A&S readers treasure their international experiences.Posted 10/24/07
Studying abroad third year was one of the highlights of my undergrad experience, and one that has enriched my life and the life of my family in countless ways. We are currently hosting our fourth high-school exchange student, and my children, now in eighth and fifth grades, have learned much from and greatly enjoyed all their big brothers and sisters. My eighth grader has been so “bitten by the bug” that she has already participated in a mini-exchange program and is fluent in French. In this increasingly global society, all students should be strongly encouraged to spend at least one summer or semester abroad.
Betsy Wildenthal Cohen (Echols ’86, Law ’91)
I am a second-year international student from China. This semester I’m taking a French course, and I found it has broadened my view in terms of cultivating a growing interest in the countries where people speak the language I’m studying for, and I really appreciate this initial step of cultural enrichment which offers me a greater chance of participating involvingly in my course study of Foreign Affairs. I decided to study abroad in France this summer.
Xiao “Betty” Xiong (College ’10)
As a CLAS undergraduate in the early 1990s, I took advantage of studying overseas but, to this day, carry significant regret concerning the approach I took and the quality of the experience. My advice to current students would include fully involving U.Va. faculty in accessing the quality of the offerings and then in making an academic plan. Independent-minded and rather stubborn, I essentially forged my own path and can only pretend now that “the experience” provided focus and real-world context for studies. In truth, I enjoyed myself, allured by the chance to travel and to hang out with interesting people in a cool place. It would have been much more valuable through an academic discipline that could have directly tied my pre- and post-U.Va. classwork together, most obviously, with a capstone project or thesis based on the experience. Study abroad programs are notorious for lack of discipline in most every respect. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to take it seriously and to truly take advantage of what it offers. I say, take the hard road of truly being a foreigner in a foreign setting, avoid “study abroad coursework” (offered in English with fellow Americans!), find unique academic resources not available elsewhere. Touring, traveling, meeting interesting Americans overseas can always be enjoyed over a well-earned break or post-graduation!
Matthew Keough (Foreign Affairs, History ’95)
I did not go abroad third year because my family discouraged it and I feared the expense. Huge mistake. HUGE. I regret it more every year.
Jennifer Buxton Haupt (English ’90)
Studying abroad in Sevilla for a semester my junior year was one of the best experiences of my life. It helped broaden my understanding of the world in ways that still impact the way I make decisions and consider other people’s perspectives. It also gave me a sense of independence and confidence that I never had before — even going to school over 300 miles away from home. You really only have yourself to depend on, and you learn that you can make friends and find connections no matter where you find yourself in the world. It has impacted me professionally in multiple ways, as my ability to speak another language has opened many doors and helped me feel comfortable in many different situations. I work often with college students and share all the time how difficult it was for me to go abroad; quite frankly, I was scared and how if I have ever had to do it over, I would go for longer. I think everyone can greatly benefit from this experience. It is life-changing.
Kerry Crosby (English Language and Literature, Spanish, Religious Studies ’96)
As a student, I did not do a study abroad semester, largely because I didn’t want to give up the things I was involved in on Grounds. Travel has since become one of my passions, and my work also requires some overseas trips. I wish that I had carved out a time during college or in the years shortly after college to live in another country, get to personally know its people, history and culture, and to travel to surrounding locations. It would have been incredibly useful, instructive, enjoyable and memorable. Perhaps when I retire ... .
Lee Harper (History ’85)
I can honestly say I have been less neurotic and anxious since coming back from a semester in Siena, Italy. Studying abroad is as much a retreat from college as it is study. Before going abroad, I acknowledged the perspective variance, but not until I spent four months away did I understand the difference. It takes a great deal of effort to step out of one’s American shoes, but after the initial move the rest is easy! I plan on heading back as soon as I can.
Stephanie Coberly (History, Italian ’07)
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn other languages and live in other cultures. Do this for yourself, even more than for your job. There are significant parts of my current work teaching and engaging in international conflict resolution that would not be possible without Russian language skills. I gained these skills while in undergrad at U.Va., and then immediately after graduating when I taught English in Moscow. But more than the professional boost, I value most the ability to understand others directly in their own language. I’ve found that getting to know another culture, including another language, helps me develop more awareness of my own cultural and linguistic constraints. That awareness, in turn, helps me expand my range of options for acting beyond learned patterns.
