Think about life in five years.
Twenty-five square feet. Picture that space. Look to your left and look to your right. Reach out your arms as far as you can. On either side you can touch a two-inch-thick wall made of cheap cloth and plastic.
Now think about Scotland. In some places, the highlands seem to stretch out further than the ocean. They are savage and comforting, idyllic and proud. The mountains hide waterfalls. Their water is cool and bitter.
Back to the walls: They are covered with photos of your children and Dilbert cartoons. You can’t see anyone around you, but you can hear their sporadic typing. The nearest window is more than 40 feet away.
Think of Tokyo; the streets are ecstatic. Dizzying billboards scream for your attention. Cheap neon and cheaper sake assault every sense.
Now imagine eight to 12 hours of your day, and of what you could do with that time. Think about spending that time in a swiveling chair.
Now think of a helicopter landing in Alaska. Think about a falling glacier. Its impact with the turquoise water is breathless.
Go abroad while you can.
Travel is a flirtation with life, if you believe the saying. Unfortunately, at the University, it is often a drunken one – complete with a pricy hangover. Tuition is expensive. Studying abroad is more expensive. The wine-sweetness of reading Dante by the Bacchiglione, the melancholic skull gardens of the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields – experiences like these are powerful and important. For too many students, they are displaced by brutally overblown airfare, tuition bills and strenuous graduation requirements.
Fortunately, there are options.
The University hosts a variety of free and cheap avenues for studying – or playing – abroad. While most of these programs are University-sponsored, they tend to rely primarily on word of mouth for publicity. Some are highly competitive, but most remain obscure and underused. For the ambitious and resourceful, the road less traveled is easy to come by.
In the expansive new Palmer Commons, Coordinator of Multicultural Teaching and Learning A.T. Miller sits tucked away like a rare but precious artifact. His appearance immediately belies his love of the world. He wears two necklaces – both with undoubtedly fantastic stories attached – one from southwest America and the other from East Africa, where he spent eight years heading one of Kenya’s approximately 400 Quaker high schools. Thin, tangled hair and a friendly demeanor call to mind the traditional depiction of Jesus. He is known for a charming quirkiness; he’s rumored to have his students perform Kenyan chants.
From an obscure office on the fourth floor, he runs the four-year-old Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduate Program (GIEU). It has a hefty name but a simple mission: to give more kids the chance to travel and to learn. Miller devised the program with Linda Gillum the former assistant provost for academic affairs, in the fall of 2001.
There are many barriers to studying abroad, Miller explained. Students in intensive programs, first generation students, and minorities are often unable or uncomfortable traveling. “People noticed that the (students) abroad were mainly LSA, mainly female, mainly white,” Miller said.
GIEU opened in summer 2002. The program’s organization and variety of options make it one of the most distinctive in the country. “You can probably find the pieces of it at other places,” Miller said, “but it won’t be structured the same way.”
One of the most remarkable features of GIEU is its financial structure. Students pay airfare and a program fee, but because GIEU is technically a paid internship, they generally recoup these costs. “We wanted to make sure it’s not just people who can afford to do these things,” Miller said, “About forty percent of our students are on financial aid.”
Students earn $360 per week, as assistants in research.
Students apply to the program and are then assigned a site after an extensive matching process. Though students tend to get their first or second choice, this uncertainty can be daunting: “There’s always student who end up going somewhere they weren’t thinking of. If you want to go to a particular place, go to OIP,” Miller said. “We think about the broader skills.”
GIEU also takes academic pressures into account. The program provides two general studies credits – one taken before the field program and one after.
The diversity of program sites – Alaska to Zimbabwe – and themes – activism to zoology – is due to GIEU’s practice of accepting program proposals from instructors of all fields and levels.
Rackham student Annie Hesp is one such instructor. Six years ago, Hesp returned to Spain to finish her Master’s degree. During a class on Medieval poetry, she heard about the 750-kilometer (466-mile) Camino de Santiago – the inspiration for the Chevrolet pseudo-truck.
Along with Jerusalem and Rome, the Camino was one of the focal pilgrimages of the Middle Ages. Tributary paths drift in from French cities and countryside, congregate beneath the Pyrenees, and jut across northern Spain to the coastal Santiago de Compostela. Hest was inspired. “I realized this would be an ideal way to teach kids Spanish, and a way that kids really wanted to learn,” she says. “We’re often thrown into our classroom with other Americans when what we really want is to get away.”
After coming to the University to teach Spanish and pursue her Ph.D., Hest was introduced to GIEU. With some initiative, she secured two years’ funding for her program idea. A few months later, armed with basic amenities and, in keeping with Spanish tradition, seashells to mark them as pilgrims, she and her students began to walk.
