“You can learn from every situation you’re in,” said Shea Love, a Lawrence University junior and ACM Chicago Program alumna, whose presentation opened the 5th annual Student Symposium on Off-Campus Study.
The 28 students from across the ACM who joined her in two days of presentations and panel discussions proved Love right, as they spoke about the myriad ways that their experiences studying in locations from Costa Rica to Uganda to Germany taught them lessons, enriched their academic lives, and shaped their future plans.
Maria Davis (left) and Kara Middleton (right) from Cornell College with their site mentor at the Chocco Clinic in Cusco, Peru.
The students talked about overcoming fears and looking beyond stereotypes. They described remarkable friendships and acts of kindness.
They spoke of taking chances, of times when doubts crept in, and of moments when they felt a sense of acceptance and belonging within their host cultures.
They told how their experiences off-campus have moved them to go beyond being observers and to get involved, take action, and become advocates.
Here is a small sample of their stories. Information about all of the students who participated in the Symposium, along with videos of their presentations and panel discussions, are on the 2013 Student Symposium webpage.
Tourist or student … or more?
“One of the questions I asked was whether I was a tourist, explorer, or student,” said Sudip Bhandari, a St. Olaf College student from Nepal who visited eight countries in five months on the Global Semester program.
In Mumbai, India, he began to find a response to that question when he took out his camera to frame a picture juxtaposing the huts of a group of poor clothes washers with a set of gleaming skyscrapers in the background.
Gregory Brookins Hinton in London.
“I realized I was just trying to take a picture and being a mere spectator of all this inequality,” he said. “I didn’t want to be just a mere spectator, but I actually wanted to decrease some of the inequality that exists in the society throughout the world…. So I came back to St. Olaf College and created my own public health major to pursue that interest.”
How do you get beyond being a tourist and integrate into the local culture? Is it even possible to do so? Those questions became recurring themes that students grappled with during the Symposium.
“I’m constantly standing out as being an American,” said Gregory Brookins Hinton from Grinnell College, describing his initial experience in London. “Why? The way that I look, the way that I talk, the way that I dress – everything is different from what [Londoners are] used to seeing.”
That changed during his program’s internship phase later in the semester. As an intern with an organization focused on youth in the diverse, working class Hackney neighborhood, Hinton was able to engage with a local community, meet residents, and see a different side of the city.
Be flexible and know your passion
Matthew Christensen, a biology major at Luther College, stepped outside the laboratory for the first time to do research on the ACM Tanzania Program. He stepped outside his major, as well, and tackled an anthropological project on diet and vitamin A deficiency among Maasai women in northern Tanzania.
Matthew Christensen in Tanzania.
“It was a really challenging experience for me,” he said, “but I’m really thankful for it.” Now that he’s back at Luther, Christensen has incorporated elements of his off-campus experience in his senior project, which is exploring the biology of vitamin A in people’s diets.
Common themes sounded by Symposium speakers who conducted research off-campus were the necessity of being flexible, the way they learned to take initiative, and the ever-present possibility of having to alter their projects once they were actually “on the ground” at their research site.
Carliann Pentz from Lake Forest College, who conducted research on ACM’s Costa Rica Program last spring, offered a bit of advice to students heading off-campus. “Make sure you know what your strong passion is when you go [to the research site],” she suggested, “because if you have to be flexible, at least you’re still going to have the opportunity to study what you really, really want to study.”
Where do we go from here?
During the panel discussions, several variations of the same question arose – what impact has your off-campus experience had on what you’ve done since returning to campus and on your plans for the future?
“Before I went abroad I was pretty sure I wanted to do political science, I wanted to do NGO [non-governmental organization] work,” said Kelli Kleitsch from Knox College. Her program took her to Uganda, where she learned about international aid and development in the wake of years of devastating war.
Marika Xydes-Smith in Greenland.
“I came back and everything was totally different,” she said. “I became so much more about advocacy, I became so much more about education and sharing knowledge, and I total changed my whole academic track, and what I want to do with my career due to this experience.”
A healthcare volunteer program in Cusco, Peru, gave cultural insights and hands-on experience to Maria Davis and Kara Middleton from Cornell College. Both are biology majors planning to go into medical careers, and they pointed out that their off-campus program both reinforced their choices and gave them a more global perspective on healthcare.
Marika Xydes-Smith, a Carleton College student majoring in biology with plans to study genomic sciences in grad school, talked about the dramatic effect that global warming is having on the residents of Greenland she met during a research visit there.
Going to Greenland “really opened my eyes that I’m interested in anthropology,” she said. “It’s so much more impactful to study an issue when there’s a human face on things, [so] I decided to go into a career that has direct healthcare and human applications, rather than just research.”
It opened my heart
“When I left Mexico, I had more friends than I had ever made before,” said Eleanor Stevens from Grinnell College, who studied in the Yucatan last fall. “It was so amazing, I fell in love with Mexico. And Mexico did something to me – it opened up my heart in this amazing way.”
Valmai Hanson (right) and Addie Washington with one of their host brothers in Dakar, Senegal.
The transformative power of off-campus study was evident throughout the Symposium, and often it was relationships with people that provided the foundation for the students’ personal growth.
Valmai Hanson and Addie Washington, both seniors at Beloit College, gave a joint presentation about their semester as classmates studying in Dakar, Senegal. The pair told stories about their encounters with the tension between being students and being tourists – learning to navigate the city, trying to unravel the cultural cues embedded in the clothing that people wore, their delight at being given Senegalese names by their hosts, and an especially memorable excursion to a dance club.
“With time, humility, and the graciousness of our hosts, we were embraced by Senegalese communities and by Senegalese culture,” Hanson said in concluding their talk. “We no longer stuttered of the American ‘I’ or felt pushed away by the other in ‘you.’ Instead, our Senegalese family and friends opened their homes to us and named us, reminding us that we belonged to a resounding ‘we.'”