Susan Allen Nan (Political and Social Thought ’92)
I had nearly given up on the idea of going abroad. I had just finished my second year, declared a second major and a minor. I had gotten involved in numerous student groups on campus, and I didn’t think I could leave them or get my coursework done in time. It was graduation weekend, and I was in Charlottesville staying with a friend. By pure chance, a friend of hers had just returned from a study abroad program in Ecuador that day. She came over, and we looked at pictures and heard her stories well into the afternoon and evening. She had done an independent study project where she assisted a midwife for a month. I was amazed. I knew I had to find a way.
When I studied in Bolivia with the School for International Training, I had no idea that while I was there, one of the most important events in Bolivia’s recent history would occur. Social movements were strong, and when confronted with a president who wouldn't listen — and even worse — sent tanks and sharpshooters out against protesters, causing 67 deaths and hundreds of wounded — they called for his resignation until even his own vice president withdrew his support, and he left. That was October 2003, and I and the 25 other college students in my program left at the end wide-eyed and determined to come back. And I did. A volunteer opportunity in 2005 led to a full-time job in 2007. And here I am, writing to you from Cochabamba, Bolivia.
My advice: GO. Do it. You'll never regret it, and it may very well change your life. I would also recommend going somewhere other than Europe. It’s a big world, and in Europe you may never leave your bubble. And when you go, do so without preconceptions and [be] ready to listen. If you do, I guarantee you’ll learn far more than you ever dreamed of.
Lily Whitesell (Anthropology ’04)
Great question! I participated in a U.Va. summer program in Valencia, Spain, in 1991 and the Venice Program via the U.Va. Graduate School of Architecture in 2000. In addition to the obvious academic and cultural benefits, both experiences made me more adventurous, outgoing and confident in my independence. Let’s be honest, though it may sound a little pompous, it’s really fun to say “Well, when I lived in Venice ...”
If you are abroad in order to improve your foreign language skills, my best advice would be to branch out from your safe, little group of other students in the program and American friends. Get to know the locals and practice speaking with them. It’s the only way to really improve your language skills. In Spain and Venice, I found that wandering around without fear of getting lost was the best way to get to know the city and find the best little hidden spots. Interacting with local business owners is a great way to get started, whether it’s at the bakery or the copy store. One of my favorite memories of Venice was walking down the alleys and hearing shopkeepers yell out “Ciao Rebecca!”
Becky Harris (English Language and Literature, History ’94, MArch ’01)
As an M.S. recipient in 1956, I still consider myself a “cavalier.” It is my opinion after teaching at universities in the U.S.A. for 43 years that the biggest revolution in education and in international relations will not come from universities but from the Internet. Regimes, such as China, Iran, Cuba, etc., cannot have it both ways. They cannot ignore the educational and free intellectual impact of the Internet on their population and, at the same time, restrict access to it. People will find ways to get around foolish attempts at censoring. Remember, even at the time of World War II when electronics were very primitive, the people of Europe managed to hear the BBC.
So, it is my opinion that to reach people elsewhere, it is not necessary to go there anymore. It may be a nice touch to meet people abroad, but it is not a very efficient method of communications anymore.
Ivan Bernal (MS Chemistry ’56)
My life, professional and personal, is the direct result of international study. As a graduate in international affairs, CLAS ’88, I never thought I would ever use or see relevance in my degree. I remember being told by a roommate second year, in the major choosing crisis, “If you don’t know what you want to do, go government.” However, for the next five to six years, I watched my classmates with other majors succeed more quickly and rued the day I listened to that roommate. After one U.S. government class, I decided international might be a better mix. Short stints in retail sales, restaurant management, construction management, teaching and a master’s in education convinced me that my choice of a major wasn’t the most prudent. (Those seven years of French didn’t seem to benefit me, either, at the time!)
However, on a whim, I applied for and was approved for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. Knowing no Japanese (well, except for “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto”; “sake” and “sushi,” that is), I traveled to a new and foreign country with only my training as a Virginia Gentleman, my enthusiasm for travel and a lack of trepidation (or perhaps wisdom if you ask some of my friends!). I was determined not to waste that opportunity and real-world classroom and so started my formal and informal study of the Japanese language and culture. Private lessons, coursework with the YMCA as well as studies provided by the JET program all made me a well meaning, semi-literate barbarian with a love of foreign culture and languages. After three years of teaching and studying, I returned to the U.S. academic world, stopping off in Cambridge to get a certification in TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language]. I spent a couple of years teaching English as a foreign language in local colleges and started teaching Japanese to high school students. As the “odd” teacher, I passed on to my students the interest in Japan and the language — having them continue their studies of the language in college and traveling to Japan on the same adventure I had experienced. It was also there, in a U.S. urban high-school setting, that I met my wife, a Japanese woman teaching in the same school system (obvious and definite enhancement to my personal life!).
