Author: Emma Lodes
Over tacos and flan, Occidental students returning from a myriad of unique experiences abroad enthusiastically told stories of their travels at the “welcome back” banquet hosted by the International Programs Office (IPO). Energy radiated off the walls. Many junior year returnees seemed to still be in the “honeymoon period”– their hearts and minds were still partially in the country they’d just left. Reality hadn’t yet struck.
Marisa Mofford, senior assistant director of the IPO, and the rest of the staff were present to help returnees with the transition back home. The staff members seemed just as giddy and excited as the students.
While addressing the group of students in attendance for the welcome back dinner, Mofford said, “In a way we live vicariously through you, so we love to hear your stories.”
About thirty students showed up to share their experiences. But they represented only a fraction of the students who studied abroad. Last semester, 105 students spent their fall in a different country. That number is standard these days, but high study abroad turnouts haven’t always been the norm.
“When I started in ‘95, 34 students studied abroad; mostly for a year, and we mostly only had exchange programs. Now we send over 200 a year,” Mofford said.
The growing numbers of students studying abroad can be attributed to the IPO’s increased budget, and the prevalence of single semester programs rather than year-long ones.
“We’re in a position where we can find the best programs for students based on intellectual interest and scholarly purpose instead of based on a crazy budget,” Mofford said.
Many students wonder why Occidental doesn’t offer year-long programs, but Mofford said that half-year programs are actually preferred among students, and according to the IPO, many don’t feel like they can take a full year away due to involvement on campus and course requirements. Half-year programs also allow the IPO to send more students abroad.
“We want to be flexible so students can do what they want to do, but we also want as many students to go abroad if possible,” Mofford said. “So if that means if one student gets two semesters and another has none, we would rather everyone has an international experience.”
The study abroad program isn’t expanding just in quantity of students. It’s also expanding in diversity of locations. Historically, most Occidental students still go to Western Europe, but last semester, less than half of students studied in Western Europe, while other part of the world grew in popularity. Eleven percent went to each Oceania and Latin America, and nine percent to each Asia and Africa. The Middle East came in at six percent. According to Mofford, the diversity of regions has to do with the types of classes taught at Occidental– especially those that deal with social justice and international development.
“Oxy students are adventurous. When I look at what other schools are doing, they’re struggling to get their students interested in those areas, but Oxy students are interested,” Mofford said.
Occidental’s study abroad partner programs have three basic structures. School for International Training (SIT) programs are more experiential, and include homestays, excursions, and an independent research project. In direct-enroll programs, like Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), you’re enrolled in a foreign university along with other natives of the country.
Then there’s a blend of the two extremes, a model usually used by the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES). In these programs, classes are taught both by IES faculty and by local teachers. As long as the courses match up with Occidental courses, students can fulfill core, major, and minor requirements abroad, and courses count towards your transcript. The trick is simply to find a program which offers the courses you need, and with so many choices, everyone should be able to find the right program.
“Students should know what’s out there,” Mofford said. “There are programs for students who don’t have the local language, and programs for students who do. Depending on your goals, there’s usually a program for you.”
What do students get out of studying abroad? According to Mofford, a lot. Transformation. Education. Independence and confidence. Compassion, understanding, and tolerance.
“The term globalization is bandied about, but its true that most students who are graduating will be working and living with people from other countries with profoundly different values,” Mofford said. “Learn humility. We are part of the world; we are not the entire world. There’s so much one can learn. And it’s not too bad for the resume either.”
Emma Kraft– Salamanca, Spain
Graced with gorgeous baroque architecture and a rich history, Salamanca is one of Spain’s most attractive cities, known not only for its art and architecture, but mostly for its schools. As Spain’s foremost college town, Salamanca boasts the oldest university in Spain and is a temporary home to thousands of international students a year, creating a youthful, stimulating environment.
Emma Kraft, a psychology major hailing from Portland, Oregon, spent last semester studying abroad in the historical city. Kraft already had a positive experience in Costa Rica during a high school exchange trip, so she had a head start on Spanish. This time, Kraft decided to shake things up a bit and study abroad in Spain, where she could improve her Spanish and experience a culture completely different from Central America.
“The Spanish you learn in Spain is the most ‘pure’ form of Spanish, so that’s a good thing to know,” Kraft said.
