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Students Take on Whole World

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June 6, 2006

Senior Jefferson Jones, a biomedical engineering student in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, studied global healthcare technologies in South Africa this spring and worked on developing a portable apnea monitor for premature infants.

Nicole White, a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences junior, is in Paris on a yearlong exchange program at Ecole Polytechnique (Sciences Po.), one of the most prestigious universities in France, taking courses from French political leaders.

Elizabeth Ehly, a School of Education and Social Policy student, will study Mexican culture and history and an analysis of legal issues this summer after she completes her freshman year at Northwestern in June.

These students are among the more than 600 undergraduates who each year find their lives dramatically changed by studying abroad. One in four undergraduates immerse themselves in the global community, a mind-boggling number compared to 25 years ago, according to Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Stephen D. Fisher.

In the 1980s and 1990s, study abroad opportunities were limited, and only a handful of students went overseas. Today students study abroad in just about any educational field in more than 100 affiliated programs. Many of those programs involve research opportunities, an important element in the University's commitment to broadening the undergraduate educational experience.

In 1999, in the formative years of the newly established Study Abroad Office, only 4 percent of graduating seniors studied overseas. Last year 27 percent of the senior class graduated with the experience of studying abroad -- traveling to 45 countries on five continents -- South America, Asia, Europe, Oceania (includes Australia and New Zealand) and Africa. Medill had the highest participation rate - 44 percent of its graduates had studied abroad.

Original Program Was Limited

Fisher, associate dean for undergraduate studies for the Weinberg College from 1988 to 1993, said, “The old model was that each school in the University handled study abroad programs and exchanges individually, with the major exception of the 11 University-wide programs developed by Associate Provost John D. Margolis.”

About 125 students annually participated in these programs -- in China, Japan, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia and Israel. With the exception of a spring quarter program in Florence, Italy, these programs were yearlong commitments with rigorous language requirements. The Northwestern program in Sussex, England, was usually full, as was the Paris program run by Sweet Briar College, but the others had spotty attendance and weren't well known among students. Students had to search a few file drawers in the Weinberg dean's office for pamphlets about a handful of programs, apply on their own, fend for themselves while abroad and re-enter the University without the support system now in place.

Fisher recalled, “I discussed with Larry Dumas, Weinberg dean at the time, that the University needed to offer more programs, lower the thresholds for preparation, and provide more flexibility beyond the year-long programs. This came to fruition after Dumas became Provost in 1996.”

Provost Dumas established a centralized, University-wide Study Abroad Office, which opened in fall 1997 at the time Fisher became associate provost.

Anthony Heads New Office

William Anthony was appointed the first Study Abroad director. “The first thing Bill did,” said Fisher, “was to expand the opportunities for students and develop the infrastructure with administrative decisions:  how to work with the Registrar's Office for transfer of credits and provide support with financial aid, career services, student affairs, student accounts, and other administrative issues.” The Study Abroad Office, Anthony said, is now “truly an academic amalgam.”

The commitment to immerse students in the global community has led to a wide range of other initiatives, including the International Program Development Office that directs educational and research programs at individual schools and colleges in support of curriculum. IPD administers a new Global Health Minor and programs attended by over 170 students who studied abroad this year. New programs have been established or expanded at professional schools, and Northwestern students have pursued interests around the world after graduation.

The Study Abroad Office partners with other universities and organizations, such as The Institute for the International Education of Students, to identify programs appropriate to Northwestern undergraduates, said Anthony. These “affiliated” programs are vetted to ensure they meet certain standards and can give credit. The office assists students with study abroad options, selection of programs, courses, program costs and financial aid, the application process and thorough preparation for study abroad.

Network Provides Resources

Study Abroad students are supported by a comprehensive University network that provides resources every step of the way from pre-departure workshops to preparation for research courses abroad and finally with strategies for readjustment. It is clear that the administration feels strongly about “immersing students in the global communities,” Fisher said.

