Student Study Abroad Stories
Rachel Boss '07 on the Academic and Service Learning Program in Thailand
I spent the spring semester of my junior year studying at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand through the International Partnership for Service-Learning (IPSL). Although I made the decision to go to Thailand rather last minute (until the day before my application was due), I couldn't have asked for more well-rounded international experience. The program's directors went to great lengths to introduce the students in the Thai Studies program to all aspects of Thai society.
I chose to go to Thailand because Far Eastern cultures have always struck me as particularly foreign. Thus, the most rewarding part of living in northern Thailand for four months was being immersed in a fairly traditional, Buddhist society that is steeped in customs of reverence and mindfulness - especially among older Thais. On the other hand, it was dizzying to bear witness to the extent to which Western culture is seeping into Southeast Asia through mass communication and economic globalization. It was challenging to visit ethnic minority villages in which a reverence for the mundane persists, while living among the bustle of the most popular tourist destinations in northern Thailand.
In addition to my academic classes, I also volunteered at an NGO called the Healing Family Foundation (HFF). HFF is home to a dozen or so intellectually disabled adults who would otherwise have very little opportunity to work as 'productive members of society'. These individuals weave tapestries, scarves, and other products using the Saori style of weaving that originated in Japan. Saori is unique, because the weaver doesn't have to follow an intricate pattern, as with traditional weaving. In fact, the artists at HFF are encouraged to be imaginative and inventive when they work. When I would ask what someone was working on, more often than not, the artist would describe the abstract landscape of the cloth: this is a bird, these are mountains, here is a rainbow, etc. I often felt that I wasn't helping as much as I imagined I would be. I helped set up the looms and attempted to create a photo blog for the agency, but sometimes I felt that I was in the way. The best days were the ones when I gave English lessons to the artists, because then we got to sing and be silly. On several occasions, one or more of the artists would show me how to weave and let me work on their projects a little. At first, I found the idea of stepping in and working on their weaving troubling, but when I talked to my service-learning professor about this, he helped me see that work as vital too. He pointed out that because of their work at HFF, they have a unique skill that makes them valuable and useful, and that being able to share it with someone - by stepping into the role of teacher - is probably one of the most gratifying parts of their work.
I could go on forever about the ways in which my time in Thailand profoundly affected my outlook on the world. But I won't. Let me just say this: it was probably the most worthwhile experience of my college career.
Josh Cohen '07 Studied Peace and Conflict in Uganda and Rwanda
I spent the summer of 2006 studying peace and conflict and working in Uganda and Rwanda. During the previous spring, I prepared for the trip with an independent study on colonial East Africa. For me, the independent study was an essential precursor to the trip because I was able to learn a lot of the basic background information, theory, and historical context that I felt I needed before studying the modern manifestations of these conflicts. My assignment was essentially to read as much as I could and write about the connections I was drawing between readings. Having this basic foundation enabled me to actually make connections between my environment in East Africa and the reading I had done, which, in a small way, was empowering for me. The independent study also gave me a forum to discuss issues around studying abroad in general. We addressed the national rise in popularity of such programs, the purposes (and whose) they serve, who clearly gets excluded from "abroad" programs (a conversation about so-called higher education in general), whether studying abroad can ever be more than just academic tourism, questions of colonialism, and much more. I needed a space to really question whether what I was about to do was right for me and, in part, the independent study provided this. I was also able to grapple with specific ways in which I could make my learning more substantive even though I was invariably going to be a tourist. This, for me, was an equally important way of preparing for the trip. All of these things helped me to actually be present once I was in East Africa.
I studied for two months in Uganda, Rwanda, and at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. My program was coordinated by the School for International Training and led by Dan Lumonya, a professor of development at Makerere University in Kampala. It's incredibly difficult to explain just what the overall experience was for me - no one can honestly answer questions like "how was your trip?" It was so many things - the most positive and disturbing experience of my life. I have never been in so many warm, loving, hospitable environments in my entire life but the nature of what we were studying was simply terrifying, almost incomprehensible. I am still struggling to process so much of it.
