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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Where In The World Is...
By AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC '97

Every year, the International Center helps over 1,200 UCSD undergraduates plan their study abroad.

"Chancellor Marye Anne Fox knows that for any of our undergraduates to be well-educated, they have to be internationally educated," says Lynn C. Anderson, UCSD's dean of International Education and the director of the International Center. "They need to have a perspective other than that of the United States. The chancellor's goal is that 50 percent of undergrads study abroad."

On any given day, you can find UC San Diego students scattered across the globe, from tiny towns to cosmopolitan cities and from language classrooms to science labs. About 1,200 undergrads participate annually in study abroad programs. Nationally, UCSD ranks seventh in the number of students who spend an entire year abroad, and if the University's advocates for international education have their way, those numbers will continue to grow. Keeping pace with globalization has become a major priority.

"Chancellor Marye Anne Fox knows that for any of our undergraduates to be well-educated, they have to be internationally educated," says Lynn C. Anderson, UCSD's dean of International Education and the director of the International Center. "They need to have a perspective other than that of the United States. The chancellor's goal is that 50 percent of undergrads study abroad."

Anderson, who spent a year in Germany in 1970 after graduating high school and later went on to earn a Master's in German, adds that academics are only part of the equation. "I talk about the importance of the knowledge, skills and sensitivity that are gained through international education. It's about heads, hands and hearts."

Fox and Anderson are not alone in recognizing the need for international education. "We have to prepare our undergraduate students for the global research and industrial workplace," explains Professor Gabriele Wienhausen, associate dean for education in Biological Sciences—UCSD's largest major. Wienhausen, who hails from Germany, has even suggested making education abroad mandatory for biology students.

Wienhausen believes that study abroad helps a student become self-motivated, independent, willing to embrace challenges and able to cope with diverse problems and situations. "Living and studying in a foreign country, negotiating another culture and acquiring another language sets students who participated in an international educational experience apart from the majority of other job applicants," says Wienhausen.

In 2008, the International Center commissioned a survey to further assess the impact of studying abroad, and collected both hard data and anecdotal evidence. Anderson and her staff queried nearly 4,000 alumni and received more than 1,000 responses.

"Our goal was to find out what this experience meant to students—personally, in terms of their work here at UCSD, and in terms of their careers," says Anderson. "On our website, we have highlights from the survey, plus all the data, and 1,200 comments from alumni about the power of the study-abroad experience. It was amazing to hear what it meant to the different individuals."

Reasons cited for studying abroad range from heritage to language improvement to cultural interest. [Full disclosure: This alumna reporter, who attended the University of Bologna through UC's Education Abroad Program (EAP), picked Italy because of a cinema-driven crush on the country. Sixteen years later, she's still an ardent Italophile.]

Alumni wrote in to tell of flourishing careers that took direction after time abroad, or marriages that resulted from romance on foreign soil. Some spoke of their deep love of travel or profound personal growth. The common denominator among all the stories, no matter how unique: Studying abroad will change your life.

Poonam Chopra, Muir '07, recently moved from Berlin—where she was a scholar on a Young American Journalism Fulbright Fellowship—to London, where she's pursuing a master's in human rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She studied at the University of Delhi through EAP in 2005. Though she'd visited India three times as a child, and grew up watching Bollywood movies—from which she picked up colloquial Hindi—she says her extended time abroad gave her an entirely fresh perspective.

"A true understanding of the country is not built from the limited amount of time and superficial glimpse that a vacation suggests," Chopra says, "but rather from immersion in the humdrums of daily life and a thorough understanding of the traditions that define the country, which are characterized by the disparate demographics, the prevailing entertainment industry, opulent sights and tantalizing cuisines."

Chopra adds that she developed a serious case of wanderlust and realized, upon returning to San Diego, that her lasting affair with New Delhi had not ended just yet. "I tried to think of every possible reason to return," she says.

She applied for an internship with the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi through the Department of State, and worked there for four months in the fall of 2006. A UCSD research scholarship gave her the means to conduct research at the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center, as well Misty E. Nguyen, Warren '00, translated her three undergraduate experiences abroad—and a master's from UCSD's IR/PS in 2005—into a career at the International Center. As assistant business officer, she serves as administrator for the global seminars program. When she was a fresh-scrubbed freshman, however, she'd never really left San Diego.

Her first stint abroad was a summer EAP program in Morelia, Mexico, where she studied Spanish and basked in the small-town environment. That prompted her to apply for a yearlong EAP program for her junior year in Mexico City at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. "It was completely overwhelming," she says. "I had this very ignorant image of Mexico—that it was all the same."

After a few months, though, she settled in and her language skills improved dramatically. By the time she returned to UCSD, she was a self-avowed "mini-Mexico-ist—I became obsessed with Mexico!" (She later married a Mexican-American, who initially pegged her as a native Spanish speaker.)