Thirteen years after graduating, I came full circle and realized that all of my stops and starts had really been preparation for my latest career (“latest” meaning where I am now, and so far, plan to stay). On September 10, 2001, I joined the Foreign Service of the [U.S.] State Department. Since that time I have served in South Africa, studied Spanish, served in Honduras and now am working in D.C. I plan to return to Japan and perhaps, after all of this, to academia. I work in a well respected, great job that pays well, sends me off to exotic and foreign locales to represent the U.S., and sends me back to school every now and then to learn a new language or culture. Things and places I dreamed about doing I am now getting paid to do. (I am still waiting on that diplomatic mission to space!) I also feel that I am paying a little back of what I owe to my country for what I have received. I come across colleagues every day who studied abroad or did an internship overseas. Every single one of them values and cherishes that experience and looks at it as one of those opportunities that opened new venues and vistas.
My advice to those of you out there considering your options is, go for it! Don’t just look at those classes with obvious job connections. Do a year abroad, either in school or afterwards, study that strange class on the aesthetic carpet-weaving techniques (not the aquatic weaving class ... the University doesn’t have any of those, right?!). Some of the programs out there pay you to live abroad and learn in a foreign culture. There is the JET program, similar programs in China and Korea, and I just read that the U.S., New Zealand and Australia are planning on extending our work/study programs for post-secondary-level students, allowing up to a year of work/study in each country, something similar to the working holiday visa. You never know what will pique your interest and develop into a career. It also makes for a fuller and, I think, funner … OK, more fun ... time. Oh, and those French classes? Well, they frustrated the heck out of my Spanish teachers. I can also order wine and cheese pretty well and make almost any French person speak to me in English to try to get me to stop murdering their language!
Benjamin Brown (Foreign Affairs ’88)
During the fall of 1990 (my fourth year, first semester at U.Va.), I went to London as part of the University of Virginia’s study abroad program at that time. Since I was majoring in foreign affairs, the ability to live and study in a foreign capital seemed to be a natural fit. (U.Va. also set me up with a great internship while I was there.) Of course, I did not know how great an experience it would turn out to be. Spending three months in London gave me a lifelong passion for the study of international relations (even though my career path turned out to be in a different area), and I met my future wife there! I can’t stress enough how important it is to enjoy the college years and take advantage of the programs offered, such as study abroad opportunities. The chance to live in another country/culture will benefit the individual personally, and, I believe, benefit our country in general. As the world’s only superpower, we often think we have the luxury of having others have to understand us. I believe that it is crucial that we also attempt to understand others’ perspectives, and a semester abroad is a great opportunity to see how others live and view the world. In my case, I also gained a lifelong partner as well as a love for the study of international affairs. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity if possible.
Duke de Haas (Foreign Affairs ’91)
A year (usually the junior year) studying abroad is a meal ticket-and-a-half. The study abroad has to be one year (or at least the two semesters and then ingenuity will figure out a way to stay in the foreign country beyond June through July and August) because one semester or six months abroad doesn’t seem to quite result in complete fluency and master of the idioms of the foreign language.
I’m thinking mostly of Spanish and French since they are the dominant languages after English in our hemisphere (sorry if I’m slighting Dutch and Portuguese) and, if a student can’t figure out how to parlay this fluency into a job upon graduation that also requires Spanish or French so they earn more than a job just requiring English, then they need to learn how to sell themselves. A summer working for the Southwestern Company (headquarters in Nashville) would definitely help them learn selling skills that they could use immediately in their first post-college job and also carry with them for the rest of their lives.
I’d even recommend this for the athletes, assuming they could sell their coach they’d come back obviously older, but more mature, possibly heavier (if they are still filling out and extra weight is a plus in their sport) and even more skilled in their sport (if, for example, they play tennis and could spend their year abroad in Spain or France and schedule in playing in the European tournaments and gain experience they’d never get in the U. S.).
Tony Haber (College ’60)
I have to say that I think international experience is one of the most important opportunities that a student can take advantage of in school. Most U.Va. students may be more inclined to travel outside U.S. borders than the average American, but college is a wonderful time to do it before life starts getting in the way. There are great classes that you can take as part of a study abroad program, but the most important thing is that you just go somewhere outside your comfort zone. Preferably to a place that doesn’t speak English as its first language.