After the program ended I volunteered with Mulago center of The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) and lived with Peter Ssebbanja, one of the 16 founding members of the organization. Once again, I can't begin to explain how meaningful of an experience this was; everything I begin to write sounds so trivial . . . let's just say I (and the whole world should be) in awe of what these individuals have accomplished. It is unprecedented . . . I am just constantly in awe. Everyone has taught me so much.
There were many things working in conjunction with one another that made the over all experience meaningful. Some things were out of my control like the compassion of all of the families who took me in and continue to be in touch and the dedication and honesty of my teachers. Other things, like designing the independent study, trying to find volunteer work after the program ended, finding modes of expression to create something out of my trip once I was back at school, and even constantly reevaluating myself to ensure I was really engaging while I was actually in East Africa, are all things I had a say in and made an enormous difference in making my experiences meaningful.
Lindsey Henley '07 on Her Experience in the Dominican Republic
Still considered a third world nation, the Dominican Republic is on the same island as Haiti - the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I think it was very important for me, as a student interested in Peace Studies to be able to see life from a very different viewpoint.
And I did. Life was different on every level. Students in the Dominican Republic do not live at school, they live with their families, so I lived with a host family. I am an only child, and all of a sudden I had siblings! Being 20 years old and having to learn how to share personal space and belongings with a nine year old was difficult. Doing it in a different language was challenging. Hot showers were rare, electricity was unpredictable, and internet access was available only at school and a few coffee shops.
Not only was life different, school was different as well. The out-of-class demands were far less than those for American colleges and universities. The concept of community was also very different. Questions started formulating in my mind. Why are education and community perceived so differently here from how I perceived them in the US? What role does education have on society in the DR? What role does society have on education? How do social values and education interact? How is it different from the US? All of these questions nagged me endlessly while I was away because at that point, I had no capacity to express them fully. When I returned to the United States, I was able to articulate better how different things were between American and Dominican student lifestyles by being able to examine my own culture from a different viewpoint. I started wanting to compare Dominican and American education systems and their interaction with cultural norms and social values. By being in a place to view American education and culture from an outsider's point of view, this became easier.
My first semester back at Goucher, I enrolled in a class called Identity and Conflict. The class examined identity formation through the lenses of ethnicity, nationality and religion. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my time abroad and examining Dominican identity and its formation. The more questions I was able to answer through this class, the more questions I came up with. Because the Peace Studies program offers the opportunity to do independent research, I decided to explore this with assistant professor Elham Atashi from my Identity and Conflict class. In preparation for my independent study, I returned to the Dominican Republic over winter break to re-experience life there from a more removed and analytical eye with less feeling of culture shock.
I asked more questions this time around, learning interesting tidbits on how societal needs were reflected in the education system. For those graduating college in the Dominican Republic, there is a class on the proper and safe installation of cable and electricity that must be taken as a general education requirement. The number of deaths by electrocution is absurdly high in the DR because people connect their homes to electrical and cable sources illegally. Many cannot afford electricity. I also looked more at the lives of the students there, because their role is different from the American college student. Whereas the majority of American students live at school with their lives structured mostly around the educational process, Dominican students live at home and still have family obligations and responsibilities. Most American students' educational experience is a four-year hiatus from the real world, while most Dominican students never leave it.
Upon my second return from the Dominican Republic, I wanted to do a case study of Dominican, Cuban, and American education systems and the ways they differ and the manner in which they are similar. I was increasingly interested in the role of community in the educational process. While I was formulating a way to do this, I was also enrolled in two service-learning classes that worked within two Baltimore city schools. As I spent more time in these schools, I became aware of their differences and I realized that what I wanted to analyze in the education systems of several different countries existed in these Baltimore city schools. My interests were shifting towards a more tangible exploration: I wanted to be able to clearly define what was creating success in one school, and what was lacking in the other.
In one school, I was involved in conflict resolution training with a group of fourth and fifth graders. Most of these students, by the age of 12, had experienced death as a result of violence, illegal drug use and/or abuse, domestic violence, and had friends or family members in jail. They were not just casual witnesses; for these students, most of these matters were a daily reality. The conflict resolution program was the first step in the direction of changing the lives of these children, but it is only one aspect to which attention must be paid.
