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Easy 'A' abroad

By Caitlin Huston, Daily News Editor
Published October 16, 2011

Surrounded by towering cathedrals, LSA junior Sabriye Gill sat outside a local café in the warm winter weather of Seville, Spain sipping coffee and watching bronzed Spanish cosmopolites walk by.

Far from the crammed book bags and mountainous snow banks of Ann Arbor, Gill seemed to be on a dream vacation, complete with weekend traveling and three homemade meals each day. But like many University students who study abroad each year, this was her campus and she was earning academic credit.

As students take classes in the Grecian sun or even on a cruise ship, the question remains: Are they learning as much as their classmates in Ann Arbor?

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Though the sidewalks of Ann Arbor are filled with students rushing to class during the academic year, 1,975 of those University students studied abroad from fall 2009 to summer 2010, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

Mark Tessler, vice provost for international affairs and the Samuel J. Eldersveld collegiate professor of political science, said he believes study abroad is an important part of any student’s academic career.

Tessler said the University is expanding its study abroad programs, reaching out to countries like Egypt and Israel and looking to place students on continents other than Europe.

President Mary Sue Coleman also places an emphasis on study abroad as she deferred her pay raise this year of 2.75 percent, a total of $15,678, to scholarships she and her husband set up to help students study abroad. Coleman has also pledged to donate $1 for every $2 donated for study abroad as part of the President’s Donor Challenge for The Student Global Experience.

Recently, Coleman announced the creation of the Third Century Initiative, a $50 million program which aims to further “immersive learning experiences,” including study abroad, for undergraduates.

With these programs in place, Tessler said he hopes more students will study abroad.

Tessler speaks from personal experience, having studied abroad in Israel and Tunisia as a student, when he says he believes the experience is life changing.

“You learn a lot about yourself. You learn a lot about the rest of the world,” Tessler said. “I suppose these are kind of like clichés, but it’s true.”

And while Tessler acknowledges the academic caliber of the colleges may not be as high as the University’s, he said it depends on the students’ desire to learn and the quality of the institution.

“I would say as a general proposition you don’t sacrifice academic quality, but maximizing the academic excellence of a program isn’t necessarily the only thing to take in consideration when you make the choice (between programs),” Tessler said.

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With five Spanish classes at the Universidad de Sevilla and doing homework during the week, Gill said she had a schedule that was harder than her classmates’. But even with the workload, she spent afternoons at coffee shops with friends, and the academics of the University seemed far away.

“It wasn’t the same at all. It was less work,” Gill said.

Beyond academics, Gill said the program was more about the experience of living in Spain, absorbing Spanish culture, speaking the language and understanding the Spanish education system — where the true test of a course is a 20-page paper due the last day in lieu of mandatory attendance.

In addition to an increased proficiency in Spanish and a newfound interest in an international career, Gill said she also grew more independent — when a train ticket almost left her stranded in Rome.

“You really have to rely on yourself. When something goes wrong, you can’t call up your mom,” Gill said.

For language concentrators like Gill, Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola, a Spanish professor and associate chair of the romance languages and literature department, said he believes study-abroad is essential for proficiency and for furthering student learning.

“The one thing is to be in a classroom setting at the (University), which will give you a lot of knowledge and sort of preparing you for being abroad and so forth. But the experience I think is really important to put that to the test,”Herrero-Olaizola said.

Herrero-Olaizola added that because the language curriculum now places more of an emphasis on cultural knowledge, study-abroad offers a great entryway into the culture.

“We like the idea of proficiency, not only linguistic but cultural proficiency as well,” he said. “The two go together, because you can’t just learn the language in a vacuum. So we encourage our students to go to find this cultural and linguistic immersion say in France or Spain.”

With the ideal mixture of culture and language, Herrero-Olaizola believes going abroad as a 20-year-old is the “right time” in life, because of the way the experience shapes students’ understanding of the world.

“I think going in your 20s is good for the kind of exposure you have to different people, different cultures and also for forcing you to be in a position to dealing with the unknown, the unexpected … ” he said.

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As he sat at his desk, LSA senior David Frankel’s classroom tilted, rocking back and forth, as each ocean wave brought students’ heads closer to their desks, lulling them to sleep.

In his moving classroom, Frankel was one of the 14 University students participating in Semester at Sea last winter, or what he says is affectionately known across campuses as a “booze cruise.”

However, Frankel emphasized that the boat complete with housekeeping services, a beauty salon and swimming pool, is not actually a booze cruise. But with five-credits that amount to 22 total days of class from January to April, he acknowledges that his education took place on shore.

“I would say the majority of the learning experience took place in the countries and not in the classroom,” Frankel said.

Traveling across the world from the Bahamas to Ghana to Singapore, Frankel said the ship would dock at each country, and then students were on their own to explore.

“It was literally like they dropped you off (and said), ‘be back on the boat by this time on this date or we’re leaving without you,’ ” he said.

In the countries he visited, Frankel said he learned valuable lessons from tour guides showing him the poverty in India and by seeing the resilience of the people in face of despair.

“It was more eye-opening than a textbook could ever teach,” Frankel said. “I definitely feel like after seeing some of these things it puts everything bad at home into perspective.”

On the ship filled with about 700 professors and their families, college students aboard the ship and adult students from around the world, Frankel said he gained perspective himself, as he, a Jew, became good friends with a Muslim girl from Jordan.

And as Frankel learned and ultimately decided to pursue an international career, he said he thinks Semester at Sea was the right choice for a study abroad program.

“I would never regret missing out on an experience (in Ann Arbor) because I think I learned more in one semester than I have in my entire life,” he said.

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At the University, the Center for Global and Intercultural Study administers 100 study abroad programs in 40 countries. The center offers the traditional study abroad experience through the Michigan Global Academic Programs, Spring or Summer Language Study and two faculty-led programs of the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates and Global Course Connections.