My husband, also a U.Va. grad, and I have recently returned from a year of travel and never cease to be surprised by how few Americans we cross paths with around the world. (I wrote about the experience on our website, alexandelizabeth.com.) Even in remote villages in the Himalayas, people know at least a few things about our country and are always interested to learn more. The U.S. wields so much power around the world that it even touches these people living thousands of miles away, literally on the top of the world. And yet most American can hardly locate our own country on a map, much less Nepal. I strongly believe that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about what life is like for the rest of the world because we help shape so much of it.
I was fortunate to take one trip to Europe when I was in high school. It was enough for me to catch the bug, and I couldn’t wait to study abroad when I got to U.Va. I planned my courses carefully from my first year so by the time the second semester of my third year came around, I didn’t even have to worry about getting credits while in Germany and Austria. Nonetheless, I tried to take my classes seriously and loved every minute of it. But most of my learning took place out of the classroom. I learned how to be comfortable in conversations where I had no idea what was going on. I had fun trying to figure out how we had gotten on the wrong train in the middle of the night and all the other misadventures that go along with being a student in Europe. Slightly uncomfortable and unknown situations like this help cement skills that you may already have, and teach you to trust your ability to figure things out when you don’t have enough information — a skill that I wish more people I worked with had!
That said, based on my experience this past year, I would encourage students to consider studying in places that aren’t as easy to get by in as Europe — places where there aren’t a lot of other Americans and you are forced to think about life in a way that challenges our Western belief system. They might come back thinking the exact same things as when they left — but they will do so with much stronger conviction. Or, they might gain a whole new perspective on the world and their place in it.
We are fortunate to live in one of the world’s wealthiest economies, which affords us tremendous opportunity to learn and explore through travel. It is an option that most of the world’s population cannot even fathom. And it doesn’t even take nearly as much money as you might think as we found out this last year. We have to recharge the bank accounts by working for a few years now, but another long trip is definitely on the agenda because we have so much more to learn, and travel is my favorite way to do that. Just the experience of being in a foreign place, much less having an instructor to guide you there is like a condensed course on politics, language, religion, gender studies, history, food, music ... the list goes on. Your understanding of a subject matter is incredibly intensified by your total physical, emotional and sensual immersion in it. For days on end — even when it’s painful and you can’t turn back. Sometimes you learn the most on those days.
Studying abroad is a fantastic opportunity for students to learn this lesson for themselves. And they are at a point in their life where they still have many years to take advantage of all the world has to teach.
Elizabeth Rogers (International Relations ’94)
I recall as an undergraduate English major wondering what possible use much of what I was studying would benefit me outside the University grounds. My “intellectual curiosity” had not yet completely supplanted my “intellectual laziness.” This occasional attitudinal lapse spilled over to my graduate work when I found myself enrolled in an Old Icelandic language seminar to satisfy a Medieval Studies requirement. Without plans to do a great deal of research in the Icelandic sagas, the course appeared to me as one of those “useless administrative requisites.”
After taking my M.A., I found myself aboard a U.S. Navy ship teaching Program for Afloat College Education English classes. (An adventure I cherish to this day.) We were approaching the harbor of Århus to collect some U.S. Marines ending a NATO exercise. I had left my stateroom to take photographs of my first view of Denmark from the signal bridge of the ship when I saw the ship’s captain engaged with a large, white-bearded gentleman, both of whom were displaying some perplexity. The bearded man was a harbor pilot with the job of guiding the ship safely to its docking site. He spoke little English, and the Captain spoke no Danish. I overheard what sounded to be close to some Icelandic utterances I remembered from my class. I joined the conversation with a few words of Old Icelandic greetings gaining an immediate smile and response from the bearded man who proved not to be a Dane but an Icelander working for the Danish port authorities. Recalling a few basic terms from my semester's classwork, I was able to translate enough to establish communication between the two men and help take the ship to a safe portage. I remained in good stead with the captain for the remainder of the voyage.
The potential in a lifetime for the application of whole or bits of knowledge — local, regional, international or universal — must be seen as limitless, given the opportunity and willingness to gain and exercise that knowledge.
G. Robert Jones (MA English Language and Literature ’80)
Once you return from studying or living in a foreign country, the “deculturation” can take about six months. Then you think back on that time you were there, and it seems like you spent a lifetime, yet life was so short. At least that’s how I feel.
It’s almost frightening how quickly but subtly one can adapt. I learned walking avenues, hand gestures and cultural euphemisms faster than a con artist in a retirement home. In a sincere way, I became someone else. A Nicaraguan. A Mexican. An Argentinian. And once it’s over, I wanted desperately to integrate my life fully into this new person. I wanted to stay and learn more street names and hear more about the foreign opinions of U.S. government. This life was appealing, but you step out just as quickly as you stepped in. You’re gone and so you fade, and the prior existence whittles itself down to an encapsulated memory.
