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Student Guide to Choosing a Study Abroad Program

Folk art in Costa Rica

The study abroad office at my college sent me at least one email per week during my freshman year. I would usually delete them. Study abroad seemed so decadent. They were persistent, though, and I thought of them after I fell in love with Costa Rica over my spring break. The country was beautiful, and I finally had the chance to use the Spanish that I had been studying for so long.

When I got home I went to the study abroad office, hoping to research programs and plan far in advance to return to Costa Rica for my junior year. As it turned out, one program had just extended its deadline for admission the following year. I assumed it was a sign, applied, and was accepted to the Grupo de Kansas.

The Grupo de Kansas is sponsored by the Univ. of Kansas. Forty to 50 students take integrated classes at the Univ. of Costa Rica in San Jose. It sounded perfect. I only wanted to return; it didn't even occur to me that the other American students would be a part of my life.

I met my exchange group of about 40 people who looked just like me at the airport for the flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. We all spoke English, of course. When we got off at the San Jose airport, everyone around us spoke Spanish. It wasn't the slow, polite Spanish of my conversations with beach bums over spring break; it was rapid, everyday, city Spanish. Suddenly I was scared. What had I gotten myself into?

Our exchange group leader spoke to us in rapid Spanish at the front of the bus that met us at the airport. I couldn't concentrate, and I figured that every guilty word of English that I spoke could be my last. The next day I would be put with a host family, start classes, and kiss English good-bye.

Most of the people in my exchange group lived within blocks of me, and the first month in Costa Rica was spent in an orientation session together. The group divided itself into cliques. The cliques helped each other to ease the pain of culture shock and language barriers. We traveled together, ate together, studied together. The only problem was that it was hard to overcome culture shock and language barriers when we were always together.

A Traveling Program

Ann Ertl, a Women's Studies graduate from the Univ. of Minnesota, experienced a similar problem on her summer program, Semester at Sea, sponsored by the Univ. of Pittsburgh. The program is expensive. The lengthy cruise is on a ship equipped with, as the brochure says, "cabins, classrooms, a student union, dining facilities, a library, computer lab, a campus store, and outdoor fitness areas."

Most of the time is spent on the ship with the 400 other American students on the program. When the ship docked at one of the nine countries they visited during the program, students were free to go ashore and spend their time as they chose. Ertl spent her time with a group from the program who had arranged to meet local people at bars and restaurants. However, many of the students chose to spend the time together. She says she felt, at times, that she was at a traveling fraternity party. She felt that some people went on the trip for the sole purpose of meeting a mate, and that some students didn't treat the host cultures with respect.

But Ertl says that overall she learned a lot and is glad she went on the program. She not only met interesting people on the ship, but she also has people in nine countries to stay with if she ever returns to any of the group's stops. She says the credit card bills she now has to pay off are well worth it for the experience.

Spain on Your Own

Molly Lopresti, a graduate of the Spanish program at the Univ. of Minnesota, studied for a year in Salamanca, Spain, but not through a college-sponsored program. She enrolled directly at the Univ. of Salamanca through a program called "Cursos Internacionales."

Although her first few days were stressful — arranging room, board, and transportation, all in Spanish — Lopresti says she learned a lot from the experience. She did everything herself: booked a flight, found a place to stay when she got there, found her own host family, and enrolled herself in classes.

While students on a sponsored study abroad program have a built-in support system to fall back on, Lopresti did not; she had to create her own. Fortunately, people from all around the world and all different backgrounds were enrolled in the courses, and many had Spanish friends. Lopresti met Spanish people this way. She saw the differences between herself and students her own age who were in Spain on sponsored programs and was glad that she didn't have a connection to any group.

The students, she said, "treated Spain as if it were Disney World. . . . I saw people travel in gangs and speak English all the time. They were in Spain but living their lives as if they weren't."

Trying Different Approaches

Mike Arnold, a Spanish and international business senior at the Univ. of Minnesota, found that 10 weeks was not a long enough time to study abroad when he enrolled for a quarter at the Institute of Cemanahuac in Cuernavaca, Mexico through a Univ. of Minnesota program. The program was designed to help students fulfill their language credits in a shorter amount of time by studying together in intensive language courses.

