Brief forays offer lasting lessons to US students

Short, tightly focused programs abroad allow US college students exposure to worlds they might otherwise never see.

History professor Jacqueline Moore had prepared her students as best she could for a month-long course on temples and empires in Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), and Cambodia.

Then, five days before their departure, they stood still with the rest of the world to try to comprehend the tsunami. By the time Ms. Moore sent an e-mail reassuring students and their parents that they could safely go forward, their thoughts were already turning toward helping survivors. The students, from Austin College in Sherman, Texas, set out to gather donations of baby formula, antibiotics, and other supplies. They filled up empty bags they had planned to bring over for shopping, and arranged for their first stop to be an aid group in Bangkok that could distribute the goods.

This short trip had suddenly taken on a dimension none of them had imagined a week before. "We were going to look at these really cool temples, and we were going to ride an elephant," says Ms. Moore. "This adds a lot more meaning to the trip, for us to be able to help out a bit."

In three days, they collected $4,000 cash and $10,000 worth of supplies. Some donations will also be sent to Sri Lanka, including $50,000 from an anonymous donor inspired by their efforts. "We're going to get a crash course in disaster relief," says religion major Seth Finch.

American college students are increasingly squeezing academic and cultural adventures into a few weeks between semesters. Professors plan carefully to get the most out of each day, but the flexibility of short, small-group trips means that sometimes the lessons are spontaneous, too.

Proponents cite other virtues, as well. Such programs tend to be focused and intense, prompting both academic and personal growth. In addition, trips of two to six weeks are available to a wider range of students, especially those who work, play team sports, or have commitments that make a semester or year away seem impossible. And for more timid travelers, they appeal as a safe way to experience the world beyond their borders.

"Given the increasing academic requirements that get pumped into every major ... more and more, we're going to see students study abroad for short [periods] rather than longer," says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education in New York.

The IIE reports that about 50 percent of students who took courses abroad in 2002-03 did so for less than a semester. That includes 9.4 percent who traveled for fewer than eight weeks, up from 4.2 percent five years earlier.

"The shorter exposure gets their feet wet, opens their mind up to the rest of the world, and I think they're much more likely to go back for a longer stint," Mr. Goodman says.

Still, the United States has a long way to go to incorporate international education, especially at the community-college level, he adds. Of 15 million college students, only 175,000 study abroad in a given year - just over 1 percent.

Professors acknowledge there are limits to how much students can get to know a place on a quick jaunt. But some students who have spent both a semester in Europe and a few weeks in a developing nation, for instance, say the latter shifted their perspectives more profoundly.

Mind-bending journeys

Ten days in Ghana recently left a group of seniors from Barnard College both devastated and determined.

All semester they had read poetry, novels, and nonfiction in a new course called "Literature of the Middle Passage," which examined slavery and its modern-day legacies.

Suddenly, instead of the skyscrapers of New York, they were seeing people eke out a living in the shadow of forts where Africans had been forced onto ships bound for the Americas.

"It was really moving, really intense," says Manmeet Bindra, an anthropology and history major. "You walk into these caves where people were held and they still smell horrible; they've been cleaned and cleaned, but these are spaces where people were packed tight."

After she walked around Elmina, one of the villages at the base of an immense white slave castle, she says she broke down and cried for an hour.

"[The trip] was academic, but it was also ... a completely different way of thinking about something - you know, feeling it, and seeing it, and sensing it, and smelling it, and thinking about history and thinking about the place right now."

Ms. Bindra also wrestled with something many Americans experience when they confront poverty. She felt guilty stepping out of a fancy hotel into a marketplace where she saw children sleeping on wooden boards.

She knew that walking around with her blond classmate, she'd stand out as American, despite her family roots in India. But she wasn't expecting the angry stares sometimes directed their way. Or the children seeing her and yelling "Abroonie," which means "white person."

"Walking around was more powerful than just sitting on a bus, because you are forced to be not just the observer, but to be observed," she says.

After students recovered from their shock, many returned home with plans to use what they'd learned after college, says English Prof. Elizabeth Schmidt, who helped lead the trip. Some, for instance, plan to teach high school history.

"It reconfirmed why I want to focus my energies on thinking about issues of poverty and disparity," says Bindra, who has already worked with nonprofits and policymakers focused on undocumented labor.

The course was developed by Caryl Phillips, an English professor whose own novels tackle slavery. "For me as a teacher, part of being in the classroom is trying to get the students to engage with each other around difficult subjects," he says. But when they met in a seminar only once a week, they didn't build up much trust. "People began to speak out more vociferously and more openly around these questions of race once they were in Ghana," he says.

Along with the sheer adventure, that is the dynamic he says students will most remember.

Going to give

When young people return from Mark Radecke's service learning trips to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, they inevitably say it changed their life. But lately, the chaplain and professor has been probing into why. As part of his research for a doctor of ministry degree, he's interviewed a number of his students from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

The January trip includes an academic course on Latin American conceptions of Jesus, along with work and homestays in impoverished communities.

After finding out from contacts what kind of help is most needed, his students do construction projects and run health clinics and vacation Bible schools for children.

For some, the life-changing aspect is that it's their first time out of the country, or even their first trip on an airplane.

For all, it's a new exposure to places that are extremely poor by American standards of living.

"One student told me, 'It will not be possible for me to spend $40 for an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt anymore when I go back, because I know that $40 would feed a family for a month,' " Mr. Radecke recalls.

But the trip also highlights different forms of wealth.

"These people focus on what they can give thanks to God for, and not what they need. [They] focus on relationships with other people and not the material possessions that we often value," writes senior Becky Rowe from an Internet cafe in Cartago, Costa Rica, a few days into this month's trip.

When the students see dark-skinned depictions of Jesus for the first time, many are struck by "how another culture structures the Christian faith and imagines Jesus," Radecke says. "And then some step back and say, 'Wait a minute, my take on the Christian faith is a construct.'... And therein lies at least half the value - the lens through which they look at their own culture and faith gets corrected."

As with most such courses, the students do preparatory work before they leave, keep journals while they travel, and then write papers upon their return.

"In order for it to sink in, you have to come home and unpack it," Radecke says. "You don't get academic credit for [simply] having an experience."

Oh, the places you'll go...

Some of the two- to four-week trips US college students will embark on this winter term:

• Journalism, geopolitics, and wildlife photography in Antarctica University of Delaware

• China: Tradition and Change DePauw University

• Screenwriting in Antigua (two-way learning helps to boost the filmmaking industry on the island) Ithaca College

• Environmental and economic issues in Kenya and Tanzania Lafayette College

• Astronomy in Mexico: Mayan to Modern Elon University

• Theatre in London University of Rochester

• After Apartheid: Creative Engagement in South Africa Saint Mary's College of California

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