The itinerary is a notable departure from orthodox Spanish study abroad fare – Madrid, Barcelona, Seville.
“It’s a fantastic way to see the Spain that students really want to see, but that study abroad has a hard time providing.” Hesp says, “It’s like walking through the Middle Ages . the cheapest and most mind-altering way to spend a month in another country that I can think of.”
The locals lack the tourist-fatigue of customary destinations. “They’re all interested,” Hesp said. “There’s a sense of generosity that you can’t find as a tourist or even a study abroad student pretty much anywhere else.”
Even the blisters from four to eight hours of walking did not suppress most students’ excitement. “A lot of them would probably tell you it was one of the most memorable experiences of their life,” Hesp says.
GIEU participants and LSA seniors Drew Guzman and Justin Bean shared similar enthusiasm, though drastically different experiences.
Guzman joined the program in 2005 as a vehicle to return to his home country – the Phillipines.
Instead, he wound up in China.
“It wasn’t my first choice,” Guzman, who now works as Couzens Hall’s Minority Peer Advisor, admits.
Looking back, “it was a good thing that I was quote-unquote ‘forced’ to go somewhere I didn’t expect,” he reflects, “if you go into something with preconceived notions or a huge knowledge of it already, no matter what, you already have somewhat of a personal bias.”
His program toured the hospitals of Beijing, Xi’an and Tianjin. It focused primarily on local medical practices. Though he found the program enriching, Guzman could not help that they were seeing a sterilized version. “The PRC is pretty much all about appearances. You don’t want to be showing American students the nitty-gritty of your system.”
Over the three weeks of the program, Guzman would spend his transit talking with locals. “My stories are all from the train,” he chuckles. One passenger stood out: a well-traveled, multilingual Volkswagen employee who refused to travel to “that shithole” – America.
“I’m a very proud American, but at the same time I always knew there was something wrong,” Guzman says. “It’s interesting to finally actually put a human face on it.”
“It’s kind of like being a stranger in your own skin for the first time. I think more people need to really be in that situation to fully understand their place in the world, because I don’t think a lot of us do.”
Bean echoed this idea after traveling to the Dominican Republic to study Spanish and perform humanitarian work in 2006. He stayed in the remote Barahoma – three hours from the capital, Santo Domingo, and a far cry from the tourist-laden northern coasts. There the unemployed line patios with dominoes and banter afternoons away aimlessly. Rough adolescent boys fill the parks, taunting “gringos” and cleaning shoes for change.
Unlike Guzman, Bean had previous travel experience. But none of his experiences in the developed world could fully prepare him for some of the barer and more savage realities of poverty he would encounter.
Near the beginning, several students witnessed a shooting – ostensibly over a stolen cellphone. “That scared the hell out of everyone,” Bean says, “(it) really drove home the reality of the situation.” Rather than panic, he explains, the group was able to accept the experience.
“We were shaken up,” he says, “but everyone sort of understood that things like that happen, even where we come from. We’re just fortunate enough not to witness it.”
The program altered his perception of domestic politics, he says, particularly those of campus activists. Part of their program involved visiting a sweatshop. Because of its stability, Bean says, “it was a highly sought-after job.”
“You see that things are more complicated than they seem. It just made me less willing to make generalizations and grab on to hot topic issues without critically thinking.”
This development of openness is one of the reasons why employers prefer candidates with international experience. “We’re giving students skills that are very much in demands,” says Miller. “The employer knows that [the student] is a person who can adapt to different environments quickly and learn to work with other people quickly.”
The real (students of the) world
“The Peace Corps of the coming generation. That’s what we hope to become,” says Courtney Spence, founder of Students of the World (SoW). The group – only seven years old – has a long way to go, but it is well on its way.
Spence started the group as an undergraduate at Duke University. She was disappointed with the current state of study abroad. “The next generation of leaders need to know a lot more about the world,” she says. In the summer of 2000, she and several classmates raised the money to travel to Russia, documenting alternative methods of orphanage care.
SoW places a special emphasis on the use of documentary techniques – film, writing, and photography – as tools of social change. Returning students produce a large body of work, which is then used for fundraising and public awareness campaigns. This year, the films will be shown at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual conference.
Now based in Austin, Spence runs the program full time. SoW has grown; it is now represented at six separate universities – Duke, University of North Carolina, Brown, University of Texas, Columbia University and the University of Michigan. “We’ve reached a tipping point as an organization,” Spence says.
Spence mostly provides guidance now, helping make connections and handling legal concerns. “It’s very much a working, partner relationship,” she says. “Self-fundraising is an important part.”
SoW worked its way into the University in the summer of 2003, when a group of five coordinated with five students from Texas to travel to Uganda. Since then they have traveled to South Africa, Cambodia and – most recently – India. In keeping with the program’s tradition, the University’s division is extremely self-directed. Students control everything from the topic, to the fundraising, to the actual arrangements.
