Students learn thousands of miles away

The cab door swung open and a young American girl hopped in, holding a map of the city. She was not exactly sure how to decipher the diagram of oddly spelled avenues. The driver asked where she was going. No response.

He asked again, in his native tongue, where in Granada the young lady would like to go. Holding the map upright and pointing with her index finger to a street within the city limits, she finally answered with a short yet effective response.

“Aquí,” she said.

The cab driver nodded, and Alison Welch was off, racing to her host family’s house in the heart of southern Spain.

This is how Welch, the Junior Study Abroad Coordinator at Castleton, began her first scholastic experience in a foreign country. Although she had traveled with her family around the world prior to this experience in countries that include Australia, South Africa and Switzerland, this would be her first independent experience abroad. For the next year, she would call Granada home. When she commenced this excursion, thousands of students around the world were beginning their own similar experiences.

And on Sept. 24, from 12:30-5 p.m., the Campus Center will be offering similar opportunities to students through a travel abroad fair.

“The world will be waiting for you. Come and see all we have to offer. You will not be disappointed,” wrote Spanish professor and travel abroad advisor Ana Alexander in a recent campus-wide e-mail.

According to a 2007 article in the Christian Science Monitor, studies show that the number of students choosing to study abroad at some point in their college career grew by 144 percent from 1995-2005.

This, according to Jeff Clinton, the regional director of GlobaLinks, an outfitting company that assists college students in studying abroad, is a trend that is sure to continue.

“Studying abroad is one of the best things you can possibly do in your college career,” said Clinton enthusiastically. “Obviously, the best thing you can do is go to college, pass your classes, and work toward your degree. But studying abroad comes in a close second.”

But why is studying in a foreign country so highly praised? Welch says that anyone who has completed any schooling in another part of the world can answer that question.

“It just gives you a new perspective on the world,” she said. “When you come home, you have a new perspective of your country, your town, your school, and even your family. I found that traveling and studying abroad really made me blossom into an adult.”

Since her trip to Granada, Welch has studied for six months in Chile and six weeks in Costa Rica. She also returned to Spain to spend six months in Barcelona where she attended two universities and worked part-time translating a thesis paper for one of her business professors. These experiences, she says, changed her life.

“Before studying abroad, I was very shy and quiet and hesitant to talk with people who I didn’t know. But these experiences will change you. Now, I can’t shut up,” she said with a laugh. “And I’ve gained a lot of confidence.”

Steve Luther, a manager for GlobaLinks, said there are other benefits too.

“Studying abroad, and especially interning abroad, is like gold on a resumé today,” he said. “You prove to possible employers that you have cross-cultural skills and the ability to adapt to new environments. It just opens up so many different doors.”

Still, even the prospect of various benefits may not be enough to convince college students to leave their dorm rooms, cars and friends behind. But what’s stopping them?

Bob Pelletier responds without a hint of hesitation to this question.

“Money,” he blurts out before the inquiry is complete. “It’s a lot of money to study abroad, but it’s worth every penny.”

Pelletier, a recent graduate and theatre major, was one of 22 students who studied in London during the Fall ’08 semester. The students traveled with professor Harry McEnerny of the theatre arts department, who taught the bulk of the classes. The students were able to take a total of 16 credits through the program while immersing themselves in British culture. According to Candice Machia, a junior theatre major, most students had a smooth transition into the new culture.

“At first, it’s a real sink or swim kind of feeling.” said Machia. “But once you get your feet wet, you can handle it. I actually ended up becoming really comfortable and traveled to Spain. Bob went to France.”

Beyond their education in the classroom, the students gained valuable insight into a culture that is often far different from our own.

“Everything is different over there,” said Machia. “Even when and how they eat is different. They have tea-time in the middle of the day, and people actually sit back and relax a little. They take their time. We eat on the go.”

These observations, according to Welch, are part of what she calls “cultural fluidity.” Even if students don’t become fluent in a different language, many become fluent in their host country’s culture and lifestyle, and return home with newly acquired tendencies.

So the question has to be asked: is money the only thing keeping American college students from crossing the pond? According to Luther, there are many other key factors that make students hesitant to pick up and go. These include the worry that credits may not transfer, the fear of becoming homesick, the preconceived notion that the entire process is too complicated, and that they will be stuck in a country where there is a language barrier. However, he says that all of these apprehensions can be alleviated with some research and guidance

Alexander, the travel abroad advisor, encourages everyone to get started on their own experiences. She began travelling around the world at a young age and most recently took students to Costa Rica in 2008. As a college student, she would work all summer, save $1,000 and travel across Europe with just a backpack. She has experienced every situation that students may fear.

As a young and uninhibited trekker, Alexander once fell asleep on a train in Greece. When she awoke, she found that she had not only missed her stop, but that the train had come to rest in a remote Grecian town where nobody spoke a word of English. Worse yet, the train only left the town once a week.

For an entire week, Alexander had to make it work. She found a place to stay and in the mornings she would wander into town to take a seat at a small café. She drew pictures of eggs and toast on a napkin so the cook would know what she wanted, although she found that art was not her strong suit.

“I would draw pictures of the eggs and the next thing I knew, they were bringing me apricot cookies,” she recalled with a chuckle. “I ate them anyway. That’s what you do in these situations. You just figure it out; that’s all you can do. Not knowing a language is not going to kill you. You’re still dealing with people.”

Since her arrival to Castleton in 1989, Alexander has made it a requirement for students in the Spanish Department to study abroad for at least one semester, claiming that students who major in a foreign language learn more in one semester abroad than in four years in an American classroom. Machia, sighting her London trip as an inspiration, thinks that a semester abroad should be required of all students.

Alexander, in cooperation with Renny Harrigan, the associate academic dean, has tried to promote studying abroad to all Castleton students. As of late, Australia and New Zealand have drawn increased attention. These are countries where there is no language barrier, a favorable currency exchange, and where the peak summer months are from December to March.

Pelletier recommends that everyone seriously consider a semester abroad.

“Just make sure to bring a digital camera,” he advised. “And load up on memory cards. I filled quite a few, and I could have filled more. It’s an experience you’re not going to want to forget.

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