Class of 2012: First-Generation College Student Marcus Hall Embraces Study Abroad

May 10, 2012 — Marcus Hall has taken advantage of virtually every opportunity he has come across since arriving at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2008, and his relentless pursuit enabled him to study abroad for two semesters in two different hemispheres.

The first-generation college student cobbled together six different grants and scholarships, in addition to financial support from the AccessUVa financial aid program, so he could study in Argentina and Spain.

He said the University offers lots of support. "That's one of the good things about U.Va. You really have to take advantage of what's around you. I really emphasize that point to lower classmen," said Hall, who will graduate May 20 from the College of Arts and Sciences with a double major in Spanish and anthropology. "U.Va. is really a school where you can take command over more things than you think."

Hall said he first caught the bug to study abroad in his first year during an impromptu visit to the International Studies Office, where he met adviser Mary Jo Bateman. "She was really the one that painted study abroad as this amazing experience," said Hall, who had originally viewed going overseas as an unattainable dream.

Thinking back to that meeting, Hall recalled how inspired he was. "She said 'You have to struggle in order to learn,'" he said. "I guess there is something individual about me, that I like adventure."

Growing up with a single mother in a household that moved more than once helped prepare him to eagerly pursue adventure. "I guess being adaptable, changing friendships constantly – some people respond to that negatively, but I was always, like, 'Let's play!'"

Armed with financial support that included a scholarship from the International Studies Office, Hall headed to the Institute for International Education of Students in Buenos Aires in the spring of 2010 to study anthropology and Spanish. The program wrapped up in mid-July, but Hall wasn't done with Argentina; he'd discovered yet another opportunity.

"I ended up staying for two more months because I did an internship with the black rights movement in Argentina," he said.

"It was an interesting time because my boss was both a black rights activist and an LGBT activist as well," he said. "He advocated for the passage of the gay marriage law that passed, so I was there when all of that went down."

Determined to continue his immersion in Spanish, Hall spent the following spring in Spain, participating in U.Va.'s Hispanic Studies Program in Valencia. "Because it was a direct credit program, you knocked out multiple Spanish classes and it would essentially help me to continue studying Spanish," he said.

And, as happened in Argentina, Hall found yet another opportunity to extend his time abroad. He headed to the Netherlands, where he was an English language instructor at a cultural center for Spanish-speaking immigrants.

One of Hall's advisers, Gustavo Pellón, is not at all surprised that Hall has be able to carve out such a unique experience during his time at U.Va. "He often came in for conversations, always with a million questions about language use, aspects of Hispanic culture and advice in picking courses," said Pellón, who advised him in his capacity as director of undergraduate studies from 2008 to 2011.

Hall often checked back in with Pellón, sharing his experiences in Argentina and Spain. "I was amused when he emailed from Spain to tell me how the Spaniards reacted to his strong Argentine accent in Spanish," he said.

Hall said his mother is very proud that he is the first in his family to attend college. "My mom is very excited to come to graduation. She's never had the opportunity to see a university graduation, let alone that of her own child," he said.

Hall's post-graduate plans are fluid. He has applied for several jobs, including one assisting with SAT preparation – in Hong Kong. (He also has applied for a job in Spain as a public school language assistant.)

"It's not that I don't want to be in the United States," he joked. "But I'm not married; I don't have a dog and five kids. I'm me."

– by Jane Kelly