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No Accidental Tourism in Study Abroad

College puts unique spin on venerable program

By Donald N. S. Unger

students riding a camel in AustraliaMaurice Géracht, the Stephen J. Prior Professor of Humanities at Holy Cross, has been involved in study abroad programs at the College for almost 40 years; he began his association in 1968, two years after becoming a member of the English department faculty in 1966.

“It was my first college committee assignment,” he says. Since 1989, he has served as director of the program.

During the first half of his tenure, the study abroad options available to Holy Cross students were fairly representative of those found at most American colleges or universities: Holy Cross contracted with other organizations or institutions to run the programs; fundamentally American in nature, they often isolated students with their compatriots, rather than meaningfully integrating them into host institutions; and the programs lasted for one semester rather than for a full year.

This approach changed in the latter half of the 1980s—due, in significant part, to the initiative of Senior Vice President Frank Vellaccio, who had become dean of the College in 1986 and academic vice president the following year.

The changes initiated almost 20 years ago fundamentally altered the character of the study abroad programs at Holy Cross.

“And, in many ways,” Géracht says of today’s offerings, “the Holy Cross study abroad program runs counter to prevailing currents. Many of its features are unique.”

The program is built around the importance of immersion in a variety of ways:

First and foremost, almost all of the current programs are full year.

“There’s really an exponential difference between a semester and a year,” argues study abroad assistant director Brittain Smith. “The extra time that you spend—not just in the linguistic environment but also in the cultural environment—provides a categorically more enriching experience; there’s just no substitute for that extra time.”

Géracht concurs.

“In other programs,” he says, “students arrive in October, and they know they’re coming home in December. There are certain cultural things that they simply don’t have to face. But if you have a long haul, then you have to come to terms, you have to confront certain things—confront ‘the other’ in a way that you don’t in the short term. And confront the fact that you also are ‘the other’ in a way that you don’t have to confront in the short term.”

The current programs, which Holy Cross directly controls, also integrate students much more fully into host institutions.

“Students take regular courses in the institutions to which they are attached,” Géracht explains. “There is a difference between being enrolled in one of the Oxford Colleges and being a full member there, versus having an American program ‘at Oxford ,’ simply located in the place.”

With this higher degree of integration comes a higher degree of support, he stresses—“both language and cultural support. For every course students take—in France , Italy , Spain , Mexico , wherever—they have available to them a private tutor, from the beginning, so they don’t fall through the cracks.”

The accessibility of study abroad programs has also been increased via changes in the financial aid policy. Currently, approximately 60 percent of students receive some form of financial aid from the College. In the past, that money could only be applied to study on campus; now, the money “travels,” allowing students to pursue a junior year abroad on a need-blind basis. Program secretary Sandy Shook estimates that, over the past five years, between 20 and 22 percent of Holy Cross third-year students have participated in the program.

Finally, a key part of the program is the Independent Study Project (ISP), required of all participating students.

One of the key purposes of the ISPs, according to Géracht, is to “prevent our students from being ‘accidental tourists’—they give them a better sense of themselves as products of their own culture, an appreciation of the values and wonder of the cultures of others. They earn the comfort of being in a culture not their own.”

Caroline Howe, associate professor of sociology, who helped set up the study abroad program in Puebla, Mexico, concurs—noting that the ISP for the Puebla program also requires a social service project of the students, in part because this is a standard component of college education for most Mexican students:

“One of the most important things for North Americans to learn when they go to a Latin American country to ‘help’ the people there is that they end up receiving more than they give. They learn more from the people and receive more in terms of human ‘gifts’ than they can imagine being able to give,” Howe says. “They learn that poor and marginalized people are very intelligent, resourceful and have some important values we could all learn from,” she continues. “One hope [for the program] is that this can help break down elitist attitudes North Americans often have towards Latin Americans.”

The benefits of cultural immersion, both during their time abroad and after their return—to campus—and to life beyond Holy Cross—are certainly clear to the students who participate in the program.

Leah Grogan ’05, for example, spent the 2003-04 academic year at the University of Melbourne in Australia .

