How Matthew Carved His Own Opportunity Out of a Lackluster Semester Abroad

Editor’s Note: Sometimes we expect certain experiences to present us with shining opportunities without having to lift a finger. In Matthew’s case, an enticing semester abroad took a disappointing turn when he realized it wasn’t what he’d hoped for. But he didn’t let that stop him from creating his own golden moment.

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In August of 2013, I moved from Brisbane all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Mexico City. I had a semester of study lined up, and the most I expected to gain from this experience, apart from course credit, was a little bit of Spanish.

Upon arriving, I quickly found out, much to my detriment, there were not many English speakers in the city despite its proximity to the United States. Not discouraged in the least, I quickly made friends with fellow exchange students and threw myself into classes. Having completed my first year of study, I expected my Political Science classes to be of an advanced and challenging nature.

This was not the case. Due to students having to learn in a language other than Spanish, many advanced courses became extra language immersion, putting me at a somewhat boring advantage.

As I was sitting in class, I asked myself what I could do to challenge myself, to push that little bit further. After introducing myself to my professor, I found we had overlapping research interests. Offering my work as a research assistant, I quickly ingratiated myself into the faculty staff.

It was around this time that I met a good friend and off-sider, Leif Rasmussen, who had a similar lack of interest in the coursework offered. Leif and I developed our separate projects on Asia-Pacific policy analysis, and this eventually ballooned into an international teleconference to be held at the university in Mexico City.

Giving us a time frame of approximately one month, the Director of the Global Studies department charged us with assembling a well-balanced panel- having them present, and engaging with them through questioning. This was in addition to all the logistical problems and post-production of the electronic resource. Additionally, this was to be done in a country where we had very few language skills and little understanding of cultural norms.

It was at this point I believe we began to hustle in the true sense of the word. We would work well into the night, researching our topics, developing questions and mapping out interactions. We would cold call some of the most prestigious intellectuals in their fields in order to convince them to talk to us. For every “yes” we received, we had twenty rejections.

We then had to deal with the university, build the teleconferencing system so that everybody was able to interact with the call with their own equipment and continually reassure our supervisors we were on track despite the close calls we had.

At the end of the day, we pulled it off. We had presenters from Brisbane, Kabul and Copenhagen. It was over those weeks that I was able to fully appreciate the wonder of the hustle, the pain of 3am nights and 6am starts, the frustration and the pride in creating something from nothing, something that will go on to spawn new ideas and inspire more hustlers.

Leif and I still remain close friends despite our geographical distance (he is currently working at Oxford). Our respective research is in the final process of being co-published with our professors in Mexico, and we are looking at using some lessons we learnt from our project in Mexico to run software projects for university-level diplomacy and Model UN conferences through his existing two man start-up project, STRONGMAKERS.

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