While in Mexico, Nguyen "suffered an identity crisis," which led to her third time abroad with EAP. "I am half-Vietnamese, and I didn't know anything about Vietnam. I thought it would be fun. I thought the people would welcome me back to the motherland."

In Hanoi, however, she found the complex language nearly impossible to grasp and learned that Vietnamese-Americans were largely shunned. "I would still do it again," she says, adding that her collective experiences abroad transformed her from introvert to extrovert. "It made me a better person. But in Vietnam, I realized just how American I really am."

Kafi Swaniker, Marshall '97, was inspired by her mother, an OB/GYN who'd visited villages in Nigeria, to study at the University of Ghana, Legon. "I'm African-American," she says. "I don't know where my roots are, but it was definitely a reason I wanted to go. I wanted to find that connection."

While studying Psychology and African Studies, Swaniker—now a high school counselor in San Diego—found a different kind of connection. She met her future husband, Peter, who grew up in Botswana, Gambia and Ghana, at a dance on Valentine's Day. "Everything is so intense because you're in another place and your mind is open to so many different things."

After a slow courtship—during which the couple forged a deep friendship—Swaniker returned to UCSD, where Peter joined her soon after. The couple enjoyed a traditional West African engagement, which entails a formal meeting of the families and exchange of gifts, before getting married in Los Angeles in 1996, wearing Ghanaian garb to their American-style wedding. Their three children have all visited Ghana. "It's very important that they know both cultures and families," she says.

Steve Mellano, ERC '97, the director of market research, worldwide marketing, at Warner Bros. Pictures, chose a semester-long Opportunity Abroad Program in Italy, where much of his extended family lives. "EAP just seemed too intense," he admits. After a few months in Florence, he came back to UCSD, where he lived in International House and met a bunch of students from the University of Bologna. "They convinced me to go back to Italy."

After graduation, Mellano spent a year teaching English in Bologna, whose university is the oldest in the world, dating to 1088. There, he lived with four female Italian roommates. "At first, they seemed to think I would be a free English tutor. I told them I was there to learn Italian."

He later taught English in France, and in 2002, earned dual degrees—an M.A. in international communication from USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and an M.Sc. in global media from the London School of Economics. "My interest in all things international definitely can be traced back to my time at UCSD," he says.

James Ho, ERC '11, studied abroad in the fall of 2010 through EAP at the University of Hong Kong—his first time outside the U.S. With five classes, including Cantonese, Ho says the academics were rigorous, but he still found time to enjoy himself. "The coolest aspect of studying abroad was the opportunity to travel," he says. "I didn't know what to expect from each country."

If he could do anything differently, Ho would have applied for more scholarships. "It's easy to run out of money when you study abroad," he says. " I never want money to hold me back from experiences, but, unfortunately, I [wanted] to do so much more than my budget allowed."

Of course, studying abroad brings with it countless challenges, from being cash-strapped—students generally aren't allowed to work—to core-shaking culture shock. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a UCSD alum who wouldn't do it again in a heartbeat.

Over There and Back Again
Fact File: If you want to travel abroad to learn, UC San Diego offers a wide variety of options. Education Abroad Program (EAP), hosted through the UC system, accounts for 54 percent of UCSD students who participate in international study. Faculty-led global seminars, which are five-week summer programs, lure 12 percent, and Opportunity Abroad Programs (OAP), planned through other universities and third-party nonprofits, account for the remaining 34 percent, and have been around the longest.

Some students attend foreign universities, taking classes alongside natives, while others conduct the majority of their studies in English. For semester or yearlong study, the United Kingdom is the most popular destination, followed by Spain and China. For shorter stints, Italy is the most sought-after spot.

Programs exist for all majors, from language to science/technology/engineering/ math (STEM). Students receive credits—either graded or transfer, depending on the program—and a recent survey showed that studying abroad does not cause a delay in graduation.

Lynn C. Anderson, UCSD's dean of International Education, was recruited in 2006 and says that outreach has increased substantially since 1984, when UCSD sent about 100 students abroad. ("The records are a little spotty before that," she laughs.) Every UCSD college has a study-abroad liaison, as do individual departments. Returnees speak to the nearly 500 student organizations on campus.

"Helping students cope with the 'five F's' is imperative," says Anderson. "Academic fit, finances/financial aid, family and friends, faculty support and fear. We try to proactively ask students, 'What are your concerns?'"

Some of the issues that plagued students in the past have been worked out. Health insurance plans now offer thorough coverage, says Anderson. And perhaps most important, with the advent of ubiquitous cell-phone service, Internet and Skype, homesick students easily and affordably stay linked to loved ones. (Fifteen years ago, a quick call home on a payphone could cost a small fortune.)

Students can seek an abundance of information at the International Center, nestled among eucalyptus trees mid-campus. In October 2010, UCSD approved a new design for the bustling hub, which was built in the '70s and '80s and has seen better days. Capital campaign planning is underway to fund the new facilities. With more and more students studying abroad, the University hopes to be able to offer a send-off worth writing home about.

AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC '97, is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle.