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The Politics of Studying Abroad

When Rachel Smith decided to spend the spring semester of her freshman year in Burgos, Spain, she intended to take advantage of the freshman semester abroad program at Purchase College State University of New York (Purchase, NY) to enhance her photography/visual arts major through coursework offered in Spain. "Nothing was wrong before I left, but by mid-February, my Culture and Society professor was talking about President Bush deciding whether or not to declare war," recalls Rachel. "Before we knew it, the war was on."

While there was some talk about students being sent back to the United States, many had no desire to leave. "We lived in a smaller city, so it was pretty unlikely that any kind of commotion would hit us personally," explains Keely Quinn, a Purchase sophomore who spent last year in Spain. "I never felt threatened as an American."

In the Thick of Things
In fact, being overseas in wartime provided students with a unique political perspective.

"It was strange to be looking in at the United States while something so important was happening," reports Keely. "But I'm glad I was where I was. I was getting my news from a very different type of media, so I saw things I might not have seen had I been watching CNN."

Rachel has similar feelings. "It was an extra powerful and moving experience," she shares. "Normally, you don't get to see how other countries react."

Post-War Veterans
While Rachel and Keely didn't know they'd be overseas in such a volatile international climate, travel fellowship winners from Moore College of Art & Design (Philadelphia, PA) went abroad this summer with their eyes wide open. Pauline Mariano, a senior two-dimensional fine arts major and photography minor, traveled to the Czech Republic and Slovakia to study the art and culture of her Slavic heritage.

It turns out she had nothing to fear. "I felt very safe traveling there," she says. "Most people I spoke with were warm and receptive, and they didn't seem to dislike Americans. I didn't feel any animosity or prejudice."

Janell Wysock, a senior textile design major, had a positive experience studying abroad as well. After staying with a Mennonite family in rural Pennsylvania for three weeks, she spent a month in Germany teaching papermaking to fourth graders and observing contrasts between the two societies.

"If anything, people were just interested in me and wanted to talk to me. They were very open-minded," assures Janell. "Europeans are naturally more worldly because they're surrounded by other countries, so they have to think beyond their home, their community, their state."

A New Wave of Travelers
With brave adventurers like these paving the way, new Purchase students Ian Boyle and LeAnna Ficano have no qualms about spending their fall semester in Spain.

"There's not much to be afraid of," insists Ian. "I was a mile away from the World Trade Center when it collapsed." As a fellow New Yorker, LeAnna agrees. "I feel safer [overseas] - it's nice to get away from all this."

They're not alone in their fearlessness, either. According to a survey conducted by AHA International, an organization that provides college study abroad opportunities, and, students stating that safety is very important for studying abroad have declined from 54 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in 2003. In addition, Open Doors 2002, the annual report issued by the Institute of International Education, revealed that studying abroad has increased 55 percent since 1997.

The Bottom Line
If you're thinking about studying abroad, Rachel urges you to learn more about the area you'll be visiting than just its geography. "Before you go, do some background research on its politics," she advises. "That prepared me a little better."

Overall, students say they wouldn't let the political climate stop them from experiencing the world outside the United States and from studying abroad. "I can't let it keep me from what I want and need to do," emphasizes Pauline. "I want to experience as much as I can."