This is not to say that you forget. The occasional detail is a déjâ vu from that past era. Your life has regressed, but your opinions and outlook haven’t. Determine someone’s “identity” by their experiences like I do, and what you get is someone who is 1/127th Argentinian. The cliché holds a touch of truth: You go abroad, and you take part of that with you. Or in you, however you see it. A person is built; life simply fluctuates. I enjoyed the change, but I foster the redesign.
Vincent Hill Malone III (Commerce, Finance and International Business ’09)
While an undergraduate and graduate student at the University I did not study abroad. However, I think this component in the academic journey at U.Va. would be an extraordinary experience. In a growing global economy and international neighborhood, we can no longer view our lives in provincial paradigms. I believe the University’s intention to underscore this reality is a true asset for the student, and the alumni as well.
Michael W. Childress (Sociology ’83, MA ’84)
International study has had the single biggest effect on both my personal and professional lives. Instead of working immediately after graduation, I lived and studied in Russia for a year. The ways in which that year abroad changed me are too numerous to detail here, but suffice it to say that I didn’t find out who I really was until I was 8,000 miles away from home. I returned with only a slight idea of how I might put that year abroad to use; I worked several jobs without finding fulfillment, my thoughts turning frequently to my time in St. Petersburg. Five years later, I am in the first semester of my M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and could not be happier. Who knows where I would be were it not for that year?
I cannot strongly enough recommend a semester or year abroad for students. The value of living in another culture, especially in an increasingly globalized world, is immeasurable. Yes, you will miss your friends; yes, you will miss parties and football games; yes, you will miss the minutiae of University life, but what you bring back will not only enhance your appreciation of these things but also your ability to contribute to them. If you’re considering spending time abroad, do not hesitate; this is the perfect time in your life to explore the world largely unfettered. Go!
Kathleen Thompson (Sociology ’02)
I studied abroad in Oxford, England, through a non-U.Va.-affiliated program. Needing credit hours to graduate on time, the U.Va. International Study Abroad Office opened up possibilities less conventional, as long as credits were transferable. Reading through booklets of summer abroad programs, speaking to fellow student staff and weighing written student testimonials allowed for a deeper, more informative exploration of the many variables involved in choosing this kind of program.
Because the program was offered through an American-based University, the cultural shifts were not as abrupt. The British classroom and cultural lessons were learned with American students.
I would recommend a study abroad program to anyone looking to expand and broaden themselves beyond the traditional classroom setting. An enlightened perspective can open the possibility for greater learning.
Marshall Murdough (Rhetoric and Communication Studies ’92)
International study — language study in the U.S., courses overseas and study abroad —was the single most important, formative experience I had in graduate school, facilitated by appropriate grants.
Admittedly, you have to take some risks when you immerse yourself overseas. But not only are the risks not large (usually), the payoffs are far greater, starting with enhanced confidence to handle yourself and achieve goals in challenging environments.
I gained profoundly deepened access to, and understanding of, other, lesser-known cultures on their own terms, and the field expertise on target cultures to go with that. As a result, I now get to read books and watch movies that I never would have seen otherwise, and without which I would have been deprived of vital intellectual and emotional insights. The ability to probe the corners of other languages and their target countries is a limitless joy, always full of surprises.
Most of all, I gained durable friendships with people who, regardless of our differences, are amazed and appreciative that an American would bother to come find them at home, learn their tongue and make a serious personal commitment to their culture. That’s no small thing in a world where the fanatical or the merely angry are winning deadly points on account of our ignorance, our remarkable failure to venture far beyond our borders and our collective indifference to so many people who might otherwise help us.
International study is also the essential reason I got married to a non-Westerner, and built the foundation of a career doing what I love — working in international affairs.
I greatly regret that I didn’t take the leap when I thought about going abroad during my undergraduate studies. My advice would be to seize hold of international study opportunities as often as humanly possible (which is to say, as circumstances permit). In fact, the best advice I was ever given, after I had been complaining about traipsing through formerly novel (and sometimes less than attractive) places I had grown used to, was this: Get lost.
Dr. Frank Sellin (Foreign Affairs, History ’91, Foreign Affairs ’94 and ’03)
Foreign Service Officer
I am glad you asked about the advantages of participating in international study opportunities. As a director of human resources for a professional association in Washington, D.C., I personally feel international experience is valuable for the following reasons:
Recent college grads with international experience seem more mature and comfortable with the interview process, possibly because their exposure enables them to think globally and creatively.
