Study abroad peer advisor and UCLA Guardian Scholar encourages students to see the world

Walk into the International Education Office in 1332 Murphy Hall and you might be greeted by Montana Epps, a third-year history major and study abroad student peer advisor with infectious enthusiasm for studying abroad.

About to embark on her third study abroad trip, Epps is dedicated to not only overcoming challenges in order to pursue her own travels, but also helping fellow students make their study abroad dreams a reality.

For Epps, studying abroad started early. As a junior in high school, she spent six months in Peru, living with host families and attending a local Montessori High School through an international youth exchange program called American Field Service. There, she was “humbled” to discover differences between the United States and other parts of the world – like the fact that students in Peru graduate high school in just three years – and bonded with the young children of her host parents.

“As I taught them English, they taught me Spanish,” Epps said.

But once she started attending UCLA, her study abroad days were far from over. Inspired by her experience in Peru and motivated to fulfill her foreign language requirement, Epps set her sights on UCLA Summer Travel Study’s Spanish program in Granada, Barcelona and Madrid.

On the trip, Epps got to practice her Spanish with locals and experience the big cities of Madrid and Barcelona as well as the quieter, more laid-back Granada. She formed close relationships with her professors and appreciated that they gave her and her classmates plenty of opportunities to explore in between classes.

“I loved visiting certain destinations that we went to that make me feel almost small because it’s so humbling,” she said. “You get to see that other people have been here, there’s history here, there’s culture here.”

Exploring the museums, cathedrals and monuments of Spain also gave Epps an epiphany about her own academic goals. Perhaps, she realized, the pre-med track she was on at the time wasn’t her true passion after all. So, she switched majors.

“I realized, you know what Montana? I think you enjoy history,” she said. “I loved learning about the history of the places we were visiting.”

This summer, Epps will take on an entirely new adventure: attending Yonsei University in South Korea through the UC Education Abroad Program (UCEAP). She hopes to take courses in history and Korean cinema, and to discover a culture very different from the ones she experienced in Peru and Spain.

When she’s not abroad, travel is never far from Epps’s mind. In her job as a student peer advisor in the UCLA International Education Office (IEO), she has made it her mission to ease students’ fears about studying abroad, introduce them to all their options, and help them navigate the application process.

Epps feels a special connection to the students who must overcome financial challenges in order to pursue their dreams of studying abroad. A member of the UCLA Guardian Scholars Program for students who are former foster youth, she understands how disheartening it can be for former foster youth like herself and other students to feel that they can’t afford to study abroad.

But, she tells them, they do have options. UCEAP and UCLA IEO offer scholarships, and students’ financial aid packages apply toward study abroad programs.

“There are ways to study abroad, you just have to go out and look at those resources and get more information and that’s what I try to provide for students, especially when they come in with financial burdens,” Epps said. Helping fellow students realize their study abroad dreams has made such an impression on Epps that it’s now her career goal to work in an office like UCLA IEO.

Kate Herring, UCLA IEO Student Services Coordinator, said Epps has always impressed the staff with her poise, initiative and enthusiasm for guiding fellow students through the study abroad process. She’s an example of how anyone, no matter their circumstances, can achieve their dream of studying abroad, and she demonstrates the power of studying abroad to change a person’s life.

“It’s very inspiring that she didn’t necessarily have the support system that other students do but she’s made study abroad happen for herself,” Herring said. “She shows that anyone can study abroad, and she shows how the experience can help you grow as a person and shape you and the rest of your life.”

Studying abroad, Epps said, has made her more open minded and more accepting of other cultures and languages. She encourages students nervous about studying abroad to not live in fear, but instead step outside their comfort zone and embrace the opportunity to have an adventure.

“The world is so big and you never realize how big it is until you actually leave your city or country and go out and see it because there’s so much it has to offer,” she said. “I love learning new things and I love being put in situations where I don’t know what’s going to happen next because I think it’s really exciting. I learned to love those situations and that’s why I study abroad and that’s why I love doing it.”

Photos by Kya Williamson