Although the program featured a homestay, Arnold felt that there was a lot of English spoken because the American students were in class together all day. He separated himself from the group and had a language partner, but he did not think that the other participants in the program were well integrated into the culture. Many of his group members spent time at bars together.

"You're not really going to get to know anyone if you're hanging out in this one clique of Americans," he observed. The students also didn't have a lot of time to integrate themselves into the culture when they only stayed for 10 weeks.

Arnold will be studying abroad again in the upcoming semester, but he will not go through the study abroad office. Instead, he will enroll at a private Catholic school in Pamplona, Spain, and pay $300 less than he did for his quarter in Cuernavaca. He says that people limit their options by only checking into college-sponsored programs.

"There's a world of opportunities out there if you just want to go out and look for it," he said, "Doing it on your own takes a little footwork and persistence but it's possible."

Surveying the Spectrum

Jamie Clark works at the International Study and Travel Center, an advising and referral service at the Univ. of Minnesota for students who are about to work, study, or travel abroad. She says that the circumstances of study abroad are not as important as individual preferences and what a student hopes to get out of the experience. Jamie has spent 2½ years in Germany. She didn't go on a study abroad program; she received a scholarship and enrolled directly. She didn't spend much time with other Americans, although it would have been easy for her to do.

What Clark has seen at the International Study and Travel Center is that people have different things that they want to accomplish from study abroad. Language majors are more likely to take their time abroad seriously, she says; so are students who have a previous interest in the host culture. Students who are looking for a new place to party may not care so much about trying to assimilate, but priorities change over time.

Is There a Wrong Way to Study Abroad?

I spent a year in Costa Rica and noticed the changes in my own attitude and approach toward the experience. Some people who left after a semester didn't get much more than a superficial vacation experience, and I didn't either until having the time to realize just how much I was missing out on by living the American lifestyle in another country. Some people knew this already and acted accordingly, separating themselves from the group. Clark says that whether a person separates themselves or not depends on several factors, including maturity levels and whether or not they have studied abroad before. She says that even an initial study abroad experience in which the person avoids getting to know the host culture can be good — because it means that the next time they study abroad they may do it differently.

It's natural to want to spend time with people who are like you, and even more natural when you are under stress. When it is as easy as it was made for the members of Ertl's, Arnold's, or my exchange group, it's natural that the people within the group will spend time together. Lopresti's advice for this dilemma is the following: "Try to talk to as few Americans as possible; your first month will be awful, but it will be worth it."

Clark's approach is less strict. She says that people are going to do what they want to do. Maybe the people who are creating a miniature U.S. for themselves will realize that they're missing something and maybe they won't. Being by yourself and getting to know the culture immediately is the most intense way of going about it. But not everyone likes intensity, myself included. Sometimes the administrative dollars are worth the support system that they provide to you as a member of a group.

I went back to Costa Rica because I wanted to learn more Spanish, learn about Costa Rican culture, hang out on the beach, and meet some people. I did all of that on a program that I enjoyed and where I felt secure; it just took longer.

Sample Study Abroad Programs

Grupo de Kansas at the Univ. of Costa Rica. Offers one-month orientation session worth three semester credits at beginning which include a culture, history, and writing class. 12-15 credits each semester.

Semester at Sea through the Univ. of Pittsburgh. Offers 12-15 credits each semester. Includes tuition, passage fare, room and board. (Adults may go on the excursions and audit courses or receive credit.) Rates vary depending on cabin size. Living arrangements are on the ship with an option to stay in port cities.

Cursos Internacionales through the Univ. of Salamanca, Spain. Offers Spanish language and culture courses for undergraduate and graduate Spanish students. Usually transferable credit. Cost depends on length of time spent studying: from one week to one trimester. Housing arrangements are up to the participant. For more information contact: Cursos Internacionales, Universidad de Salamanca, Salamanca, Spain.

CHANOMI MAXWELL-PARISH is a senior majoring in journalism and Spanish at the Univ. of Minnesota. She studied at the Univ. of Costa Rica for a year and worked for an international support group. Her writing has been published in a poetry anthology as well as articles in a local bilingual newspaper La Prensa.

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