Regardless if organizations have international dealings, employers view international experience as a sign of confidence and independence, thereby assuming these individuals will require less training time and supervision.
International experience helps strengthen social and interpersonal skills. I highly encourage students to take advantage of international opportunities.
Saunji Fyffe (Psychology ’91)
While I was an undergraduate at U.Va., I spent a semester studying abroad in Peru. It was a life-changing experience for me, and really opened my eyes to the world. As a student of international relations, I began to more fully realize the subjective stance that
is often taken in the global political and economic framework, and how the U.S.A. (being the hegemon of the world) dictates how we are supposed to view certain subject areas. Since then I have taught English in South Korea for one year, and I am currently working
towards my M.A. in international relations and diplomacy at Leiden University in The
Netherlands. These experiences have given me the opportunity to learn from many different perspectives, the biases and assumptions hidden deep inside my own perspectives, and how to try to reconcile all of them on a personal level. I want to eventually work for the U.S. State Department, and I believe these experiences will give me the ability to further U.S. interests without damaging U.S. respect and legitimacy abroad. This is becoming increasingly important in the hostile environment we Americans are finding ourselves in outside our borders.
Maria L. Bocanegra (International Relations ’05)
Traveling and studying abroad can be a bit pricey and serve as a deterrent against going, but the advantages of living in a foreign country completely outweigh those against it. Please go abroad if money is the only thing holding you back! Apply for scholarships, grants, etc. — that’s what I did. Living in London for five months the spring semester of my third year gave me the opportunity to visit countries like the Czech Republic, France and Germany. Furthermore, I found great deals online and was sometimes able to find plane tickets for $50 round trip! Yes, it was a bit time-consuming but so worth all the time and energy spent. Studying abroad was truly one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
Linda Choe (Foreign Affairs ’07)
I studied Russian at U.Va., and spent the first semester of my fourth year in what was then Leningrad, making friends on the streets of the old “evil empire” of the U.S.S.R. This experience confirmed my belief that learning foreign languages and cultures and spending time abroad is the best way to bring understanding between the peoples of the world — which is what I’ve tried to do every day in the last 14 years as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. I encourage everyone with strong language skills or even just a desire to expand your horizons to spend time overseas — you’ll learn much more than you ever thought possible about the world, your country and yourself.
Paul Schultz (Russian, Foreign Affairs ’91)
United States Embassy
Diversity doesn’t depend on geography. The University could find real diversity in lower-middle class but intellectually capable students in the Appalachian region of Virginia. I wonder how well these students are represented at Mr. Jefferson’s University.
Adam B. Ritchie (College ’60, PhD Chemistry ’68)
One of the greatest gifts of my life was to participate in the life of two cultures. I am originally from Argentina, I received my Ph.D. from U.Va., and at present I am a professor of Spanish at the University of New Orleans.
I travel yearly to visit my family, thus I am in continuous contact with two cultures; so are my sons, who are bilingual and greatly appreciate this ability. The personal enrichment that both cultures give me is overwhelming and always a wonder.
Maria del Carmen Artigas (PhD Spanish ’90)
Studying abroad at the University of Haifa, Israel, was a transformative experience for me, both personally and professionally. Before I left, I was a modern studies major poised to write my honors thesis on post-colonial literature of Africa and the Caribbean. However, the ulpan (Hebrew language immersion class) and Israeli culture courses I took in Haifa revealed exciting possibilities that I had not even considered for my project. Being surrounded by the vivid complexity of Israeli culture intensified what I was learning in the classroom and increased my ability to speak and read the language. Upon
returning to Charlottesville, I switched my thesis topic to a comparative analysis of Israeli and Jewish-American literature. I also took a high level Hebrew course to build upon my progress. Now I am working towards my Ph.D. in modern Hebrew literature at New York University, and I am spending this year on a fellowship at the University of Washington’s Jewish Studies program. I couldn’t be happier with the direction my academic career has taken.
To students considering studying abroad, the prospect of missing out on a semester or a whole year at U.Va. is daunting. It’s true that you will sacrifice opportunities to hold offices in organizations and the like; as a very involved, third-year student, this idea troubled me. However, I eventually realized that the University would keep turning without me, and that I had far more to gain by going away than by sticking around. My advice is as follows: if you feel the slightest tug of wanderlust to study in another part
of the world, go for it! The experience just might change your life.
