With the plethora of opportunities for students to study abroad at the University of Michigan, it is nearly impossible to avoid destinations where the history is fraught with past violence or political tumult. In fact, it seems study in some of these places is encouraged so students can understand there is more to them than can be written in the pages of a history book.
Such is the opinion of Thuy’Anh Nguyen, a lecturer of Vietnamese language in the Department of Asian Languages and Culture. For years, Nguyen, who was born and raised in Vietnam, led a summer trip there through the University’s Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates program. The last trip she led was in 2013.
“It’s the experience for the students, not just to be in Vietnam as a tourist, but to have an actual living experience, working experience in Vietnam,” Nguyen said.
The trip is about more than building knowledge, but also a “friendship” with both the people and the country, she added. The GIEU trips to Vietnam, she said, integrated Vietnamese students with University students, and this exposure to even the most basic cultural differences was important.
“When they share experience with students, it can be something like … TV shows that they watch,” Nguyen said, laughing that the students bonded over their love for the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”
“Even experiences like (when) they share the rooms together. Vietnamese students may have different experiences using air conditioner. Because here it’s very cold and in Vietnam it’s very hot.”
Nguyen said a huge difference is the use of the bathroom. In Vietnam, something as simple as toilet paper is seen as “fancy” — sometimes, locals use crumpled-up newspaper. She added that people flush very infrequently, which came as a surprise to American students who thought it was “less hygienic.”
However, Nguyen said, bridging cultural divides was often not the biggest hurdle; rather, it was exposing the American students to the remnants of Vietnam War violence that was the hardest.
This manifested itself in a trip to the village of My Lai, where in March 1968 American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War killed the majority of Vietnamese locals — as many as 500 people — including children, women and the elderly.
“We went there, and we had first-hand experience seeing what happened and how Vietnamese people see it,” Nguyen said. “And then the U of M students would say, ‘Oh we feel very bad. We think that our Vietnamese students would hate us because of what Americans have done.’ ”
However, Nguyen said, there was not hatred, but constructive discussion and subsequent community service work to learn more about Vietnamese experiences and help ameliorate them. These efforts ranged from planting trees to building houses to simply exploring old war sites and gaining a better understanding of the history.
LSA junior Caroline Hickey was on the 2013 trip to Vietnam and agreed that locals’ reception of Americans was far from hateful. Though she sometimes felt she “stuck out” because she is tall, blonde and white, she felt that the students were received with open arms.
“As far as the way people treated us, especially in small villages … people who were living there … who remembered the war very well were so kind to us, and invited us into their homes, and spoke with us and told us about their experiences,” she said.
The personal anecdotes were one piece in changing Hickey’s perspective. Another was the opportunity to walk through a field where there were still active landmines from the Vietnam War. She said the location was one where safe paths had been carved out by local researchers, but the prospect of having active landmines just inches away from her feet was enough to keep her on the sidelines instead of walking around.
“It’s very clear that we’re still part of their country and still harming people in such grave ways,” Hickey said.
For Hickey, this was the greatest takeaway — learning the nation’s history from the perspective of locals instead of U.S. history textbooks. Upon returning home, she said she felt that the U.S. education system “glosses over” the Vietnam War, and leaves little to no time for their side of the story.
The importance of learning new perspectives, it seems, is what drives many of the University’s study abroad programs, especially in regions known for political unrest.
This lesson is true of Taglit-Birthright, which offers a free, 10-day trip to Israel for “young Jewish people” ages 18 to 26 in an effort to “strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel,” according to the program’s website. The University of Michigan Hillel organizes sponsored Birthright trips each year.
Gita Karasov, Hillel’s Director of Engagement, staffed this winter’s trip, and said this summer’s heightened conflict between Israel and neighboring Arab populations in the Gaza Strip — which resulted in thousands of deaths in Palestine and hundreds of deaths in Israel — yielded not fear from students but an eagerness to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict.
