Study abroad expands student horizons.
Photo by Michael Bailey.
“There were great moments when I felt that culturally and as people the Chinese and Americans can get along very well,” says Fraser Henderson (History ’09) after traveling to Shanghai, China.
“I never thought I would meet so many open-minded, intelligent, unique and just plain fun people who could teach me so much,” says Chalisha Yates (Kinesiology and Spanish ’09) after spending a Semester at Sea.
“I’ve become much more aware of global issues and how people in other countries view America,” says Kaelin Browne (Spanish and Economics ’09) after traveling to Latin America with Semester at Sea.
“Everyone should take the opportunity to study abroad,” says Anya Good (French, Studies in Women and Gender ’08) after returning from Rabat, Morocco.
Henderson, Yates, Browne and Good are just a few of the nearly 2,000 U.Va. students who traveled outside the country this past year in a growing trend that expands the walls of the classroom to include the whole world. Like many young people who leave the familiarity of home to explore a new place on their own, these students gained an entirely different view of the world and themselves when they studied abroad.
This transformation process is one that Spanish professor Fernando Operé has seen often in students who study abroad, and it’s one of the reasons he started U.Va.’s Spanish immersion program in Valencia, Spain, nearly 25 years ago. Living and learning in a foreign country does offer students the chance to move to a new level with language studies. But Operé has also seen young people return from these trips more mature, more tolerant of cultural differences and more understanding of the world.
“Studying abroad touches students’ lives in a very special way,” he says. “They meet and talk with other students overseas. They get to know different ways of life, different ways to see politics. They learn things about themselves and see things from different perspectives. I can go to my class in August and start a discussion, and in a few days, I know who has studied abroad and who hasn’t. Something special is going on there.”
This is precisely why the College of Arts & Sciences is eager to send students abroad. It’s also the reason the College has enthusiastically supported the recommendations of the Virginia 2020 Commission that outlined a major effort to internationalize the University in the coming years, with a special emphasis on study abroad.
“One of our major goals is to grow the percentage of undergraduates who study abroad,” says Karen Ryan, interim dean of Arts & Sciences. “We’d like to see a much higher percentage of our students participating in some international study program during their four years here.”
According to the International Studies Office (ISO), this effort is well underway. In the six years since the commission issued its recommendations, the number of students going abroad has roughly tripled.
In support of this effort, the College has increased the number of study abroad programs and created a wide range of opportunities that extend well beyond immersion programs for language scholars. Now, even biology, history, English and studio art majors can find a foreign study program that fits their academic goals and schedule.
U.Va. undergraduates have the option of studying overseas even if they are fluent only in English. Programs range from a two-week January Term course, such as theater in Italy or biology in Belize, to a full year’s worth of study at major universities in London, Singapore or Seoul, for example.
Among the most popular ways to study abroad is through U.Va.-sponsored programs led by University faculty members. Part of their appeal is that in many programs students earn direct U.Va. credits rather than transfer credits.
These programs are also engaging because they arise out of a teacher’s personal or academic interest. Majida Bargach, for example, teaches in U.Va.’s French department but is a native of Morocco; in 2002 she initiated a summer study program in her hometown of Rabat. The six-week session immerses students not only in the French language, but in the extreme diversity of culture, geography and history of this North African, Muslim country.
“The students are surprised by many things,” Bargach explains. “They are surprised to see Roman ruins in Africa. They are surprised that the middle class in Morocco is just like the middle class everywhere else. And they are very surprised to hear Moroccan young people singing the same songs they sing.”
Students are not only interested in academics when they travel abroad. According to Tim Wojoski, an advisor at ISO, they also want practical involvement. “They want experiences such as volunteer work and internships, experiences that really connect them to the communities and allow them to actually participate in the life of the community,” he says. “ISO is working to develop more of those types of experiences that will complement the students’ academic experiences.”
Well-established U.Va. programs in Valencia, Spain, and Lima, Peru, for example, have strong connections to businesses and nongovernment organizations working in the local community. These programs have been able to place students in internships at these businesses and organizations as part of their academic program there.
In addition, the ISO has worked with the University’s Internship Programs Office to develop new international internship programs and last summer inaugurated two very successful eight-week programs based in Dublin, Ireland, and Paris, France. Students were placed in organizations based on their own interests. One student, for example, who wanted to learn more about the clothing design industry, spent 35 hours a week working with a prominent designer in Paris. Other students were able to gain actual workplace experience and mentoring with groups such as an environmental organization, a sports marketing company, a Paris art gallery and an organization working on freedom-of-the-press issues.
While it’s hard to deny the multiple levels of value of studying abroad, sending a student overseas is admittedly not cheap. David Krovetz (Physics ’78, MA Education ’96), whose daughter Tess traveled to France last summer, says he spent almost as much on that month in France as he did for a whole year’s worth of in-state tuition. With tuition, fees, travel and other expenses, study-abroad programs can cost upwards of $20,000 for some semester programs.
“We’re committed to making it possible for all students who want to study abroad to do so,” says Rebecca Brown, director of the International Studies Office.
To that end, she says, students who receive financial aid can apply it to study abroad if they enroll in programs during the semesters or the January Term. U.Va. also participates in a variety of exchange programs and partnerships with some of the top universities around the world. With these programs, students pay their tuition to U.Va. as if they were attending classes on Grounds. They are responsible for paying for their own housing, food and expenses, but because the cost of living in many countries is less than here at home, families may end up paying less. There are also a variety of scholarships and grants, including Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards and scholarships from the International Studies Office, that can provide financial support for those who need it.
And despite the sum he spent on his daughter’s summer in France, Krovetz has no regrets. “It was well worth it,” he maintains. “To get that perspective of living abroad is pretty powerful. It really added a new dimension to Tess’ whole college experience.”
While studying abroad is undoubtedly a transformative experience for the students who take advantage of this incomparable opportunity, what is often overlooked is what the students leave behind. “Students were very affected by the poverty we saw,” says Andrea Smith (Spanish ’00, MT Foreign Language ’00, MA Spanish Literature ’05), who participated in the U.Va. in Peru program as an undergraduate and this past summer, as a doctoral candidate, served as an administrator for it. “We did a volunteer project in a shantytown at an elementary school, and, after we left, two students stayed on to do similar work in other areas.”
Smith explained that it’s not uncommon for former program participants to return to the area during vacations or other breaks to do community service. This summer’s students encountered several U.Va. alumni in Lima working on such projects.
More powerful for Smith, however, was learning how she had affected her host family. The family with whom she stayed this past year had served in this role many times before, occasionally with Americans but mostly with European students. At the end of her stay, the father told her that, before meeting her, he had decided they would no longer take American students.
“But he said that I had totally changed his opinion of Americans,” Smith says. “He told me that I had been a true ambassador for my country. That was very humbling. I do believe our students have the opportunity to be ambassadors for our country and our university.”