Hannah (Graham) Pressman (English-Modern Studies ’01)
An economic geography course was a good introduction to the world and has proved useful through my career as a reporter, as I often write about business news.
Bill Nachman (College ’72)
I am a strong advocate for international study and believe that it can be a life-changing experience. After I finished my undergrad degree at Duke, I received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Australian National University in Canberra. While there, doing research for my master's thesis, I reviewed original documents in the Australian Archives and had the opportunity to interview Australian scholars, ambassadors and political representatives, including two former Prime Ministers. Pretty heady experience for a 22-year-old! In addition to my research, I traveled, took a political science course, attended conferences and even met an Australian who became my husband. After my year-and-a-half in Australia, I came to U.Va. and completed my M.A. in Foreign Affairs. I continue to maintain close ties to Australia and now serve on the regional advisory board for the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright program. My international experience taught me to view U.S. foreign policy through a much wider lens and to appreciate the strengths and challenges of the American political system. I believe that we are all citizens of the world and that citizen diplomacy is the most effective and efficient way to build common global understanding and develop linkages.
Pamela A. Cook (MA Foreign Affairs ’81)
Study abroad is a transforming experience in a person’s personal, intellectual and professional development, not only when we are students but all along our lives.
In my case, I went to U.Va. in 1986 as an international student and got there my M.A. and Ph.D. My study abroad experience in the U.S. was outstanding: I mastered a new language, learnt about a new culture, traveled to new places, met people from all around the world, got two degrees. In addition, I had the opportunity to lead the U.Va. Summer Program in Valencia, Spain, for six years, helping American students to learn about Spanish language and culture. After many years in the U.S., my passion for educational and cultural exchange took me to Brazil where I rewrote my study abroad experience in a new country. I now live in Brazil and I have dedicated my life to educational, cultural and travel programs here, offering other people creative ways to learn and enjoy Brazilian culture.
Javier Escudero (MA Spanish ’88, PhD Spanish ’92)
The combination of mind-broadening exposure to another culture and way of doing things combined with the improvement of language skills is benefit not to be missed. What you get out of it lasts a lifetime.
Barry Freckmann (Spanish ’85)
I went from U.Va. on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England — and I’ve lived in the U.K. ever since. Being exposed to a whole world of different people, different cultures, different values and beliefs made me realise the limitations of a purely American life. As a result, I’ve been able to pursue a truly international career, working in some of the more exotic places of Central Asia and the Middle East as well as the City of London and Europe. I live in an 18th-century thatched cottage in a rural village surrounded by beautiful countryside. I participate in a multicultural, multiracial and tolerant society. I am now bilingual (I speak English and American) and teach British and international undergraduate students at Britain’s newest university about intercultural communication. The experience of studying abroad didn’t just enhance my life, it helped me to create a new life. My advice to anyone considering a term or year abroad is to seize the opportunity with both hands. Open your minds and learn something about the rest of the world!
Catherine Burke Sweet (Government ’77)
I studied in Madrid for three-and-one-half months during my senior year as an English/Spanish double major. I lived with a family and was forced to speak Spanish at all times and follow the Spanish schedule. The culture shock was terrible at first, but it was an eye-opener. I got a glimpse of the world, the U.S. and the Spanish people from a perspective that was not American. And I learned a lot of Spanish — a lot, but not enough. This first trip kindled my desire to learn more and after graduating (’83), I returned. A year later, I married a Spaniard and now we live in rural Spain raising a family and teaching English as a Foreign Language to children (and some adults) of all ages. Not everyone will want to settle down in a foreign country as I did, but the experience of living abroad is life-changing and the university years are an ideal time to take advantage of the opportunity to participate in countless programs that are offered.
Edith Belt (English, Spanish ’83)
With regard to the question concerning international study and language classes enhancing your life, take full advantage of the opportunities that U.Va. provides. Studying abroad truly gives you new insights and will allow you to reflect on your opinions and views of your culture and values. It is also a great way to connect with and meet another people, establishing a broader network base that will serve you well in the future. If you can take the opportunity and spend a few weeks over in another country with a foreign language — do so — not only for experience but to immerse yourself in the language. Knowing a foreign language is a very valuable skill and it is hard to be truly proficient unless you immerse yourself. Also, if you can't break yourself away from U.Va. during the semesters, take full advantage of going in the summer — you won’t regret it.