Preparation includes workshops and advising services and the Study Abroad Research Program (SARP), a non-credit program that is part of the pre-departure preparation. Graduate sociology student Erin Metz taught research design and methodologies and the ethics of studying abroad in the spring quarter.

Students are invited to participate in SARP based on their background, study abroad goals and application essays. The primary goal of the program is to encourage and prepare students to do research while overseas that they can then turn into a senior honors thesis, independent study, fellowship or postgraduate work when they return.

“I work with either an undergrad advisor or the person who will lead the thesis seminar to help facilitate program integration and a more seamless return for students,” said Metz. Some student research topics have included the public response to the Argentinian financial crisis; diasporic organizations on rural development in Ghana that includes a home stay with Ghanaian families; and a comparative study of how Italy and England adjudicate between archeological ruins and modern construction.

William Murphy, adjunct lecturer in anthropology and a research coordinator in the Program of African Studies, teaches a course that is helpful for pre-departure students as well as returnees about shared experiences of study abroad relating the experience to a toolkit of anthropological concepts. The course “Attending to Culture” was created in response to the president and provost's desire to have the “international experience integrated into students' academic and curricular life on campus, so it's not two different, separate worlds of experience,” said Murphy.

The University also provides support for students returning from international studies, recognizing that “re-entry” can be stressful. In the Counseling and Psychological Services office, Jodi Mulder, a licensed clinical social worker, developed a three-session workshop for study abroad returnees called “Reverse Culture Shock.” Students meet once a week for three weeks to talk about their experiences and how it feels to be back on campus and how to manage life transitions: reconnecting with friends and family and staying connected to friends overseas.

She has identified four stages of the transition: disengagement (while abroad they have to start separating); excitement (when they first get back); frustration (feel like outsider at home); and gradual readjustment.

Sarah Levi, a psychology post-doctoral student who leads the workshops, said, “Students are often shocked at the abundance of food here. For many students the study abroad experience is life changing. They're excited to tell everyone about their newfound knowledge, but often others may not be able to relate. Some students get stuck at stage three.”

Jennifer Hirsch, 1990 Weinberg graduate and associate director of Study Abroad from 2000 to 2005, teaches a winter quarter writing course focused on returning students' international experiences -- “Reading and Writing Culture: A Course for Study Abroad Returnees.” Now director of the Chicago Field Studies Program and a lecturer in the department of anthropology, Hirsch said, “In study abroad, we always say, it's not the end when you come home, it's the beginning. But for a lot of students, it is the end if we don't really give them lots of different ways in which they can enhance the experience.”

Before enrolling at Northwestern, Hirsch had studied Japanese and knew she wanted to study in Japan for a year. At that time Northwestern had an affiliated program with Waseda University in Tokyo, but had no real infrastructure to support study abroad. Hirsch said, “Either you were accepted into a program or you had to fend for yourself.”

Summer Study Expands

Study Abroad summer programs, “are the fastest growing programs, attracting one-third of students who go overseas,” said Anthony. Each year more than 175 Northwestern students choose to study abroad during the summer quarter.

Dana Bumpus, program coordinator in the Study Abroad Office, said, “While most students choose European locations, interest is growing in non-traditional locations such as Asia and Africa, with a strong surge of interest in China.”

Opportunities include public health in Beijing; history of French theatre in Arles, France; architectural and artistic monuments in Verona, Italy; and Southeast Asian politics in Thailand.

Summer programs include those in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Turkey, offerings that each attract from 10 to 20 students. Andrew Wachtel, dean of the Graduate School and director of the Center for International and Comparative Studies, coordinates those programs. “The idea is to use the cities as texts,” said Wachtel. “The courses we offer in these cities couldn't possibly be offered on campus.”

The program in Prague offers courses on Czech history and civilization and on democratic transitions. Students in the Croatia Summer Program in Dubrovnik and Split study Southeast European history and society from the early medieval period to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In Poland, Northwestern works with the Department of Polish Language and Studies at Jagiellonian University to provide a rich array of courses.  A new program, in collaboration with Istanbul Bilgi University introduces students to “Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean World: Civilizations, Societies, and Cultures.”

