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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2004 > Over There

Over There

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One important measure of the effectiveness of study abroad is the length of time that a student spends in the country. Most students choose to go abroad for a semester, rather than a full year, a situation that the college’s study-abroad advisor, William Hoffa, feels offers less than the full benefit. “We need to fight harder,” he says, “to make students understand what we know to be the case: that a [year-long] program has three times the impact of a semester, even though it’s only twice as long.” Hoffa also notes that students who have spent a year abroad seldom say that was too long, while about half of the students who spent a semester abroad say that their visits were too short.

The “difficult places” Barry O’Connell mentions and the longer programs Hoffa advocates often provide students with the most intense experiences and most lasting impact. Alexandra Bloom, the student who spent six months in China, interned for several months at an English-language daily newspaper in Shanghai and says she came in direct contact with Chinese government censorship. After handing in several of her articles, she was told that the topics she’d chosen were too sensitive for publication. (One of those topics was the Nanking Massacre, which is now the subject of a project for her political science major.) Beryl Dudley ’04, a native of the Virgin Islands, was taken for “colored” (mixed race) and spoken to in Afrikaans while she was in South Africa. Alissa King ’04 lived with a polygamous family in Senegal and now is writing a thesis on polygamy that is informed by her having heard directly the views of feminist groups and fundamentalists, and experienced firsthand Senegal’s changing family norms and marriage patterns. And King’s interest in Senegal is now more than academic: She interned last summer at African Relief Services in Harlem, where she worked with West African immigrants; she continues to work on her language skills with a Wolof-speaking professor at Mount Holyoke; and she now plans to pursue a career in international development, ideally in Francophone West Africa.

“Part of what happens when you have other experiences elsewhere,” says President Marx, “is that you begin to see that your simplifying characterizations don’t work. You learn about complications and try to understand them in another country, which is an amazing learning experience by itself, and [those experiences] also end up doubling back and encouraging you to rethink your assumptions about your own society.”

For all its benefits, study abroad is not a perfect system. Some faculty members say that study abroad takes away from an already truncated higher education experience. Still others are concerned about the programs being academically weak or run by people who only want to make a profit. Some worry that students may see study abroad as a kind of vacation for credit, and they point out that leaving for a semester is difficult for students with certain majors (especially in the sciences, where many courses must be taken in sequence). Finally, some faculty note that travel in certain areas of the world can be unsafe.

Study-abroad advisor Bill Hoffa says that while programs give students structure, that structure can sometimes prevent students from having a genuine experience of living abroad. He uses the term “third-culture complex” to describe what can happen when students enter what amounts to a cultural bubble, a finite universe within the foreign culture. The local people who enter the bubble are a subgroup, not necessarily representative of the culture as a whole, and often self-selected. These people can be extremely helpful to students, but it becomes a problem if students don’t recognize that the bubble even exists.

This potential isolation from the culture is part of the reason that Barry O’Connell says he has not always been a supporter of study abroad—he calls it “too short and too sheltered”— advocating instead that students take time off to travel independently. One of O’Connell’s former students, Michael de Beer ’96, shows what is possible outside of a study-abroad program for students willing to accept the logistical and financial drawbacks of taking time off. De Beer was prepared to go to South Africa on a study-abroad program sponsored by the University of Massachusetts when he learned that the program had been cancelled. (This was in 1994, the first year of democratic elections in South Africa.) De Beer decided to make the trip on his own. He had developed an interest in education reform while taking English 6, and he wanted to investigate this further in South Africa.

As part of his preparation, de Beer contacted South African schools for interviews, and he eventually found work as a volunteer teacher. When he wasn’t teaching, he informally attended the University of Witwatersrand, where he learned about the Witwatersrand Rural Facility, a research and community-service center helping people in rural Bushbuckridge manage their resources, economy and education. Through one of the professors at the university, de Beer was able to get an internship on a local education reform project. De Beer believes that if he had gone on the original UMass program, he might have made closer friends and might even have had more fun. “But,” he says, “at Bushbuckridge I got to be part of the education-reform program and learned that I had capabilities that I did not know I had. I have the ‘learning bug.’ Maybe I’ve always had it, but traveling on my own in South Africa really amped it up.”

After returning to Amherst, de Beer wrote a thesis on South African education reform for an interdisciplinary major called Education: State and Society. Now a community organizer in Toledo, Ohio, de Beer says that his year in South Africa was crucial: “My time in South Africa had a profound effect on me; it set me on some paths that I continue to walk today. I am very grateful for my time there, and for starting on these paths.”

What de Beer shares with most students who study abroad in more structured ways is that he learned not only about the culture in which he was immersed, but also about himself. Not all students rearrange their lives around their experiences abroad as Mark Miller did, or as Alissa King might, but most cannot help but look at the world—and themselves—differently after their time away. At the end of the spring 2000 semester, my student who’d been in Benares wrote this: “All I know is that this does not feel like an end, but some sort of beginning with a past chained onto the tail.”



Online Extra

Alexandra Bloom '04 spent her semester abroad in China. For the class United States Foreign Policy: Democracy and Human Rights, she wrote this paper (link will open a PDF): "America’s Influence on Uighur Human Rights"


Amherst College Study-Abroad Program

Amherst College is a longtime member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and works closely with the Section on U.S. Students Abroad. Their latest report is "Securing America's Future: Global Education in a Global Age." William Hoffa's paper, "Study Abroad: A Guide for Parents," is available from the Amherst Career Center. Amherst is also a member of a new organization called the Forum on Education Abroad. The American Council on Education has published a comprehensive study called "Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses: Final Report." And annual data on students coming to and leaving the United States is available from the Institute of International Education.

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