Editor’s Note: The name Jackie Barnett in this article has been changed, and is not the interview subject’s original name. Please direct any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About to embark on the trip of her young lifetime, a study abroader checks all the necessary boxes, dots all the I’s and fills out more forms than she can count. With no idea that her world will change in fundamental and intricate ways, she sets out to see a sliver of the world and its culture for the first time. Parents bite lips with worry, tears streak faces at airport security, and she jumps.
Even after orientation, making flight plans and reading up on the destination, nothing is certain. In attempts to prepare, the study abroader checks the Office of Study Abroad website one more time. Walking shoes, underwear, a hat, a nice outfit, contraceptives and a first aid kit. Check. Medications, deodorant, journal, flashlight, sewing kit, pocket calculator. Check, check, check. Students entrust the Office of Study Abroad with pre-trip planning, thinking they are completely ready for their study abroad experience…but are they?
With MSU having the nation’s top study abroad program, students and professors may think they’ve got it all figured out. However, according to study abroad veterans and students alike, it may be impossible to completely prepare anyone for what an experience abroad will have in store aside from textbooks and fieldtrips.
Where does one take out the garbage in Italy? What about grocery shopping? Do all phone calls home have to cost an arm and a leg? Why study through MSU when there are so many other study abroad agencies throughout the United States? Are the lessons learned while abroad really the most important reasons for traveling? These are just a few of the many questions not posed prior to most study abroad programs.
“Phone cards bought in the United States don’t work even if they say they are international,” said psychology junior Megan Ford who is spending this semester studying abroad in Australia. “Myself as well as about six people in my group bought phone cards that claimed to be international but the ‘1-800’ number doesn’t work in another country, so most of us ended up buying phone cards in Australia.”
Ford is studying at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, with a group of MSU students and recommends the program to anyone interested in delving into Australian culture, although she would have liked the study abroad office to provide more information on phoning home. “Calls that my parents have made ended up being really expensive because we don’t have an international phone option on our land phone at home,” Ford said.
Ford also stressed the importance of becoming a part of a different culture by participating in local events. “In Australia they have a Mardi Gras celebration but for them it’s a huge gay pride parade. A group of us went downtown to watch the parade and drink and just had a great time,” she said. “The cultures are completely different, everyone is very careless and just accepts people how they are. I’ve found if you just go with it and become part of the culture then you’ll have a great time.”
Sometimes learning to accept other cultures can be difficult and presents obstacles not covered in your typical OSA orientation session. Tamara Olton, a study abroad veteran and employee at STA Travel on Grand River Avenue said, “When I arrived in China I had the worst case of culture shock. We spent two weeks taking classes before we left, but nothing was cultural.” The MSU alumna went on a program through MSU that studied the environment in China in the summer of 2004. Olton said she had been abroad before, but never to a country as opposite from the United States as China. “They only had hot water in the showers for a half hour in Beijing,” she said. “We didn’t know that ahead of time. It’s not necessarily their (OSA’s) fault. I should’ve maybe researched it more myself.”
Office of Study Abroad peer advisor Jackie Bennet believes the reason some students find themselves unprepared is because they choose to ignore the orientations offered to them before they leave the country. “A lot of people don’t go to orientations,” she said. “They do a good job of preparing you for what they can, but things still happen.”
According to Bennet, orientations through OSA are categorized by location, such as a general orientation for all programs going anywhere in the United Kingdom. After general orientation, it depends on the faculty leading the program to hold their own detailed orientation for participants. Joliat said that not all faculty members take this extra step to prepare students for a particular study abroad program.
However, journalism professor Sandra Birdiett, one of the faculty leaders for the Reporting in the British Isles program, said in the three years she has participated, orientations have been held. Despite even additional orientation sessions, Birdiett said students still have some issues while abroad. “Some students are careless with their possessions, like passports and credit cards. Every trip, someone loses their passport or credit card,” she said. Another concern is the difference in drinking age. It is legal to consume alcohol at the age of 18 in many countries, and some students abuse the privilege, Birdiett said. The benefits of the trip, however, far outweigh these concerns.
