Katie Walker in Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic
Rochelle Norwood in Ghana
A Spanish native, and some Scotland hijinx
Broadening Their Horizons
Study Abroad programs expand the university experience of Chico students
By Christine Vovakes
When Jessica Tompkins entered California State University, Chico, she hadn’t envisioned venturing too far from the academic cocoon. But this August, as other students began moving back to campus for the start of fall semester, she was preparing to spend the next few months studying abroad in Bilbao, Spain.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be doing this,” says the 21-year-old senior marketing major who went to high school in the agricultural community of Visalia.
Others’ study abroad experiences piqued her interest. She was surprised by a friend’s decision to study in France. Then a roommate headed off for Spain, where she reveled in learning about the Basque people and their culture. As Tompkins met other CSU, Chico students who were embarking on journeys to foreign countries for a semester, and sometimes more, the prospect of studying abroad became enticing rather than intimidating.
“You just open your eyes and take these adventures,” she says.
The travel bug
A lot of CSU, Chico students have been struck by the same wanderlust as Tompkins. During the 2006–2007 school year, 298 students opted for semesters abroad in 22 countries around the globe, up from 75 students 10 years ago when the program began.
Interest continues to escalate. This fall, 229 students fanned out to places as diverse as Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Japan, while almost as many are expected to study abroad in the spring semester.
Enrollment has increased fourfold since Tasha Dev became the first full-time Study Abroad coordinator in 2001. She credits her assistant advisor, Mike Nieto (BA, Communication Design, ’04), and Study Abroad alums hired as student assistants for helping her achieve the program’s success. Together they keep applicants on track with important visa and paperwork deadlines, and make sure each student undergoes a thorough orientation before departure.
Part of Dev’s job is to try to remove all the perceived barriers that prevent students from applying. She assures them that they can complete course work for credit and stay on target to graduate. Tuition costs are usually the same as at CSU, Chico; airfare and other expenses create some additional costs, although in many areas the cost of living is cheaper than in Northern California.
While abroad, the students build cultural bridges, and they return to the United States as more informed citizens of the world who are excited about making a difference. “They have a fire lit inside them,” says Dev.
“This is a feel-good job,” adds Dev. “There’s not one student who has come back and told me he or she hasn’t had an enriching experience.”
Dev also tells them her own story.
“I’m a first-generation college student who worked 30 hours a week to get through school,” she says. “I was on financial aid. I still studied abroad—twice.”
She knows it isn’t easy, but flexibility is the crucial factor.
“You might not be able to go to the most expensive locations,” notes Dev, who graduated in 1995 with a double major from CSU, Chico in Spanish and international relations, and then obtained her master’s degree in 2001 in teaching international languages. “But if students are willing to be flexible about where they go and when they go, then most should be able to manage.”
A national priority
Expense is a big factor in the decision to study abroad, but a new bill making its way through Congress might defray costs. The bill establishing the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation passed the House of Representatives this summer. It was written in response to a report that found American students generally lack the global literacy of their foreign counterparts. In 2004–2005, only about 1 percent of U.S. college students studied abroad, according to the report. That’s just 200,000 students. The foundation hopes to gain funding by 2008, with an ultimate goal of sending 1 million students abroad by 2017.
“Everyone in our field is excited that the initiative has passed,” says Dev. “But we’re holding our breath to see if it will get funded.”
The Study Abroad program is part of the School of Graduate, International, and Interdisciplinary Studies. Information about the program is available at www.csuchico.edu/giis/sa/abroad.html.
CSU, Chico offers a wide range of programs abroad for varying lengths of time. Semester programs, most of which may be extended to a year, are available through University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), Direct International Exchanges, and London Semester. CSU International Programs specializes in year-long study, while course work for credit during summer and intersession are offered mainly via faculty-led programs.
The reasons students study abroad are as varied as the countries they choose. Many are interested in understanding another culture and becoming proficient in a foreign language. That was the objective of senior Robbie Rickgauer, who is fluent now in French after studying in Aix-en-Provence in 2006–2007.
Others combine studies with volunteer work, such as teaching English in host country classrooms or, as Rochelle Norwood did while in Ghana, working side by side with local laborers planting mangoes on a plantation. The CSU, Chico senior from the small California town of Lotus, near Placerville, spent the 2005–2006 school year living in an international youth hostel on the University of Ghana campus. She went back this summer with video and recording equipment to continue volunteer work with dancers from the Africana Village of Peace Project.
“Their dance is really a cultural grounding,” says Norwood. “Every dance is telling a story and has history behind it. Globalization is happening. I want to be part of positive globalization.” Capturing on film the dances and the traditional costumes the performers wear is one way that Norwood says she feels she can be a catalyst for preserving cultural traditions.
