Iowa Farm Girl & “Forever Learner” Knows All About the Power of Global Experiences

“The more we get out into the world, the less likely we are to see difference as a bad thing.”

When Emily Westhoff was 5, she traveled from her family’s Iowa farm to her mother’s native Colombia with her mother and three siblings to visit family.

Emily, second on the right, with her mother and siblings during a family trip to Colombia in 1996.

“I remember feeling at home there,” says Emily, 30. “A part of me came alive that I didn’t know could come alive; that I didn’t know was stagnant or even there. It was like, ‘Wow, there’s so much vibrance and color—I feel like this is me.’ I didn’t always have that feeling when I was in my hometown, especially as I got older.”

Emily grew up on a dairy farm about a mile and a half outside of Dyersville, Iowa, which had a population of about 3,700 in 1990, the year before Emily was born. Her grandparents lived right down the lane.

“Most of my childhood, outside of school, was spent on my parents’ farm,” says Emily, who has two older brothers and an older sister. “That whole area was my place to play and explore. All of my free time was spent outdoors, if possible.”

Before and after school, Emily helped her father milk cows. On the weekends, she cleaned out the barn, sorted pigs and butchered chickens, among other farm chores. While Emily didn’t enjoy butchering chickens, she “absolutely loved” everything else.

“I was the first one out the door, even before my dad, and always the first one to be told to go inside and do my homework. I didn’t want to spend much time indoors.”

Emily’s father is from Dyersville. Her mother was the town’s first foreign exchange student, Emily says. Her parents began dating toward the end of her mother’s stay and kept in touch after her mother returned to Bogotá, Colombia. They married in Dyersville when her mother was 19 and her father 23.

The trip to Colombia at age 5 wouldn’t be Emily’s last global experience. In 2011, just before her sophomore year at Iowa State University (ISU), Emily, who was raised Catholic, traveled to Spain with her mother to see relatives and Pope Benedict XVI, who was visiting Madrid to celebrate World Youth Day. They then traveled to Fátima, Portugal, a city that became an important international destination for religious tourists after three children in 1917 claimed to have seen Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Emily visiting Patagonia in the southern end of South America in 2018.

At ISU, Emily majored in world languages and cultures as well as international studies and economic development in Latin America.

“I knew I wanted to study and live abroad,” she says. “I took courses on different cultures and different language classes—some French, Chinese, Spanish. I knew I wanted to travel the world and see as much of it as I could.”

Nearly every year since 2011, Emily has traveled or lived abroad on her own and through study abroad programs:

  • 2012: Studied abroad in Bogotá, Colombia
  • 2013: Spent spring break in Mexico
  • 2014: Volunteered with SENA and reconnected with her roots in Ibague and Santa Marta, Colombia
  • 2014: Backpacked for two months throughout Ecuador
  • 2015: Taught English to schoolchildren in Gwangju and Seoul, South Korea
  • 2015: Visited the Philippines
  • 2017: Moved to Cuenca, Ecuador, to live
  • 2017: Traveled to Peru
  • 2017: Moved to Reñaca, Chile, to live
  • 2018: Traveled to Trancoso, Brazil
  • 2020: Moved to Lisbon, Portugal, to live

“I’ve had so many people say, ‘I wish I could do that,’” Emily says. “They assume I’m from a wealthy family or otherwise financially supported. I’m not. I was able to create different experiences abroad by working two jobs in college, by working in each country, by doing volunteer projects where food and board were covered in exchange for work.

“Traveling abroad and living abroad doesn’t always look one way. If living abroad is something you want to do, it’s achievable no matter where or what circumstances you come from. If you’re exploring study abroad programs in college, check into study abroad scholarships, for example. There’s always a way.”

Emily has also battled depression and panic attacks during her time abroad, but, she says, “I couldn’t let that stop me.”

“Just moving back to Iowa, to a ‘safe’ place doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ever have a panic attack again,” she says. “I believe I’d have more because I wouldn’t be living my authentic life by playing it safe in that way.”

Emily and her fiancé plan to remain in Portugal for at least another year. Even though they grew up about 60 miles from one another in Iowa, the two met through a mutual friend while teaching English to schoolchildren in South Korea.

Her fiancé, who’s from Cedar Rapids, shares Emily’s passion for living abroad. After returning to the United States from South Korea, the couple moved first to Ecuador, then to Chile and then to Portugal. They got engaged on a hike during one of their few trips outside of Lisbon during the pandemic. They were joined by their 4-year-old lab, Ziggy, who they adopted as a puppy in Chile.

Emily visiting the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, 2018.

“We are aligned on being forever students, forever learners,” Emily says. “We want to learn as much as we can and we feel like the best way to do that is through traveling. There’s a huge world out there to see and I have learned that when you experience it, you see life from a different perspective and when you gain that perspective you can use it to make a positive impact in the world.”

During most of their time living abroad, they both taught English to Chinese children through an online platform. But in late 2021, China banned students from taking classes with foreign teachers living outside of China. Her fiancé found a sales job he can do remotely. Emily is searching for her ideal-fit job—one that allows her to continue her passion for humanitarian work and global experiences.

“I want to help as many people as I can along the way and I want to grow and be the best person I can be,” she says. “I feel I do that by being in new situations, new countries and new cultures and putting myself out of my comfort zone so I can grow and learn more and share more with the world.”

Let’s Connect

Like Emily Westhoff, Via TRM believes global experiences will change our world. That’s why we created traveler relationship management and travel risk management software solutions that help universities and study abroad advisors empower global experiences. If you or someone you know shares Via’s “why,” tell us. We may feature you here.


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