In the other school, the entire community is becoming involved in the school. Not only are children are being given increasing amounts of positive attention, the school holds GED classes for adults, after school workshops for students and parents, computer training for adults, parent-child events, nutrition workshops, as well as other programs. The idea is to engage the entire community in its own development, especially the development of the children.
Each of these schools is in the most economically depressed areas of Baltimore. The former puts emphasis on attention to students, while the latter engages its entire community. While the same lack of resources exists for both schools, the latter is succeeding in achieving high scores on statewide tests while the former is not. The level of intelligence is not creating the distinction here; it is the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. I began to recognize the importance of holistic education, in which it is not only vital to educate academically, but in terms of humanity as well. The participation of community within one's educational experience has a profoundly positive effect.
It is with this fascination with community and education that I am able to envision my life after graduating from college. This is a time associated with endless opportunities, but also a feeling of paralysis for fear of the unknown. By participating in community programs and being able to involve myself in the educational system, I am able to steer myself away from that paralysis, because I have been able to satisfy my curiosity, while simultaneously developing a hunger for community involvement and educational development. The professors I worked have advocated for me getting a job at the community based school at which I worked. I have been introduced to some of the community leaders who are involved at the school, and am very excited to pursue the opportunity to work with such inspirational people who are succeeding against such great odds. Without the foundation that peace studies gave me, I would not have found myself so intrigued with the process of community and educational development as a means to foster appreciation of humanity at large. This process is pivotal in becoming a global citizen and peace practitioner.
Katherine Leswing '07 on Peace Studies and France
I grew up in a small town in Vermont, but I have always been drawn to the learning about the greater world and global community. One way that I have satiated my love for learning about all things international and foreign, has been to take on a foreign language; in my case I have always had a passion for the French language and culture. While I yearned for the opportunities and new perspectives that knowing the French language would give me, I often found it hard to get excited about learning a language in a classroom. For that reason, I had always dreamed of immersing myself in a French-speaking culture.
Although I had always been passionate about French, it was not my only academic interest. I wanted to have an education that would reflect the whole world in which I was living, not an isolated area. Thus, I started taking political science and international relations courses. Peace studies had not yet been approved as a major, but I took the courses anyway because they were the classes that spoke most to my personal academic interests. By the end of my sophomore year, and still awaiting the approval of the peace studies major, I was looking to pair the peace studies and French areas of study. It was also in May after my sophomore year that I was finally able to get my first real taste of French culture when I took the three-week intensive course abroad in Avignon, France. While the trip itself was somewhat difficult to finance, the experiences that it gave me were priceless. I believe that being a peace studies student made this journey even more enriching.
In peace studies, we are concerned with establishing lasting peace and creating equality; in order to achieve these ideals, one must understand all sides of the story. My peace studies classes had given me tools to look at a whole picture. As a result, when I was placed in a foreign environment, I was able to look at this new community in its entirety. That's to say that I didn't just see white France, immigrant France, rural France or urban France, but I could look at this country as a whole and see how all of its population and their respective ideologies formed the country's social climate. While I was in Avignon, my French improved enormously, to the point where I could communicate with the people of France in their language, and learn their personal histories. I wasn't learning about a culture through a political scientist's analysis, but rather I was learning from the people who were living in it. The heightened ability to communicate and understand different perspectives that is acquired by knowing a second language is the reason a peace studies student must complete additional language credits. Global communication and understanding is essential in today's world.
Peace studies is a domain that encourages international engagement with the intent of hearing everyone's voice. Although I traveled to a developed and internationally-prominent country whose voice is generally heard in the global community, my peace studies background made me aware to the potentially unheard voices within this society. It was this factor that made my experience so complete and rich, and it is also why I chose to continue my peace studies and French learning during a semester in Paris the fall of my senior year for a more immersed academic and social experience. Ultimately, studying abroad with a background in Peace Studies allowed me to realize and benefit from the versatility and practicality of my education.