Going Out on a Limb
LAS students cross oceans, cross cultures—and even cross canyons.
Dariusz Hareza and six other University of Illinois students squeezed into a metal carriage that was open on the top—a particularly tight fit. “Think of the carriage as a Jeep without wheels,” Hareza says.
Oh yes, and one other thing. The carriage zipped across a deep chasm in Ecuador as it moved at incredible speeds along a single cable strung from one cliff to another.
“We went flying across the canyon, and it was awesome. I loved it,” Hareza says. However, to the chagrin of some aboard, the only way back was to repeat the high-wire journey in the opposite direction.
This roller-coaster plunge is a fitting metaphor for the experience of hundreds of LAS students who study abroad every year. These students bravely throw themselves into a new culture and environment in a thrill-ride experience that can also be a dramatic, life-changing experience.
Amy Lin, a senior in psychology, describes her study abroad time in Paris as “total immersion.” All study abroad students become immersed in a new culture to some extent, but Lin took it even farther. She went to Paris for the 2013 spring semester, but she made a conscious effort to separate herself from other American students. She wanted to “live the life of a French person,” rather than be seen as just another American in Paris.
Lin spent most of her time in the company of French speakers, cut loose from the comfort of her native language. As a result, she says the first month was lonely, but her breakthrough came when she attended a “Franglish” program, which is styled after speed-dating programs. The activity paired French speakers with English speakers, and after about seven minutes a signal was given, and the speaking partners would switch.
Through the Franglish program, Lin says she made good friends, and Paris opened up for her.
Roughly 20 percent of LAS students study abroad, and that includes everything from short-term trips to a full school year abroad, says Nicole Lamers, LAS international education specialist. She says study abroad programs on campus had their genesis in the College of LAS many decades ago, because most of the programs at that time had a cultural and language focus.
Today, study abroad experiences vary greatly in subject matter, and they are all coordinated by the U of I’s Study Abroad Office, which offers hundreds of options in dozens of countries. Although students can choose among any of them, LAS highlights a handful of core experiences—two in Austria, two in Paris, one in Barcelona, and one in Kobe, Japan. The Japan program is a full school year, but all of the others can be done in either one or two semesters.
In addition to semester-long or year-long trips, there are shorter-term overseas courses led by faculty in various departments, and the LAS Global Studies 298 course offers three- to six-week courses in such places as Sweden, Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Italy. What all of these core LAS programs have in common is extensive LAS oversight for quality control. The classes are taught and/or supervised by Illinois faculty, and the curricula are under LAS oversight.
Hareza, a senior in molecular and cellular biology, has taken two summer study abroad courses through Global Studies 298. In 2012, he went to Sweden and the Arctic Circle, and in 2013 it was Ecuador. The Arctic trip, which Hareza describes as the “best thing he ever did,” even sent him on a hike across a glacier, and the professors leading the expedition were armed with rifles just in case they encountered hungry polar bears. Hareza studied the geopolitics of the area where countries such as Norway and Russia battle over access to coal, oil, and other natural resources.
His follow-up trip to Ecuador was the polar opposite of the Arctic trip, for he was high in the mountains close to the equator in Lumbisi, a small, secluded village that could only be accessed by a single bridge. Hareza and the other nine Illinois students ran a summer camp for children, ages five to 14—a major challenge since he didn’t speak Spanish very well.
Illinois students in Ecuador also did ethnographic inquiry projects, and since Hareza hopes to enter medical school, he focused on health issues, studying Lumbisi’s dietary habits. He also discovered that his own dining experience could be a bit of an adventure. His host parents served him an Ecuadoran delicacy, guinea pig, complete with bits of fur. He managed to finish that meal but could not get himself to eat the cow’s knees.
Another highlight was a nighttime hike through the rainforest, where they listened to frogs and aimed their flashlight beams at huge spiders with 5-inch-long legs. They also trekked up the side of a volcano—a combination of hiking, driving, and pushing their car. As he explains, there are not many trips where you can say you lost your camera by accidentally dropping it in a volcano—as he did.
While Hareza did short-term study abroad courses for the past two summers, Lin opted for the semester-long Paris program. She says she has always loved the French culture since her elementary school years—or at least the culture depicted in film and television. In fact, she was afraid that her idealized view of Paris would be shattered when she experienced the city firsthand.
“But the reality was 10 times more beautiful,” she says. She also loved how the French take the time to enjoy life.
“They’re not always looking at their watches or their phones,” she says. “They don’t tell you they can only talk for an hour because they have to rush to another meeting. I would sit down and talk to them for three hours in a café. In France, we had all the time in the world.
“I also remember walking up Saint-Michel, one of the biggest boulevards in Paris, absorbing everything,” she adds. “I took the time to really look at and appreciate the beautiful buildings and look at the people around me. I felt like I was in a movie.”
After experiencing what it was like to adapt to a new culture, Lin was inspired to work with international students back at Illinois and help them adjust to the shock of a foreign culture. As one who was born in China but grew up in the Chicago suburbs, she is focusing her efforts on Chinese students.
She and several other Illinois students are planning an orientation in China specifically designed to help students who are coming to Illinois adjust to the changes. This summer they will travel to Shanghai to lead the orientation.
In addition to opening students’ eyes to new cultures, a study abroad program provides just the kind of global experience that many employers look for today, Lamers stresses. “These students have a really good story to tell in their first job interview,” she says. “How great is it to say you have designed a program on nutrition for five- to 14-year-olds in Ecuador?”
This is exactly the kind of story that Hareza will be able to tell as he aims for medical school and a career in global health. So he says he is thrilled that he took the study abroad plunge, not to mention the ride across the canyon. In fact, if plans hadn’t changed because of volcanic activity, he says they might have even been able to try the infamous Swing at the End of the World, where people swoop out over a deep ravine while perched on a standard swing attached to the limb of a giant tree.
“I just wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” Hareza stresses.
By Doug Peterson