Changing Places

More UB students are finding their unique spot in the world via an overseas experience

By Nicole Peradotto

Participants in the “Theatre, Cultures and Civilizations” summer program in Romania gather in front of Bran (Dracula’s) Castle.

UNTIL FOUR YEARS ago, Ken Giese was something of an introvert. He kept to his small circle of friends. He was content with his routine. Studying abroad never crossed his mind.

Then, during his freshman year at UB, a professor overseeing a three-week excursion to Mexico visited Giese’s anthropology class to discuss the program. Learning about Mayan art and architecture at its source, rather than on the Discovery Channel, sounded so enticing that he signed up.

As it turned out, the Mexico trip only whetted Giese’s appetite for studying abroad. Two years later, in 2003, he was packing his bags for Japan, where he would spend his junior year at Kanazawa University.

Halfway around the world, Giese took a journey deep within himself and emerged a different person. Although he hadn’t worked with kids before, he volunteered to help supervise the Japanese Boy Scouts. Although he’d never been into sports, he joined a martial arts club and got in the best shape of his life. Trying to make the most of his overseas adventure, he even took up Japanese drumming.

By the time he returned stateside, he had changed his major, and his outlook.

“When you go somewhere new, it’s almost like a new start,” says Giese, who studied abroad once more, in Ger-many, before graduating in 2006 with a double major in Asian and media studies, and a minor in Japanese.

“You’re able to explore parts of yourself that you weren’t able to explore before, because you felt restricted by how your friends thought of you—or how you thought of yourself. It makes you feel free to express who you really are be-cause there are no prejudgments or preconceptions.”

For Giese and others like him, studying abroad is much more than its name implies. Beyond taking classes in for-eign lecture halls, it’s an opportunity to become immersed in an unfamiliar culture and learn about themselves at the same time. In that regard, students abroad are studies in self-discovery: At some point between adjusting to the time change and squeezing souvenirs into their carry-on luggage, they come to appreciate what they’re capable of and who they are.

“Being abroad, you’re given this chance to grow up pretty quickly,” senior Melissa Proulx says. “When you’re there, all you have is yourself and the people you meet. It gave me a greater sense of responsibility, and I returned home with a greater sense of responsibility.”

A marketing major, Proulx divided the fall semester of her junior year studying at London’s American Intercontinen-tal University, interning at a lifestyle-management firm and exploring a world far afield of her comfort zone.

She says she chose London because she’s a fan of big cities. Beyond the lure of Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park, however, the destination also enabled her to achieve two goals in one semester—namely, satisfy her wanderlust and give her résumé an international boost.

According to those working in the field of study abroad, many of today’s undergraduates are similarly motivated. “Students now see the experience as a way of setting them apart,” says Rhona Cadenhead-Hames, assistant director of UB’s study abroad programs. “They recognize that they need something more than a four-year degree on their résumé. Having that cultural sensitivity and that experience in other cultures is a real asset for them as they start look-ing for employment.”

But those aren’t the only reasons UB undergraduates study abroad—in truth, they’re as varied as their destina-tions. Foreign language majors frequently pick a host country where they can improve their speaking and compre-hension skills. Other students seek out specialized coursework offered by a foreign university. Still others select a destination that allows them to delve into their family’s heritage.

In the spring of her junior year, Danielle Ribachonek traveled to Melbourne, Australia, to take classes in sustain-able architecture at Monash University. The decision to study abroad, she says, was precipitated by grief: In the fall, her father had died of a heart attack.

“I just needed something to make me happy, and I didn’t know what it was,” she says. “Being abroad didn’t help me get over what had happened, but it did help me work through it. The day I came in to the study abroad office and took an application was the best thing I could have done for myself.”

By the end of the 2005-2006 academic year, more than 11 percent of UB’s undergraduate class will have studied abroad. Among them is Rohan Sood, an engineering major studying in Toulouse, France, for the spring semester.

The Toulouse program appealed to Sood for a number of reasons. For one, the classes apply to his major, so he won’t have fallen behind in his studies when he returns to UB in the fall. Plus, he gets to live in the aerospace capital of Europe.

Never mind that he couldn’t say more than “merci beaucoup” when he arrived.

“That’s what experience teaches you,” says Sood. “I am here to learn, experience and enjoy to the fullest.”

ADVENTURES IN COMMUNICATION

DURING HIS FIRST week in Toulouse, Sood discovered that even mundane experiences rise to the level of adven-ture when you can’t communicate with the natives. At the local Carrefour—picture a French Wal-Mart—he resorted to making animal sounds for the sales clerk to explain which meat he wanted in his sandwich.

“I even moved my hands like wings. Then, when I had to pay, I just smiled and she turned the register for me to read it.”

It’s daily challenges like these that not only boost students’ cultural awareness but also bolster their self-esteem, says Cadenhead-Hames.