Of course, Salamanca’s proximity to the rest of Europe didn’t hurt, and Kraft was able to squeeze in quite a lot of traveling. On weekends and breaks, she hit up Portugal, France, Switzerland, Italy, and a handful of cities within Spain– already in her first week, Kraft walked across Northern Spain for five days straight on the “Camino de Santiago”, or the “Way of St. James”– a historical religious pilgrimage dating back to the Middle Ages. Kraft, 12 other IES students and a guide walked the last 100 kilometers of the pilgrimage, to the historic burial place of St. James. Toting loaded backpacks and adventurous spirits, the group stayed in hostels with eclectic groups of fellow pilgrims from all over the world, a melting pot of humanity.
“It was a really great opportunity to see countryside of Spain and experience the culture and rich history,” Kraft said. “It was also spiritual and meditative. You see [the] beautiful countryside; talk to people in little pueblos in Spanish– you meet so many different people.There are people from all over the world there for different reasons and taking different amounts of time.”
As great as the Camino was, though, Kraft’s transition to Spanish culture wasn’t all smooth. The hardest part for Kraft was being thrown into Spanish so quickly. She stayed with a host family with another American student, and her host mom didn’t speak any English. However, Kraft felt that through living with a host family, she was much more immersed in the culture and the language.
“You experience what the typical Spanish life is like instead of just living with a group of students and partying,” Kraft said.
Kraft took classes both through IES, including art, literature, and religion, and directly enrolled at Salamanca’s private university to take motivational psychology, which counted towards her major. But to get as much of a cultural experience as she could, Kraft took only one psychology class and focused on her Spanish minor. Through IES, classes were challenging, especially since they were taught in Spanish.
“I think it’s important for people to know that in this program its not going to be an easy semester,” Kraft said. “Every night I had homework. People expect to go abroad and do nothing and travel, but for me there were times I was frustrated because I had so much work to do.”
On Thursdays and Fridays, Kraft and friends would go out to the bars, and on weekends she traveled. She said her confidence grew immensely abroad. By the end she was communicating comfortably in Spanish, navigating the city on her own, and interacting with Spaniards.
“It was a cool awakening– I’m living in another country, I’m living on my own, I’m interacting in another language,” she said.
Kraft encourages anyone and everyone to study abroad, and to go out of their comfort zone. It’s easier to regret something you didn’t do than something you did do.
“It’s an amazing, enriching, life changing experience,” she said. “Once you get married and have kids it gets more and more difficult. Do it now when you have the flexibility in your life.”
Emily Fowler– Valparaiso, Chile
Perched high above the cerulean Pacific, a rainbow of houses cluster among thick palms, clinging to a cliffside like a colorful collage. One of Chile’s most important seaports, Valparaiso happens to be the location of one of Occidental’s strongest, most popular study abroad partnerships through SIT. Valparaiso’s strong arts and culture, multicultural population, turbulent history and proximity to the capital offer much to learn in the port city.
Emily Fowler (junior) spent a semester in Valparaiso through SIT, in the theme of ‘Human rights, social justice, and community development.’ Kraft is a psychology major and education minor, but she decided to try something different for a semester. Although she wasn’t able to fulfill any credits towards her psychology major, she enjoyed the change of pace and the ability to tap into some of her other interests abroad.
The SIT experience is broken up into three parts: a homestay with a local family during which students take classes through the SIT program, a period of ‘excursions’ or extensive field trips to other parts of the country, and a four-week independent research project.
“SIT gives you a chance to speak a lot of [the native language] and research something you’re interested in [and to] get off the beaten road a little bit,” Fowler said.
Fowler ended up living with the same host family for four months, as she did her research project in Valparaiso with local community organizations. She became very close with her host family, and she said that getting to know them was her favorite part of the program.
“The best part was getting to know my host family and spending time with them,” Fowler said. “They say that the ‘Valpo’ families are the best, hands down. Most of them have hosted for like twelve years.”
Fowler’s host family lived on the steepest road in the city above the ocean. She lived on the same block as Carmen Tellez, another Occidental student who participated in the same program. Although the girls originally intended to study abroad during different semesters, they ended up enjoying each others’ company and support.
Four days a week, Fowler and Tellez would make the steep half hour walk to school to four hours worth of small, intensive SIT classes, which held only about eight students– all from the SIT program. The group grew very close. Their classes included grammar, Chilean culture, research methods, and seminars on subjects like the economy, the environment, or women in Chile. They were all taught in Spanish, which Fowler admitted was hard, especially since the slurred, slang-riddled Chilean Spanish is difficult to understand. However, Kraft described her professors and directors as being supportive, caring, and involved.