The idea of cultural immersion is apparent, especially through studying abroad, but students often do not understand the importance of it until they are actually overseas. “I wish I would have known to follow the locals more,” education junior Erin Smith said of her summer program abroad in Ireland. “It seems for the first few weeks we were in Ireland we hung around the touristy spots and other American students. It wasn’t until later in the trip that we ventured out and intermingled more with the real locals of the area.” Smith attended the English Summer Program in Dublin because of her Irish heritage. “I learned a lot about my own faith and heritage that could only come from being immersed in that culture,” she said. Smith recommends keeping a journal, even if it is just to outline daily events and taking as many pictures as possible. “After you’ve been staying in a place for a while, you take it for granted,” she said. “So take pictures of your surroundings in the first few days.”
Among the many programs offered at MSU are freshman seminars abroad. Psychology and criminal justice sophomore Amanda Noxon attended the Freshman Seminar Abroad in Ireland during the summer of 2004 and said it did not run as she had expected. “The experience of going somewhere else is amazing, and it is something that I would encourage everyone to do, but not for the reasons that are constantly given by the study abroad office,” said Noxon. “It was very misleading when they told me about what I was going to be doing.” Noxon said she expected to learn about the culture through experiencing it and seeing the country but felt much of her time was spent reading textbooks. “I can read here. I don’t want to travel thousands of miles to open a book. I want to really experience the place that I may never get to see again,” she said.
Andy Bartlett, a freshman majoring in special education, also attended one of the freshman seminars and had a different experience. “They really gave us a lot of information before we left,” Bartlett said about the Office of Study Abroad. He attended the Freshman Seminar Abroad in Quebec. Although Bartlett has been abroad before with family, living in Denmark during his fourth grade year and having been back to Europe since, he said he preferred MSU’s study abroad program. He said, “I met some awesome people who I still keep in touch with, and it was a blast.”
That is one reason premedical sophomore Jenny Bordato would have liked to go through a study abroad program instead of Academic Programs International, a program not affiliated with MSU. “I went and made all of these great friends I’ll probably never see again,” she said. Bordato studied in Italy for the summer, and while she would like to continue the bonds she made with students not living in Michigan, she enjoyed going through this company because she learned to experience things on her own. “I was a regular at this sandwich shop and made friends with the workers,” she said. “I forced myself to speak Italian when I ordered- as best as possible- and they appreciated it. They knew me by name – first AND last. It was my finding, my work, and I made great friends. It was me making the friends by myself, making things comfortable.”
Bordato said the only other difficult thing about going through an outside agency was making sure all of her credits transferred. “I didn’t know what classes I’d actually get into until I was in Italy, so I had to check with about 12 classes before I left MSU,” she said. “I was in a panic but the advisor that deals with non-MSU programs was really helpful in getting things rushed so I met deadlines.”
Classes in other countries can vary, as Japanese sophomore Jessica Storrison discovered on her summer trip to Japan. “We had really strict attendance, and it wasn’t counted by days but by hours,” she said. “In our two months of classes we were allowed to miss 12 hours, and we attended 16 hours a week. If you missed much more than that, you went home.” As far as the workload was concerned, Storrison said that she learned in a day what would be covered at MSU in a week.
Ford also pointed out the difference in the way classes are run in Australia compared to MSU. Less emphasis was put on lectures, but there was an extra recitation to review the material covered in lecture, which Ford said was helpful. “However, for all of my classes I only have 2 assignments, 3 at the most,” she said. “I only have one essay due at mid-semester and a final during finals week, so it really forces me to learn the material so that I don’t hurt my grade right from the start.”
Programs, requirements and classes differ depending on which country one studies in, but one thing is universal: bonds are formed. “Honestly it was the people that made the trip fun,” said Bartlett. “I could have gone to Quebec anytime, and although it’s an awesome place, I think it would be hard to duplicate the experience I had of meeting these people.” Ford and 8 other MSU students got to know each other well before landing in Australia because they took a side trip to Fiji. The decisions students make on their own, aside from orientation sessions and program itineraries, seem to make or break their experiences traveling abroad.
“Prepare beforehand, learn little bits of language so you don’t look like a stupid tourist,” Olton advised. She stressed the need to respect the countries students are traveling to, because that is the only way to gain the respect of its people. She also said the orientations beforehand are important, but that the very act of going to a different country teaches students much more than simply reading about a particular country in a textbook or discussing it in class. “You can learn it, but you can’t experience it,” said Olton. “Until you experience it, you can’t understand it.”
Jump without reserve and you may realize the ground you land on exceeds all expectations. It is refreshingly unfamiliar and rich with culture waiting for you to explore.