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Dive Right In

Dive Right In

The U's Study Abroad program allows students to immerse themselves in a different culture—and change thier lives in the process.

by Ann Whitney Floor

After two years of grueling Mandarin Chinese language classes at the U, undergrad Libby Shotwell decided it was time to go to China, time to know Chinese rather than just study Chinese.

Through the U’s Study Abroad program, she found an opportunity to join a group of 25 students for six weeks in Tianjin, China’s fourth largest city. Her classes at Nankai University included daily intensive language instruction with a professor who spoke only Chinese.

No interpreter.

“My listening skills skyrocketed,” says Shotwell. Assigned a Chinese student as a speaking partner, she recalls, “We used a lot of hand signals those first few weeks.” Afternoons were spent listening to lectures—in English—on the Peking Opera, tai chi, calligraphy, history, cuisine, and traditional music. For Shotwell, the study abroad experience proved an effective way to bolster her U of U education.

Shotwell found a sense of community with her fellow students from the U—people she’d had classes with for the past two years.

From architecture classes in Berlin to Arabic language classes in Alexandria, Egypt, to service learning programs in Kotwara, India, or Accra, Ghana, the choices are as varied as the students. According to Sara Demko, assistant director for the program, nearly 450 students take the opportunity to study abroad each summer. During fall and spring semesters, between 80 and 100 students study in foreign lands. “And the new international requirement for undergraduates will only strengthen the program,” she says (see sidebar on page 28).

But it isn’t always an easy glide through another culture. Shotwell occasionally dined with the Chinese students, and sometimes there would be a banquet with “fancier” food—delicacies that were tough to stomach. For example, one time “They brought us pigs’ brains and snake soup,” she says. “The presentation is what got me. Water snakes in a clear broth had been sliced in chunks, scales and all. And then there was a snake-skin salad with greens. It was actually pretty, in a weird way.”

Although she suffered from homesickness, which is on Study Abroad’s list of anticipated challenges, Shotwell found a sense of community with her fellow students from the U—people she’d had classes with for the past two years. Familiar faces in unfamiliar China were comforting and eased the stress that inevitably comes with living in a foreign culture.

“Being in China made me more aware of what’s outside the bubble of Utah,” she says, “and now I have a base for what I plan to do in the future—to work in the international arena on humanitarian and political issues both here and in China.”

Jake Bailey’s situation was a little different. With his undergraduate course work completed, Bailey was waiting for word on his application to medical school. He was trying to decide how to spend spring semester when he dropped by the U’s Study Abroad office. As he leafed through brochures, a staff advisor suggested he consider an international internship. The Study Abroad program offers classes, work opportunities, and internships in almost any country in the world.

Bailey ended up working a three-month infectious disease internship in Mumbai (Bombay), India, from January through March 2006. He took medical histories, gave simple exams, and attended lectures. While rotating through different clinics and hospitals, he studied leprosy, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis—not as terms in a textbook, but up close and personal with people infected with these diseases. When he encountered a man covered with smallpox scars, he was shocked. “I never expected to see a person who had lived through smallpox—I thought that had been wiped out decades ago,” he says.

Later, he examined a woman wracked with tuberculosis. He put the stethoscope to her back to listen to her lungs but couldn’t hear anything. No breath. The accompanying physician predicted that the woman would be dead within a week or two.

Experiences such as this profoundly affected Bailey—and changed the focus of his life. He still intends to go to medical school and get a Ph.D. but plans a dissertation on infectious diseases and immunology in international health. “I always knew that international health could be interesting,” he says, “but now I know it’s important. Forty percent of India’s population tests positive for TB.”

And Bailey and Shotwell are by no means alone—every year, there’s a new crop of traveling scholars.
“We hold a semi-annual recruitment fair in January and September,” notes Demko. Between 500 and 600 people attend each year (the next one is scheduled for September 13). “And you don’t need to be a student to participate,” she adds. “The programs are open to anyone over 18 who is interested, including members of the community.” (The staff recommends planning nine months to one year in advance and spending around $5,000 for a summer program.)

Demko speaks from experience. Her own interest in global issues was piqued when she visited Poland as a pre-law undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. “It changed how I looked at everything and what it meant to be from the U.S.,” she says. “Poland in 1996 was transitioning from communism to capitalism, and the influence of the U.S. was surprising. I hadn’t been exposed to that before. I grew up in a rural town in Wisconsin and had never considered these things. It opened my eyes to how big the world is, how much our policy impacts other countries, how connected we all are. Study abroad is empowering. You feel like you can go anywhere and get along fine wherever you are.”

—Ann Whitney Floor is a writer in University Marketing & Communications.

Read Jake Bailey’s blog

Information on the U’s Study Abroad program

Return to fall 2006 table of contents