“One of the directors was part of the socialist movement against Pinochet, and is lucky to be alive,” she said. “They’re so well connected, so can help you with your research project. I felt cared about all the time with everything I was doing.”
For the second part of the program, students traveled to the desert in Northern Chile or to Patagonia to stay with indigenous host families. For the third part, the Independent Study Project, Fowler conducted research on local NGOs, including a tutoring program and a women’s group. She examined how they were able to unite the locals, give them a political voice and help lift people out of poverty. Other students researched contraceptive use with teenagers, representation of the people in politics, street art, and punk music. One student was even funded to ride a cargo ship into rural Patagonia and study dams.
“You can do pretty much whatever you want and they’ll support you,” Fowler said.
Coming home was a mixed bag, and Fowler said she said she could have stayed in Chile forever. She encourages Occidental students to study abroad, and to consider Valparaiso, Chile, and SIT, and to take advantage of the opportunities given by the IPO.
Qiu Meng Fogarty– Nepal
Below the pristine, icy peaks of the highest mountain range in the world sprawls the biggest urban agglomerate in the country of Nepal: Kathmandu. Dirty, rugged, and congested, the city doesn’t have modern buildings, and is just adding sidewalks now. But for Qiu Meng Fogarty (junior), Kathmandu was an adventure, and an ideal place to study social justice and change.
Fogarty participated in Occidental’s Independent Pattern of Study program, and designed her own major called Social Justice with an emphasis on Asian Pacific Americans. Her study abroad program of choice– SIT– had the theme of Social change and development, so it worked well with her major.
With SIT, Fogarty stayed with a host family in Kathmandu until the last month of her stay. Kathmandu was her favorite city, for its rough, rugged lifestyle.
“It’s extremely polluted and dusty and crowded; definitely not like any city in the United States,” she said. “We have this thing called ‘safe enough for Nepal’. There are cables hanging all over the place, they burn trash in the streets; there aren’t a lot of paved areas.”
Fogarty was able to transfer credits from one of her SIT courses as credits for sociology at Occidental. She also took a seminar in development, and three language-based courses in Nepali. By the end of the semester, she was almost fluent. She can’t use the language much in the United States, but as it’s similar to Hindi and is written in devangari, which is the script used for Sanskrit, she can learn those languages with ease.
The SIT program house, where she took classes, was a half hour walk from her host family’s house. Her host father spoke English, so she was able to communicate with him, but that didn’t make up for vast cultural differences. Adapting to her host family’s lifestyle was one of the hardest parts of her experience.
“In Nepal, personal space is different,” she said. “You’re much more integrated with the family; it’s not a cultural value to spend time alone or [to] need space.”
Another challenge was the small size of her SIT class– 13 in the whole program. When she couldn’t connect with someone, there weren’t many others to turn to, and sometimes she grew frustrated by others’ motives.
“Nepal draws a very specific group of people,” Fogarty said. “It’s off the beaten track, and the program draws people who are interested in justice and peace. Some people have the ‘I’m coming here to help you’ viewpoint, like they’re going to impose Western values on another culture. Other people have a more equitable viewpoint; ‘I’m coming here so we can learn from each other.’”
Throughout the semester, the group took several excursions to the Himalayas. For the main excursion, they trekked into the Himalayas along the famous Annapurna circuit, and stayed with a host family for a week. Fogarty said the area, remote and surrounded by snowy mountains, was beautiful.
“It’s extremely cold there, and not as modern,” Fogarty said. “It’s more of what you imagine you’re getting into when you go to Nepal.”
For her last month Fogarty did her independent research project on ‘Sexism within Gender Equity Spaces,’ which she described as the hardest and best part of the semester.
“For people who haven’t traveled outside the U.S., study abroad is extremely transformational in terms of personal growth,” Fogarty said.
Fogarty said she brought back many lessons and insights that will carry over to other aspects of her life. She’s now more aware of ethnocentrism, or imposing one culture’s beliefs on another. Her heightened sensitivity will help in many factors of life and in our globalized world.
“Doing research, I had to think about how I could evaluate Nepal’s social issues from their perspective instead of coming in with Western beliefs,” Fogarty said. “It’s a really important life lesson about suspension of judgement. I think it will be useful not only with creating new relationships and interacting with people who are different from me, but also in whatever career I go into.”
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