A whole new perspective

How a new UB study abroad experience shaped first-year students’ views on sustainability and social work

UB students participating in a Costa Rican dance on the last day of the program.

By Matthew Biddle, originally published on the School of Social Work's website

Published February 27, 2023

"This program really was very special to me and helped me gain a whole new perspective on life."
Jack Misenheimer
First-Year University at Buffalo Student

Growing up in a small town can sometimes feel like living in a bubble. So, when Jack Misenheimer arrived at the University at Buffalo last fall, he quickly sought out opportunities to engage and expand his worldview.

During the winter semester, that pursuit took Misenheimer to Costa Rica as part of UB’s new First-Year Global Experience program.

“UB offers so many opportunities, and it’s important to take advantage of every moment you can,” he says. “As soon as I heard about it, I immediately knew I wanted to do this program.”

For 10 days in January, Misenheimer and his classmates traveled around the Central American nation, learning from faculty leaders and locals along the way about media advocacy, biodiversity and human rights. They saw where coffee comes from, hiked the trails at Cahuita National Park and visited with members of the Bribri Indigenous community.

The program engages first-year students from across UB — and their experience doesn’t end with the trip. Now that they’re back on campus, the students will come together again to share reflections with the UB community and prospective students and families during Accepted Students Day.

For Misenheimer, the experience gave him a deeper look at issues of social justice and sustainability, including the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“This program really was very special to me and helped me gain a whole new perspective on life,” he says. “We met people who’ve been through a lot of hardships, but they still had this positive outlook. It made me appreciate everything I’m able to do more.”

Increasing access to global experiences

An art installation made by children in San Jose, Costa Rica.

As UB prepares students to lead in a global world, study abroad may be out of reach for many because of financial means, the course sequence within their major or other reasons. First-year programs aim to get ahead of these challenges.

“We wanted to create an opportunity that increased access to study abroad for students and provided a transformational global experience right at the beginning of their time here,” says Adam Rubin, assistant vice provost and director of education abroad at UB. “We also wanted the program to tie into UB’s focus on sustainability, while remaining affordable and accessible to students from a broad range of academic perspectives.”

The Costa Rica program checked all those boxes — and proved so successful that Rubin envisions it as a pilot for future First-Year Global Experience programs, starting next winter with courses in Costa Rica and the UK.

Moving forward, each course will focus on the SDGs, while allowing the individual faculty leaders to infuse their expertise and discipline into the experience. As the program grows, so too will the opportunities for students in different courses and countries to participate in cross-disciplinary discussions and reflection.

“Once this model is fully up to speed, we plan to offer multiple programs in multiple countries every winter, which will help to engage a diverse range of first-year students, increase retention and set UB apart from other institutions,” Rubin says.

UB students and faculty learn about sustainable coffee production at Café Los Volcanes.

Sharing social work values

Laura Lewis, clinical associate professor and assistant dean for global partnerships in the UB School of Social Work, taught and co-led the course in Costa Rica.

“I loved the idea of a program that could give first-year students access to these kinds of opportunities,” she says. “It was also a great way to show students how social work relates to issues they care about, like sustainability and social change.”

Through the coursework, Lewis taught students to identify problematic depictions of global issues in American media — often by juxtaposing the superficial representation with what students were seeing on the ground. In addition, she discussed the SDGs and how students can take action on sustainability.

“With its unique focus on the broader social, economic and environmental dimensions of problems, and its bottom-up approach to partnership, social work has an important role to play in enacting transformational change in society while ensuring that no one is left behind,” Lewis says.  

The course’s focus on human rights resonated with Samantha Bordonaro, an undergrad in health and human services who hopes to pursue a social work career.

“Social work is about providing for people's needs and helping them be successful, so I was curious to see how Costa Ricans’ needs are taken care of in certain areas and how they're not,” Bordonaro says.

Business administration major Samantha Ezihie says one of her favorite parts was the chance to stay with a local family — to hear their stories and bond over meals together.

“I was neighbors with other people from the program, so our families would host big group meals. We’d even finish each other’s sentences when someone didn’t know how to translate exactly what they wanted to say,” Ezihie says. “We all got very close in just a few days.” 


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