“It was most gratifying” Grogan says, “to learn about something in the classroom, then actually go out and see and experience it for myself.

“Coming back to campus, not only do I have a plethora of stories to entertain, but I have a new understanding of the world,” she explains. “Whereas before my world was concentrated within the United States , now I have a new outward look beyond the scope of my immediate surroundings. The experience made me more aware of global affairs, more independent, and more mature.”

The issues of independence and maturity were threaded through the comments of both the study abroad program staff and participating students.

“At the time of my departure I had never been away from home for more than two weeks without a visit—and I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without dragging someone with me,” says Lindsey Veautour ’05, who spent her year at Oxford University . “The idea that I knew almost no one overseas and would have to find people to travel with during the breaks was petrifying. Establishing friendships and being brave enough to travel to 11 different countries instead of just returning home for all the breaks in between semesters was a huge accomplishment—and one that will stay with me forever.”

Study abroad assistant director Karen Sweetland‑Dion recalls a recent interaction with a student who spent last year in one of the study abroad programs in Spain and subsequently applied for “Teach For America.”: “She said to me, ‘I’ve been through so much during my study abroad experience. I spent a whole year in a country that speaks a different language. It wasn’t always easy, but in facing the challenges I accomplished so much. I feel like, since I’ve done this, I can do anything.’”

The student, Kathryn Cronin ’05, has since been accepted by “Teach for America .”

“The effects on our students are long term,” Sweetland-Dion continues, “Students’ lifetime decisions are altered tremendously by their experiences abroad. Many contemplate career options they might not have considered before going abroad. Many choose to live, study or do research abroad—not necessarily in the same country—later on in life. Many of our study abroad students go on to receive prestigious fellowships to conduct research abroad.”

While Géracht and the study abroad program staff evince broad satisfaction with and pride in what the program is doing for students, they still see work to be done in communicating to Holy Cross faculty exactly what the program does and how it can be useful both to them and to their students.

“There is a misperception on the part of a lot of faculty members about what study abroad is,” Smith says. “Either they are not familiar enough with our programs or they are familiar with programs at other institutions [which function differently]—so study abroad is conceived of often as a kind of ‘travel abroad program.’ There’s a real apprehension on the part of some of the faculty that the course of study that students are going to be getting in these programs isn’t rigorous enough and doesn’t match Holy Cross standards.”

“Part of our obligation is to communicate more effectively to the faculty the immense resources that we have to offer them,” Smith continues. “We need to show what these institutions can do for their students in terms of curriculum.”

To that end, the study abroad office is in the process of putting together a comprehensive course guide—that faculty members will be able to consult—listing potential courses across the full range of institutions with which Holy Cross has affiliate programs.

“You could look up what English courses were offered in Dijon or what physics courses were offered at St. Edmund, Oxford ,” Smith explains.

Sweetland‑Dion sees some students already taking the initiative to use courses available via study abroad to complement and expand their academic pursuits at Holy Cross.

“Students who probably have taken the greatest advantage of this opportunity are those who develop their own interdisciplinary majors,” Sweetland‑Dion says. “For example, we’ve had students go to Melbourne—to study architecture—since the University of Melbourne has an entire department dedicated to the study of ‘Architecture Building and Planning,’ it offers a wide array of excellent courses in the field. We want students to see their host institutions as places not only to continue their studies but also to expand upon them.”

“I conceive our study abroad programs to be extensions of our curricular resources,” Géracht concludes. “Even as we have excellent programs, there are departments which tend to see study abroad as wonderful experientially—but for which students are often obliged to set aside and postpone fulfilling requirements for their major, or otherwise get around our curriculum. Rather, since our partners abroad are now important international institutions, their offerings present the College and departments opportunities to individualize and extend our curriculum.”

Donald N.S. Unger is a New York City-born writer of fiction and nonfiction and a political commentator for NPR affiliate radio WFCR. He lives in Worcester .

More on study abroad is this issue

More on study abroad is this issue

No Accidental Tourism in Study Abroad >
Sisters Abroad >
Edmond Yip '05: from the Northeastern U.S. to Northeastern China >
Study Abroad: The Facts >

 


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