“The group of students were well aware of the political climate in Israel this past summer,” she wrote in an e-mail interview, later adding that, “While on the trip, students had a heightened awareness to our surroundings and our proximity to places such as Gaza, the West Bank, and Syria, which led to thoughtful discussions and questions throughout the trip.”
LSA sophomore Anna Marie Mondrusov went on this winter’s Birthright trip to Israel through Hillel, and said it was an opportunity for her to learn more about Israel firsthand, as opposed to what she had learned and followed growing up.
“You get to see the people, meet the people, talk to them,” she said. “So you get to learn personal stories, not just what you heard on the news.”
Mondrusov said the summer’s violence is not a huge concern for those traveling in Israel — she never felt unsafe — but certain infrastructure in Israel serves as a constant reminder of potential attacks.
“The bus stops are all made of concrete; there are bomb shelters everywhere,” she said. “You can see that the city has had to change their lives to adapt to what’s happening to them.”
One striking reminder, she said, was that most if not all Israelis join the army after graduating from high school. She said their involvement in the Israeli Defense Force made these people more aware of their country’s politics and history than students in the United States, and at times more mature than their American counterparts.
“All of the Israelis my age there are working in the army. Some of them are working on the border, near Gaza,” she said. “So you get to hear actual stories of what happens on a day-to-day basis. We had the opportunity to stand on the hill bordering Gaza and Israel … where that summer, reporters were standing and they could see the rockets flying.”
She found, however, that the Birthright participants and younger army members had a great deal in common. One anecdote that sticks out to her was their shared love of taking selfies.
Ilan Ofir, a former Israel Fellow through Hillel who helped lead Birthright trips, just finished leading a two-week program in Israel with MBA students from the University of California, San Diego. He said travel within the country, despite the summer’s conflict, is very safe.
“Most (of the students) have never heard of Israel before this (summer’s) events and yet chose to go to expose themselves to its strong startup culture,” Ofir said in an e-mail interview.
Clashing portrayals often challenge students on trips like these. Take an upcoming trip to Cuba this Spring 2015 semester, led by Spanish Prof. Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola.
“Cuba is often portrayed as (an) ‘evil regime that indoctrinates its citizens’ in the mainstream media,” Herrero-Olaizola explained in an e-mail interview. “Such reporting rarely takes into account the diverse political viewpoints happening on the island.”
The trip was organized by the University’s Center for Global and Intercultural Study last year, and Herrero was named director of the University’s Cuba program early in the Fall 2014 semester.
The program will be based in the nation’s capital, Havana, with students taking a course in Cuban film with Herrero-Olaizola and a class in Cuban culture and history with a University of Havana professor.
All of these plans were made prior to President Barack Obama’s December announcement that the United States will, in coming months, work with Cuban President Raul Castro to increase the nations’ economic and travel interests. The United States has otherwise embargoed trade with Cuba for decades.
Herrero-Olaizola said pending changes in regulations between the countries will ultimately be beneficial to students embarking on the Cuba trip. He said new regulations will likely allow students to use U.S.-issued credit and debit cards, as opposed to relying exclusively on cash transactions. Currently, he said, U.S. cards and cell phones do not work in Cuba.
“In a way, we have been ‘blessed’ by Obama’s announcement and the media exposure it has received,” Herrero-Olaizola said. “Students are now more aware of the main issues regarding the embargo, and they will be able to see with their own eyes what it has done to the Cuban people. They will also be able to measure it by staying with Cuban families for six weeks (the program offers homestay). Students will experience firsthand the intricacies of daily life in Cuba, something that soundbites and mainstream media reports can barely provide.”
A description on the GIEU website says its goal is for students and faculty to interact with new communities of people to learn information, both through formal classes and anecdotal experiences, so that ultimately, “participants bring their knowledge back to campus in meaningful ways.”
Though they represent just a taste of the many narratives from countless other trips and programs, such experiences demonstrate that there is only so much one can learn in the classroom. Multiple perspectives can be presented on paper or in discussion, but experiencing them firsthand in a foreign place is an entirely different matter.