“The beginning of the new semester is my favorite time of year because that’s when I can see the rewarding ex-perience the returning students have had. I can see it in the way they walk through the door of the study abroad of-fice, with such confidence,” she explains. “When they’re abroad they don’t always know how they’ll get from point A to point B, but they do it, they thrive on it and they come back more confident because of it.”

According to the most recent “Open Doors” report issued by the International Institute of Education, a total of 205,983 American students studied abroad during the 2004–2005 academic year. That’s nearly an 8 percent increase from the previous year. What’s more, there has been a dramatic rise in popularity among nontraditional destinations, such as China, Argentina, India and Brazil.

For its part, UB has seen consistent growth in its study abroad programs. In fact, participation has doubled from just seven years ago. “The number of U.S. students overall has been increasing during the last 10 years, and I think this has to do with students wanting a different perspective,” says UB’s newly hired director of study abroad pro-grams, Melissa Polasik.

Although many predicted that the attacks of September 11 would sound the death knell of study abroad, they actually had an opposite effect, Polasik adds, creating a surge of interest. “Since then, students want a better understanding of how Americans are understood around the world.”

Indeed, today’s students are less daunted by the prospect of traveling abroad than their predecessors because they’re more connected with the broader world, Polasik points out. Thanks to technology—in the form of Web sites, blogs, e-mails and instant messaging—they can virtually reach around the globe. In turn, the same technology helps them stay in touch with friends and family—and fend off homesickness—when they’re studying abroad.

Technology has also proved a powerful recruiting and marketing tool for study abroad programs. UB’s study abroad Web site features alumni profiles, scholarship information, winners of its study abroad photo contest and a complete listing of the destinations available to students. Its e-newsletter, disseminated to all UB students abroad, includes articles written by study abroad veterans and practical information about UB course registration deadlines.

“When I studied abroad [in the mid-1990s], I had to do almost all of the work myself. There was support, but not to the extent there is now,” recalls Polasik, a graduate of William Smith College who studied at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh during her junior year. “Whereas before it was the more adventurous students who went abroad, now, be-cause we have so many services, we can help students who are more timid.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, that support doesn’t dry up once study abroad students have made their way through U.S. customs. That’s something Elizabeth Tona learned after studying in London and traveling extensively during the spring of 2005.

For Tona, strolling along the spine of the North Campus just couldn’t compete with cruising by motorbike along the coast of a Greek island, or riding a camel in the mountains of Tunisia. Once home, she experienced a crushing let-down—a phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock.” It’s such a common sensation that UB’s study abroad staff wrote a handbook to help students cope.

COMING HOME

“COMING HOME was a period of transition that was more difficult than going abroad,” explains Tona, a graduate student pursuing her master’s in the Department of Learning and Instruction. “I didn’t expect returning would be such an adjustment. I missed the friends I made, the food, being able to walk everywhere, public transportation and the English accent.”

With guidance from the study abroad staff, Tona returned to London for a six-month internship at a private university, where she served as an assistant to the acting director of the study abroad program. Since being overseas, she has volunteered as a peer adviser at UB’s study abroad office, using her firsthand experience to spread the word.

“My experience was euphoric and at times exhausting, but in the best way possible,” she says. “I wish I had had more time as an undergraduate to study abroad again … and again.”

Increasingly, today’s undergraduates are doing just that. Less likely to graduate in four years than their predecessors, this generation is juggling jobs and internships. They’re pursuing minors and double majors. Even though study abroad programs exist to accommodate virtually every major, keeping to a strict academic timetable isn’t always the priority when selecting a destination.

Take engineering major Jordan Diez, for example. He knew that spending his junior year in a cultural immersion program in Valencia, Spain, would translate to a five-year academic plan. Still, he hardly considers it lost time. “At first I felt a bit guilty for taking a year off from engineering to live in a beautiful city on the Mediterranean,” he says. “But when I got there, it was pretty easy to forget about [the guilt].”

Two years later, Diez is in Copenhagen, studying renewable energy at the Danmarks Tekniske Universitet. Although the classes are “painfully difficult”—and the cold, damp weather is nothing to write home about—he’d like nothing more than to pursue a graduate degree there.

“If I’ve learned anything, it’s not to let my fears hold me back from acting on something I believe in. Taking a risk and doing something I feel passionately about can be more important than the outcome.

“Being abroad, you experience so much change in a short period of time,” he adds. “In most cases, you’re thousands of miles away from any family and friends. You start with practically nothing—occasionally, not even language. It takes months to get comfortable with it all. Simply learning how to provide for your basic needs takes time.

“But eventually it all comes together. You meet amazing people. You discover beautiful places. And then one day, you step outside yourself and look at where you are. You realize that is exactly where you want to be.”

A freelance writer and editor, Nicole Peradotto spent her junior year of college in Grenoble, France.

Related Reading: Study Abroad by the Numbers, UB’s most popular study abroad programs

For information on UB study abroad programs, go to www.buffalo.edu/studyabroad.