international and global studies and a former U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia.
“I was excited to get the experience of being in a country with Dr. Addleton, someone who has been part of the Foreign Service,” said Fortner.
Now, nearing her final semester in college, Fortner is a study abroad ambassador for the University. She likes being an ambassador because she can talk about her experiences in order to help others, she said.
“It kind of gives me the platform to help other people do something that is important and show them that it is accessible,” Fortner said. “I know at first I was like, ‘I can’t do it. That’s so much money. How am I going to be able to make it happen?’ But you can make it happen if you know where to look and have the support to make it happen.”
On Oct. 13, Fortner and fellow study abroad ambassador Zara Gabriel traveled to Carrollton to participate in the Lessons from Abroad Conference. Sessions focused on resume-building, applying for international fellowships and how to live an internationally-focused life.
“I really enjoyed the conference,” Fortner said. “It taught us ways to capitalize on our experiences because so few students nationwide actually get to go study abroad.”
Fortner has applied to fellowships in hopes of returning to South Africa after graduation, and her goal is to go to graduate school and ultimately work in the Foreign Service in an embassy abroad doing public diplomacy.
“My experiences abroad quite literally changed my life,” she said. “There are a lot of lessons that I’ve learned abroad that, when I came back to the states, I understood certain things better because I have now been placed in different situations.”