“We tend to be provincial—to think our way is the only way things work. What I took away from my experience was there are so many different points of view.” That’s how Vassar senior Christie Chea responded when asked what she’d learned during her semester abroad last year—a whirlwind of classes and excursions through Senegal, India, and Argentina. It’s a theme that has been repeated by Vassar students since the college launched its Junior Year Abroad (JYA) program nearly a century ago: studying in a foreign country changes you—for the better and forever. Another Vassar senior, Noah Cogan, put it this way: “I took myself out of my comfort zone—I tried things I’d never tried at Vassar. And when you do that it enables you to reevaluate who you are.”
According to a 2004 survey of more than 3,500 former college students who spent time overseas, 98 percent said the experience had helped them better understand their own cultural values and biases. Over the past five years, more than 40 percent of Vassar’s students have spent at least half of their junior year studying abroad. Some chose ongoing Vassar programs in England, France, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Russia. But just as many have found other programs suited to their courses of study in more than 25 additional countries on five continents.
Following are the reflections of four current seniors, including Chea and Cogan, who spent part of last year studying abroad:
Christie Chea, Urban Studies
JYA course of study: International Honors Program that examined the culture and politics of three cities: Delhi, India; Dakar, Senegal; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Chea and 30 other students, including four others from Vassar, took courses in anthropology, political science, and urban planning, spending five weeks in each of the three cities.
“We compared the three cities from various perspectives – the culture, government and politics, and economic development. We lived with host families, so we got to know the culture in each country pretty quickly. While I was in Senegal, a spirited presidential campaign was taking place. The people were pretty motivated to throw out a ruler who’d been in office since 2000. They were very engaged politically—I didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t planning to vote.
“In a learning environment like this, you lose your tourist mindset and begin to ask questions that go a little further under the surface. Buenos Aires appeared to be this modern city with lots of European architecture, but there was so much disparity in wealth. There were elegant gated communities, and not far away were vast slums where crime was rampant.
“Before my (JYA experience) I had no idea what I wanted to do after college. I’m still not sure, but I’m a little more focused. I know I don’t want to go to grad school right away. I want to start working in urban planning, with an emphasis on sustainable development, and I want to use my skills in graphic design.”
Noam Mayer-Deutsch, International Studies and Japanese Studies
JYA course of study: Japanese language, literature, and culture at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
“I was proficient, but not fluent, in Japanese before I arrived. I knew enough to get along okay on the street but not enough to take some courses in Japanese. I took one course in Japanese conversation and another in essay writing and a third in Japanese business practices. In that one I learned about the more formal language the Japanese speak in business situations.
“I also took part in a study on a Japanese phenomenon called hikikomori. It’s sort of like agoraphobia, where people who are not achieving in school or in the business world withdraw into their homes and can’t leave. There’s an expectation in Japanese society that you will go through school and get a job with no gaps or failures in between, and those who don’t do this feel they are not fitting into the social structure. The phenomenon is just beginning to be studied because there’s a real stigma attached to seeking psychological help.
“During the semester break, I traveled to an island two hours south of Kyoto called Shiraishi and stayed in a villa on the beach and hiked in the mountains. It was a nice change from being in the city, although Kyoto is not nearly as big or congested as Tokyo or Yokohama.
“When I first got there, I tended to spend most of my time with the other international students, but I got to know some of the Japanese students quite well, and some of my best memories are just hanging out with them. There was a place on the campus along a river where students would congregate and just talk about their lives. I didn’t meet anyone directly affected by the earthquakes or tsunamis, but a lot of the students were involved in collecting money and supplies for the victims.
“One thing I learned while I was there was the stress of being a foreigner in Japan where you’re immediately recognized as such in any situation. I feel I know the Japanese culture a lot better now, but I also realize I need better language skills before I can consider going to graduate school there. One alternative I’m considering is teaching for a year for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. You teach English in Japanese schools and engage in cultural exchanges. That would help me hone all of my skills.”
Contessa Mwedzi, French and International Studies
JYA course of study: Internships in Francophone Europe. The program was run by ENDA Europe, a Paris-based not-for-profit organization that provides aid and technical assistance to developing countries.
“I investigated the working conditions of waste pickers in four countries—Colombia, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Vietnam—then built a website and wrote articles on the best practices in the field. I learned there are organizations—small labor unions—in Colombia and India that help the workers obtain benefits and pensions from the government. I also looked at ways recycling can be encouraged at landfills. At the end of the session, I wrote a comprehensive research paper outlining what has been done and how the best practices may be copied in the countries I was studying as well as in other developing countries.
“When my study began, I knew nothing about the plight of waste pickers, and it made me realize how much I didn’t know about many other aspects of international studies. But it also showed me how a degree in international studies can lead me to other avenues where I can explore such issues.
“I plan to work in the field before I go to grad school and focus further on what I want to study. I learned that it helps to get out there in the field and experience what is happening.”
Noah Cogan, Classics
JYA course of study: Greek and Roman studies at Lady Margaret Hall College, University of Oxford. In his first semester, Cogan majored in Roman politics and political figures between 400 BC and 150 AD, with a minor in the life of Cicero. In his second semester, he concentrated on the life and work of Homer, with a minor in Athenian democracy.
“My tutors were very demanding and really stretched me as a scholar. I wrote a 10-page paper every week on my major topic and a 10-page paper every two weeks on my minor topic.
“While I was there, I made a conscious effort to do things I hadn’t done at Vassar. I’d never rowed before, so I joined the Oxford rowing team. We qualified for some races at the end of the year that the boat had not qualified for in the recent past, and while we didn’t do all that well, it was a thoroughly enriching experience. I also got a part in a play, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. I hadn’t done any acting since I did a musical in high school.
“Between semesters I went on a backpacking trip through Europe, staying in youth hostels in Madrid, Paris, Prague, and Amsterdam.
“The experience definitely enabled me to evaluate who I am and where I want to go from here. I thought I wanted to be a classics professor at a university, so I had planned to get on a Ph.D. fast-track somewhere. Now, I’m thinking of getting my master’s degree, perhaps teaching in a secondary school, then planning further from there. The main thing I learned was it’s good to take yourself out of your comfort zone sometimes.”