Students seek study abroad opportunities in non-traditional destinations
When Catherine Joppich flew into Johannesburg and took a bus to Swaziland, the vehicle stopped at a hybrid gas station-shopping complex. Outside was a fenced off area with a bunch of wild animals, including rhinos, zebras and wildebeests.
In that moment, it truly hit the Canton senior she was in a foreign country.
Joppich, who studies dietetics and completed a nutrition internship in Swaziland, is one of 674 CMU students who studied abroad in 2016-17. This is a 5 percent increase from the prior year.
Study Abroad Adviser Marko Schubert said more and more students are expressing interest in less traditional destinations. This change can partially be attributed to cost, he said.
Programs in countries such as Thailand or South Korea are generally cheaper than studying in European countries.
Going to Swaziland for five weeks for an internship was the first time Joppich had ever traveled alone and the first time she traveled outside of North America. She hadn’t flown in about five years, so getting to Africa on her own was terrifying, she said.
Ever since she watched a documentary about Kenya in middle school, she wanted to go to Africa and experience the culture there. Knowing no one else who had traveled to Africa before, the unknown scared her. But she knew she wanted to experience something new even if it scared her a little.
“I think maybe students are having a more adventurous spirit," said Study Abroad Director Dianne De Salvo. "They want to try something really different. The opportunity is available and they’re taking it.”
Swaziland was not on the Office of Study Abroad’s list of approved countries when Joppich began searching for programs. She knew she wanted to go to Africa, but none of the available programs interested her.
She found the nutrition internship in Swaziland through an organization that offers other internships abroad and asked Schubert if it could be approved.
“As soon as I read the internship description, I knew that was where I wanted to go,” Joppich said. “I was telling all of my friends, ‘this is where I want to go. I have to get it.’ The day I found out I could go was probably one of the best days.”
De Salvo said when approving new destinations, she looks at health and safety first. Approving internships is different from approving other study abroad programs because internship offerings are always changing.
Breckenridge junior Holly Gregory also chose a study abroad program that was not listed at the time of searching. She knew she wanted to study in the Middle East, so Schubert helped her find a program in Morocco through International Studies Abroad, a provider the Office of Study Abroad already works with.
Schubert said the office is open to non-traditional destinations as long as they’re safe for students.
Adjusting to Differences
Yale senior Rachel Bartley, who studied in Brazil during the summer of 2016 and studied in Thailand this summer, traveled by airplane for the first time when she went to Brazil.
Bartley played “Duolingo,” an app for learning languages, on the plane. That was the only background she had in Portuguese. When she arrived, she had to start learning — her host mom could only speak Portuguese.
“It was like a lot of charades for the first few weeks,” Bartley said. “At the end, I was having conversations with her and had learned the language enough to meet people, make friends and have a good time.”
Bartley said studying abroad helped her meet new people and appreciate them for what they are.
“I definitely empathize with the international students here who speak some English because I’m sure when I was trying to learn Portuguese everyone was like, ‘we don’t understand you,’” Bartley said.
Joppich didn't face issues with language when she arrived in Swaziland but she had problems adjusting.
When she first arrived in Swaziland, she wished she was only staying for a few weeks. “Being there was difficult because I didn’t know anybody,” she said. “I had to be social and a lot of times I’m a little shy right off the bat so it was hard to step out of my comfort zone and hang out with (the other volunteers).”
Though at first she had a hard time adjusting to being on her own so far way from home, she said by the end of her internship, she wanted to stay longer.
Interacting with Locals
Howell junior Madison Waddell studied in Accra, Ghana this summer for a month and a half. She struggled with culture shock because people don’t have the same views about personal space as in the U.S. and she found it intimidating.
Interacting with local students helped her overcome these struggles because she was able to ask them about different cultural norms. Waddell made a good friend that she clicked with right away. He grew up in Accra and attended school there. Her favorite memory was going to a professional soccer game with him.
“It was interesting to see the sports fans and how wild they are about their country,” she said. “They have so much pride and it’s beautiful.”
Gregory also met locals during her study abroad experience in Meknes, Morocco this summer. Her favorite story to tell about her experience is about the doorman at her apartment.
She was there during Ramadan, so people couldn’t eat or drink during daylight hours. She came back to her apartment with a cold diet coke on a hot day and the doorman looked at her and mimicked drinking the coke. The two shared a laugh over their cultural differences.
“Maybe I won’t remember everything about every city I went to but I will remember the people that I laughed with even if they didn’t speak English," Gregory said.
Learning from Experience
Joppich worked at an organization called All Out Africa and her main task was to start a pilot study on the effects of e’Pap, a food product that’s supposed to help children grow properly. She and one other nutrition intern took the heights and weights of children to see if e’Pap helped them.
She plans to be a dietician after she graduates and said she can apply what she’s learned about other cultures and about nutrition in other countries to her future career.
Waddell also believes her study abroad experience will help her with her future career. She is a pre-med student at CMU. In Ghana, she took two courses: Service Learning and Social Service Delivery Systems in Ghana.
For the service learning course, she worked in an HIV/AIDS hospital, doing vitals and intakes and completing paperwork for doctors. She said her goal was to become aware of different cultures, and the ability to communicate on a global basis will be valuable to her as a future physician.
Reflecting on the Experience
Gregory believes the best way to learn about culture is to go somewhere and experience it. She hopes that her stories from her time in Morocco will help change people's negative perceptions of the Middle East.
“I hope to bring back what I learned to my small town and from the stories I tell, I hope that can maybe add to people’s views, even a little,” she said.
Joppich wanted a study abroad experience that would teach her about another culture and different way of living.
“I just think people should not be afraid to travel abroad and not be afraid to travel to a non-traditional place,” she said. “Europe is great and I would love to go to Europe but I would definitely recommend Africa.”
Waddell also advises people not to be intimidated by unfamiliar locations.
“I found that it was kind of by putting myself in this uncomfortable situation that I was able to learn the most,” she said. “I encourage everyone: ‘don’t just take a step out of your comfort zone — take 20.’”