Studying abroad more than an extended vacation

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February 5, 2008

12:45 PM

Although I have smeared study abroad programs as extended vacations, my friends who are currently abroad paint another portrait — depicting their travels as research-ridden, labor-laden and community service-centric.

p. Not all opportunities abroad are the same. Many of the programs offered through the College are catered to both insulating students in the socioeconomic incidentals of our native country and isolating them from foreign lands and hands, which sends them on an assisted enrollment vacation in Europe.

p. Yet, the Reves Center continues to expand its options abroad, with increased exchange programs beyond England, Australia or Canada, even delving into the Middle and Far East. Although most summers overseas are traditionally chaperoned by College faculty, some of these programs will now be run by foreign professors, such as this summer’s session in Galway. Most consoling, however, is the prospect that a student may choose to go beyond the ’Burg, with many alternative exchange programs advertised online.

p. For instance, through a program not offered by the College, my former roommate Seth is currently spending his semester in Cairo, embracing his travels abroad as bravely as an American abroad should: that is, stripped of the American meal, shelter, language and fellow American man, alone from home and thrown into another world.

p. I asked Seth to speak of his travels. “The hotel I’m living in is right in downtown Cairo. Pretty insane. No traffic lights. Cars just do whatever. Negotiating an intersection [here] is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. When people figure out that you’re an American, they immediately try to [pull one] on you. Twice, while asking directions, I was whisked away to a perfume shop: ‘Feel home! Feel home!’ They offer you a seat and a drink and then they try and sell you shit.”

p. Another close friend, Irène, discovered her current program through Princeton University’s website.

p. “The program I’m with is ProWorld Service Corps, a nonprofit focusing on sustainable development in Peru, Mexico and Belize. Their mission is to educate others to cultivate compassionate, global citizens. My involvement with the international service trip project SOMOS on campus turned me on to the idea of sustainable intervention. Applying was easy, I had to fill out an online form and make a down payment. Having reserved my spot in the program with the down payment, I had to send in my transcript and pay more money.

p. “My classes are through a graduate school here in Cusco, but I will also be working on three of ProPeru’s ongoing development projects. These include building bathrooms for an elementary school, installing clean-burning stoves in rural homes and working on a public health campaign in local communities which is focused on women and reproductive health.”

p. Another friend, Daniel, plans to spend next semester with the Buddhist Pilgrimage, “which covers eight famous temples in 13 weeks, culminating in a three-week independent study in Japan,” he said. Once in Japan, he aims to abstain from meat and dairy products, subsisting on greens and tea. “In addition to waking up at five every day,” he said, “I have to take a vow not to imbibe alcohol … or imbibe women.” He plans to have a monk shave his head with a few strands laying loose in his palm, revealing to him his fear in a handful of dust. “That’s an important step in all sects of Buddhism, it’s the moment where I meditate that ‘hair is dead … and I’ll be soon too.’”

p. While it serves as a vacation from the mundane mechanics of Williamsburg, studying abroad should still prove challenging. A satisfactory study abroad program should accomplish what may be expected of any ideal experience abroad — involving us with another world and another people. This is as important a time as any. As proud, uninformed members of Generation I (an idea first introduced in my Jan. 22 column), we should demonstrate a broadening of our horizons beyond the West.

p. __Sherif Abdelkarim is a junior at the College.__

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