Born and raised in an open, comfortable, and welcoming community near Seattle, Washington, Savannah Benefield thinks of her life in terms of before and after studying abroad. Whether rescuing pit bulls or helping horses in need of therapy, or working with children, the elderly, the community, or for the environment through Circle K, Savannah is someone who volunteers and always will be. She got a taste of international volunteering on a summer trip to Costa Rica, but it wasn’t until she’d studied among four different continents that she discovered an intense yearning to know more and then do something with that knowledge.
“Learning about the world in a classroom simply cannot compare to the lessons I learned and the experiences I gained while traveling the globe.” Savannah discovered she had a passion for the languages and cultures of other people as well as a thirst for the knowledge of their conflicts, which spill over into international wars and refugee crises. She was stunned at the number of violent conflicts in South America, the Middle East, and Africa that receive little or no media attention. The vast disparities between the lives of most of the world’s population and the tiny privileged few at the top appalled her, especially when her economics professor in Spain revealed that one percent of the world’s population will soon own fifty percent of the wealth. Her studies included classes at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and at Deakin University in Melbourne.
When Savannah enrolled at San Diego State University (SDSU), she continued with her major in psychology and added her minor in child and family development. An excellent student, she made the Dean’s List, yet she fervently wished to help other students enjoy an experience abroad or recreate it as much as possible.
With the guidance of the Program Coordinator of the International Student Center, Savannah took the initiative to establish the Global Aztec Alliance (GAA). (Aztecs are the school theme.) GAA aims to promote cross-cultural interaction between international students and local SDSU students, integrate cultures, and break down stereotypes through planned social and cultural events. As president, Savannah helps organize and oversee the planning of these events, which may involve community activities and fundraising on and off campus. She has found it most rewarding to select and build a team that works well together to create a smooth-running organization. She’s presented GAA’s pitch to peers, faculty, high school students, and parents. “I’ve watched something that I created expand to benefit hundreds of local and international students in just one year,” Savannah says.
Her psychology advisor, who has shared the stage with her, comments that Savannah is confident in front of an audience. “The students were smiling and laughing as Savannah went through her slides and told her stories of living abroad.”
Savannah also worked at the International Student Center as a Study Abroad Peer Advisor at SDSU, guiding students through available study abroad programs and applications, conducting presentations on different international academic programs, and using social media to publicize the options.
Reborn by her own experience of studying abroad, Savannah believes the world would be a better place if people reached across borders and learned other ways of thinking. Her love of the human race compels her to find ways to help, using her background in psychology and child and family development to work with children through international non-profits. “I believe the key to breaking down international stereotypes,” Savannah says, “is to start with children, to show them the kindness the rest of the world has to offer, provide them with an education and proper medical care, and to teach them to one day make a difference themselves.”
Update: Savannah plans a three-month solo backpacking trip through Europe where she has plans to meet up with at least five other HSI alums.