In the GCC program, students take an on-campus course and later take a two to three week trip abroad that offers an intimate view of a country. A Russian course may culminate in a trip where the professor takes students to remote Russian villages.

“It’s an opportunity you can’t ever get as a tourist,” said Nicole Bonomini, communications coordinator for CGIS.
For pre-med, Nursing or Engineering students who don’t have time in their course schedule for traditional study abroad, there’s GIEU. With this program, Dennis Beste, an intercultural programs advisor, said students can apply their learning to real world situations.

“We want to offer programs that kind of cater to them and their interests and will also be beneficial in the long run,” Beste said. “They’ll get this international experience, and it won’t just be going to Italy and eating a bunch of spaghetti, they’ll also be going to China and doing some engineering work.”

By studying HIV and AIDS in Zambia or transportation studies in China, Beste said students in GIEU programs are also adding valuable skills to their résumé.

“Everybody wants to do something abroad and that’s really a way to catch head-hunters’ attention,” Beste said. “A way to set yourself apart from the rest of the applicants.”

But during any study abroad program, Patrick Morgan, program assistant at the Center, said students learn time management and improve study and communication skills.

“You get to see other ways of studying and engaging yourself in a subject in a way you haven’t thought about it before,” Morgan said.

And by navigating the often vastly different class structures and overcoming problems like navigating a city in a foreign language, Morgan said students are prepared for life post-graduation.

“The way these classes are structured it’s almost like the way real life is structured,” Morgan said. “Things come at you that you don’t expect, and it’s unpredictable. You really have to take a risk and go out there to succeed.”

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In the Greek capital of Athens, the steps to her classroom were already well-worn by generations of famous scholars and philosophers, as LSA Senior Caitie Cooper, got her humanities credits out of the way among ancient columns and stone sculptures.

Though she’s a neuroscience major, Cooper said she was pleasantly surprised to find that she enjoyed humanities, when they were positioned against the backdrop of an ancient empire.

“Actually being there and going on site was a completely different experience than sitting in a classroom and seeing pictures of these things,” Cooper said.

With five days of classes during the first section of the trip and seven days during the second section, Cooper said the classes focused on the history of the architecture of the Grecian sites. But grades didn’t matter in comparison to the time spent outside the classroom.

“I think it was easier in the sense of they don’t grade as hard and it was more focused on us learning about the experience as we were there rather than just grade-based,” Cooper said.

As she walked past white-washed houses on the island of Santorini, which she says is “the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” explored the Peloponesse peninsula and saw the revered site of Olympia, where the Romans of yore held the Olympics, Cooper said she learned more than she would have if she had taken classes counting toward her major.

“I feel like if I would’ve done science classes there, I wouldn’t have come away with a better understanding of the culture that I did,” Cooper said. “I think I would’ve been too immersed in studying, whereas this class I got to explore those things while learning about it.”

But far from the Mediterranean beaches, where Cooper lived in Athens, stray dogs roamed the streets and houses were packed on top of each other. Her location was also five minutes away from the Greecian protests, giving her insight into the struggle.

“We got to walk through that a lot and we got to see tear gas, riot police, fire bombs, things like that and just to see the Greek people come together,” she said.

The fellowship of the Greek people, coming together to organize black outs and taxi strikes, also contributed to Cooper’s own desire to travel abroad again and learn more about the world.

“It definitely just made me realize how many different types of cultures that are out there that I’ve never experienced and that I want to,” she said.

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In the School of Art & Design, students are required to complete a three-week international experience in the form of a for-credit or not-for-credit program, an internship or a volunteering program.

The requirement is in place because the faculty has seen that study abroad truly helps students in terms of their personal growth, according to Joe Trumpey, an associate professor of art in the School of Art & Design.

“We expect students to come out of the experience a better person with these new ideas of self-confidence, independence, resourcefulness, flexibility, problem-solving,” Trumpey said.

Studying abroad also helps students’ art, Trumpey said, whether they gain inspiration from gothic cathedrals, cutting-edge art in China or traditional African art.

“It’s the idea of creative insights, being able to understand globalization in a new way and go out and find something that you’re inspired by,” Trumpey said. “Finding your voice is a big part of your development as an artist and as a leader.”

Art & Design senior Ellen Rutt studied abroad in the small college town of Loughborough, England, filling three sketchbooks with inspiration for her specialization in graphic art and illustration.

As she traveled around the country and the continent from February to June last year, Rutt said she drew inspiration from ancient English ruins as well as the modern architecture of London.

“Some of the styles in design and art are a little bit different and it certainly influenced my art,” Rutt said.

While Rutt found inspiration outside the classroom, in the institution itself, class occurred only a few times a week and professors only helped to guide assignments when directly approached.

“(In Ann Arbor) I’m in painting class six hours a week, and there, I would be assigned a painting and I could work on it whenever I choose,” she said.

Trumpey said the degree of independence and less communication with faculty is common at many of the art schools abroad. But he added that all the programs are approved by University faculty and thus the programs are, “comparable not identical.”

“It’s not going to be exactly as we have here, which is part of the value of the contrast,” Trumpey said.
Though assignments could be completed as desired and meetings with professors arranged only if needed, Rutt said the experience helped her grow as a person and as an artist.

“I think it was really good to be tested on my own level of motivation and self-discipline,” Rutt said.
Because of this personal growth, Rutt said she appreciates the Art & Design requirement as a way to broaden her education at the University.

“To step outside of Ann Arbor and get another perspective for even just a moment, that’s really, really important in a well-rounded undergraduate education,” Rutt said.

Correction appended: The article incorrectly stated that LSA senior David Frankel took five-credits of class. He took 15-credits.