Summer programs often attract students to subjects outside of their academic major. Senior David Ernst of Longmeadow, Mass., will pursue European studies in Paris. He is a five-year, double-degree student in voice and opera at the School of Music and history at the Weinberg College.

Junior Kara Downey, a theatre major from Augusta, Ga., will study public health in China this summer. School of Education and Social Policy junior Michael Sacchet of Chanhassen, Minn., also will study in China.

These students and others in study abroad programs may eventually follow those who decided to continue their international experience through advanced study or a career overseas. Many Northwestern students have done so, including Devon Liddell, Alicia Drucker and Rachel Feller.

Devon Liddell, who majored in cultural anthropology, plans to set up a research project in Spain this summer after receiving her degree June 16 and then go to Latin America to work on her Spanish fluency. The senior from Lancaster, Pa., expects to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to do research the following year on Muslim immigration from North Africa (particularly Morocco) to Southern Spain (Almeria province in Andalusia), focusing on agricultural workers in “plasticultura,” a form of agriculture that grows plants under plastic to conserve water.

Liddell, who studied at the American University in Cairo in the entire 2004-05 academic year, said, “I got a lot out of my experience studying in Egypt despite the challenges of being a woman in a Muslim country and a farm girl from Lancaster in one of the biggest cities in the world.” Her thesis, “Celebrity Body, Qur'anic Propriety: Beauty and Respectability in a Changing Cairo,” won the Oswald Werner Prize for Distinguished Thesis in Anthropology.

Alicia Drucker, a 2005 honors graduate from Kirkland, Wash., with a major in English and a minor in sociology, studied Celtic and Scottish literature and social culture at the University of Edinburgh for six months in 2004. She said, “I really enjoyed learning about a new culture while living in the midst of it.”

After conducting research there for her senior honors thesis on Scottish women's literature of the 20th century, Drucker said, “I realized that I wanted to not only travel, but live internationally again. I felt compelled to go abroad again because I wanted to gain connections with more of the world.”

That desire has taken Drucker to live in Hidaka-cho, a small town northwest of Kyoto in Japan, and teach English as an assistant language teacher at Hidaka High School. She obtained the assignment through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, a Japanese government-sponsored project that promotes language education and regional internationalization by inviting foreign individuals to work in local government organizations. Drucker will return to the United States next month after her one-year contract ends.

Another 2005 graduate, Rachel Feller, a double major in political science and international studies with a minor in French, spent her 2003-04 junior year at the University of Geneva in Switzerland through the Smith College Junior Year Abroad program.

“At the University of Geneva and the Institute for International Studies, as well as a United Nations-related internship at the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, I developed a passion for international children's rights and knew that I wished to gain further experience in this field upon graduation.”

She spent two months after graduation in Israel, doing intensive language study at the University of Haifa followed by a month of volunteering in a "rural" development town. “I had won a scholarship and decided to use it to go there, before heading home to the states to work for a few months.” Feller said.

The Scottsdale, Ariz., resident is on a new continent now, teaching kindergarten through sixth grade English in the public elementary school in La Violeta de Frailes, a rural Costa Rican town of about 250 people south of San Jose. She said, “I am here through Harvard's WorldTeach organization, an NGO that works in conjunction with the Ministry of Public Education in Costa Rica to provide rural schools that would otherwise not receive English teachers.”

What's next? Feller hopes to pursue a joint degree in law and international relations or political science and work in a field related to international children's rights, possibly child labor, immigration issues or education.

Anthony said the Study Abroad Office plans to continue to enhance opportunities for students to compete in a rapidly changing world of globalization. In the process, a growing number of Northwestern graduates are to spend at least part of their future making a difference in far-flung places.

(Lee Prater Yost, a former University staff member, is a free-lance writer)