Danielle Holley (Political Philosophy, Policy and Law ’07)
I hesitated to major in Spanish at U.Va. because so many told me there was no money in it. I also didn’t spend a year abroad because I didn’t want to be so far away from home. Instead, I spent three weeks in Mexico at a language institute over the break before my final semester. I eventually became a Spanish teacher and a missionary, traveling and working all over South America and the Caribbean. The most useful U.Va. courses I had were “History of the (Spanish) Language” and “Dialectology.” In each place, I’ve encountered the dialects I studied and have often been told my accent is barely discernible, thanks to all the hours in the language lab. True, I’ve never made much money, but I have had wonderful experiences and have friends in so many countries that I’ve never regretted the decision. If Joanne Baldonado reads this, I am eternally grateful to you for being such a great professor!
Kimberly Johnson (Spanish ’83)
I honestly believe that I am a better person for having been a part of a student exchange in high school, having lived abroad for a year and learned another language (between high school and U.Va.), for studying abroad a semester, and for having made lifelong friends from other countries. I still remember the feeling when my foot hit the ground of another country. I suddenly became aware that Charlottesville — my hometown — was not the center of the universe. That the way I thought was not how everyone else did and that my perception of the world was not the “right” one — I was just a part of a very diverse and beautiful planet. It changed my life.
Living in another culture (not vacationing, but actually living for an extended period of time and learning their language) will show you new things that open your mind, change the way you think and teach acceptance. I think it’s essential for a balanced view of life.
If you have not lived abroad or learned another language fluently, do it while at UVa. Regardless of your major, regardless of where you choose to go or what language you learn, make it happen.
Susan Reed (Art History, Architectural History ’92, MArch ’01)
I would definitely recommend studying abroad to anyone who has the desire to do so. However, my most important advice is to keep in mind what is most important to you, and pursue it before leaving the U.S. and keep it in mind during your time abroad. Also, do your research and be well-prepared. If you have your own plans, ideas, contacts or lodgment that could enhance your experience or result in you saving money, go with them! Do not be afraid to speak up or contact your program director to change plans or to ask questions — they are there to help you achieve your goals and expectations for your program, and if you don’t fight for what you want out of the program, the only person who will lose out is you! Good luck!
Jessica Jeanty (Foreign Affairs ’08)
I studied in London for summer school at LSE [London School of Economics and Political Science] and it was one of the most exciting experiences in my life. The new culture, environment, teachers and students from all over the world made me feel like I was in a new world. Studying with students from different countries is not like model U.N. It is more like growing up and facing your identity — to do well, you have to be open-minded about a lot of things and very accepting. The advice I have for students is to definitely seek study in another country, for a summer at least, or for graduate school. You will know much more about the international marketplace and how to negotiate, what works and what doesn’t and why.
Maria Evelina Gutierrez (English, Biology ’95)
I graduated in 1981 with a degree in international relations and Spanish. I also took French and Russian. Way back then, the College did not offer study abroad programs. I had to go through Southern Methodist University (SMU). I spent a semester in France, a summer in Spain and a winter in Russia.
After graduating, I was employed by a big New York bank doing international banking and then got my MBA at Harvard. After my MBA, I went to work for a bank in Hong Kong and since then have lived in London, Hong Kong again and Singapore. I have now travelled to more than 75 countries and just set up a scholarship at U.Va. to help send students abroad.
I believe my studies abroad during my time at U.Va. set me up for this international life. Even back then, I was thrilled to meet people different than me and to learn from their viewpoints and shared cultures. Each country I visited or lived in had so much to offer me in terms of experiences that would shape my values and opinions. And I still continue to travel to remote places to understand how different people live and cope within their environments.
There is so much more to the world than Charlottesville or even America. We are only a small part of a very vibrant and diversified world that is the planet Earth. I will insist that my children study abroad and I would highly recommend it to all U.Va. students. It will prepare you for a world that seems to get smaller every day — a world that you will want to be a part of.
Shelly Dee (International Relations, Spanish ’81)
A study abroad program will open your eyes to the world around us. Attending university in Australia was a key step in my life which enabled me to achieve professional and personal goals that I would never have considered prior to living outside of the United States. I have since traveled extensively for both business and pleasure, and I believe that the most exciting and effective way to learn is one passport stamp at a time. Always remember that THE UNIVERSITY is one of the greatest places on earth, but a semester abroad is a priceless experience that will expand your perspective forever and enable you to excel in this age of globalization.
Thomas Anderson (Economics ’02)
Travel abroad greatly enhanced my philosophy concerning the purpose of life. When I was a fourth-year medical student, I spent 10 weeks working in the Australian outback with the Aborigines. I was exposed to a completely different philosophy, which has made me a much more open-minded, well-rounded individual.
Caroline Miller (Echols ’90, MD ’94)