In January, they decided as a group that they would study micro financing – the practice of distributing small loans to poor entrepreneurs – in India. From there, they raised the $7,000 in funding from a variety of campus groups, as well as family and friends. They began tapping SoW’s connections within the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI).
Eventually they encountered the Segal Foundation, a nonprofit working out of the Mewat region. Both groups had made commitments to CGI, and were able to fill them by working together.
Mewat is an expansive area, located in northwest India, and is, as one student put it, “in the dumpster in every way possible.”
The students stayed in Gurgaon – an outsourcing hub that has evolved from backwater town to a city of vast towers and expansive slums.
They observed the Segal Foundation at work, documenting humanitarian work in everything from water conservation and management to women’s education. Though they originally started in water, the foundation adopted the entire region after seeing the breadth of issues affecting them.
The students were almost immediately struck by the region’s poverty. In one city marketplace, child beggars swarmed the group. Unable to provide help for them, they were forced to ignore them.
“It was very frustrating, because you couldn’t help them at all,” said LSA junior Allison Stewart. “You had to ignore it.”
The sad necessity of such disparity, said one student, is that “you had to act like you’re that much above them.”
The Segal Foundation provided housing, as well as subjects for the interviews, minor transportation and translation services.
The group of students, led by LSA senior Aderemi Abioye, often refer to the program jokingly as “The Real World: India.”
“Every time, it comes up,” says LSA senior and two-time SoW participant Carla Thomas.
It’s not an unfair comparison. The seven SoW members were about as diverse as University groups come. Majors ranged from Latin American and Caribbean studies to Mechanical Engineering.
“Things come up when you go out of the country with seven individuals and no one is alike at all,” says Abioye.
The tension of opposites is often productive, however. And travel certainly brings out people’s opposites. “(Diversity) brings something new to the group, which is great,” Thomas says, “You get different connections, a lot of creative energy, but you get clashes too. It’s a balance you have to find.
The road less less traveled
For those who can’t stand the traffic on even the most obscure roads, the University offers plenty of opportunities to pave your own. For instance, the International Institute Individual Fellowship program offers up to $2,000 to “support internships, research projects or preliminary dissertation research abroad” for undergraduate University students.
The International Institute is also associated with the prestigious Fulbright award programs, which have funded undergraduate and graduate research abroad since 1948.
The University will soon unveil the Wallenberg Scholarship. The grant is named for University graduate and Holocaust savior Raoul Wallenberg – you may recognize him as the subject of the statue outside Rackham auditorium.
In keeping with Wallenberg’s legacy, the scholarship will fund a year of humanitarian work abroad. This is largely in response to the overwhelming proportion of grants – such as the Fulbright – that focus on academic work. The details will be announced on Oct. 5, as part of the annual Wallenberg lecture.
The Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives (OAMI) is another underused source of travel funding. Through the Student Academic Multicultural Initiatives (SAMI), OAMI grants awards of between $500 to $1500 to promote “involvement in academic multicultural activities.” Typically, this means travel.
The Undergraduate Research and Opportunity Program (UROP) encourages students to pursue individual research projects. Though it is not widely advertised, funding for these projects can often extend to travel and field sites.
Individual professors can also guide students to opportunities. Particularly in fields like Geology and Archaeology, research extends to foreign field sites. In some cases, students may be provided the opportunity to accompany and contribute to this research.
While few of these grants breach a couple thousand dollars, the combination of a few is enough to provide at least a month or two of travel. Last summer, LSA juniors Lara Finkbeiner and Emma Nolan-Abrahamian – a Michigan Daily photographer – did just that.
Their work started with a simple proposal to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies – a group that typically offers four fully funded grants per year. “Basically, our project proposal was to study the history of genocide in Cambodia,” Nolan-Abrahamian says. “We were particularly interested in how Cambodia had, or hadn’t, reconciled with its past.”
When the first request was successful, the pair turned to the Ginsberg Center, the International Institute, the LSA Dean’s Office and the Center for International and Comparative Studies. The small grant snowballed, and eventually the two ended up with over $7,000 – enough to cover all of their expenses.
Go abroad, young man
Undergraduate travel is a boon for the entire University community. For students, it can be a cathartic and enriching moment in their development, sparking intellectual curiosity and new perspectives. For employers, it’s a signal of maturity, openness and the ability to adapt. For the University, it ensures that graduates are the kind of open-minded, freethinking people that this University should be turning out.
The world is vast and you are young.
And now, you have no excuse. No money spent, no credits to make up. And the year is still young. Get out there. Enjoy it. You’ll be glad you did.