Dev and Nieto eagerly listen to stories like Norwood’s. Interest in the Study Abroad program is widespread now, mainly from word-of-mouth, says Nieto.
“Students do more to publicize the program than any of our advertising could,” he says. “Studying abroad seems doable. They see themselves going places they once didn’t think were possible.”
Dev believes that the world expands as students travel. “Is it a small world? Not for me,” says Dev, who has lived and studied in Spain and Mexico, and traveled independently to Russia, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Nepal, India, and throughout Western and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
Her “can do” attitude is contagious, students say. While Spain, Italy, England, and Australia are the most popular destinations, other scholars take the path less traveled and head for campuses in countries like South Africa, Thailand, China, and Chile.
Walking in others’ shoes
After graduating from a small high school in Northern California, Robby Taggart spent a year in Costa Rica. “That’s what led me to come to Chico with a whole new outlook,” he explains.
He knew he wanted to continue to travel and spent spring semester 2006 studying in Alicante, Spain. From there he backpacked through Italy in the summer.
Taggart, who graduated from CSU, Chico in 2007 with a BA in Spanish and a minor in Italian, says he thinks that studying abroad should be part of the general education requirements. He knows that expense and logistics make that ideal a big hurdle. “But it’s very important at the university level to understand different cultures,” he says. “And the only way to understand is to put those shoes on.”
He volunteered in a school in Alicante as a community service project. “Study abroad is what you make of it,” he says. “It won’t be a cultural immersion experience unless the student makes it one. Community service forces you to be involved.”
A world of opportunity
Acquiring knowledge of a new culture is a common experience for students who study abroad. For some, like Sabrina Abbott, the experience is also pivotal and life changing. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist, but her year studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy, brought opportunities she never dreamed of while growing up in Yreka in far Northern California. She met many of Italy’s foremost artists and studied with gifted professors. Giovanna Giusti, director of Contemporary Art and Tapestries at the Uffizi Gallery, offered her an internship during the 2007 spring semester.
The study abroad experience “phenomenally changed my life and the direction of my career,” says the 22-year-old senior art major. “When I went to Italy I wasn’t a bad painter, but I didn’t have a style or a theme. I was wandering. So many brilliant people helped me to focus.”
Abbott has sold a number of her paintings since she returned from Florence and is finalizing details for various showings. She hopes to return to Italy after graduation.
For senior Katie Walker, spending spring semester 2005 in the Czech Republic gave shape to her academic goals. “The experience definitely changed me,” she notes. “When I went there, I wasn’t set on any degree.”
She became deeply drawn to the people in the Czech Republic and their customs. “They made me realize how much I love cultures,” she says.
Through her study abroad experience, Walker found something she was “really passionate about.” Returning to CSU, Chico, she chose to major in anthropology with a minor in American studies. Her goal is to work in international education and teach English abroad. She currently is a student assistant in the Study Abroad office helping others realize their dreams.
“I’ve always believed I could do it,” she says. “It’s a matter of believing you can do something and looking at all the possibilities.”
An Unforgettable College Experience
With a father in the airline industry, Kate Hetu was a seasoned traveler. But nothing in her prior experience equaled the year she spent as a study abroad student in Cork, Ireland, in 2005–2006.
“It was definitely the best year of my college career,” says the 22-year-old liberal studies major from Valencia in Southern California. “Every penny went toward the best educational experience of my life. You grow so much as a student and as a person.”
Staying in an international dorm with Malaysian, European, Asian, and Irish students, Hetu felt the weight of her role as an ambassador in a foreign country. “You have to represent yourself well, both as an American and as a Chico State student,” she notes.
After her travels, Hetu became coordinator of the Study Abroad Mentor/Buddy Program, enlisting other Study Abroad alums to act as liaisons for students coming from other countries to CSU, Chico. Mentors befriend the exchange students, ease them into campus life, and provide continued support.
The mentor role has been an easy sell this year. As the fall semester began, a plethora of students asked to be paired with the nearly three dozen exchange students.
“Former study abroad students want to stay involved,” says Hetu. “They want to get to know other countries and cultures.”
Emily Cohen, a 22-year-old senior with a double major—international relations and political science—studied in Alicante in southern Spain for the spring 2007 semester. Cohen and her best friend flew to Spain to join her, and the two walked 150 miles of the Road to Santiago pilgrims’ trail. Cohen decided to undertake the journey after her professor, a Zen Buddhist who had hiked the route three times, told the class, “If you’re ever lost in your life, do this. Everything becomes clear to you.”
Cohen reports, “I wasn’t lost, but loved the experience.”
Cohen wrote about her experiences in e-mails home to family members. Below is an excerpt from those unedited entries.
hi mom, dad, sister and auntie
day three of el camino de santiago.
It has been pretty amazing so far … the time between the morning of our first day and the evening felt like a week. between the first day and today feels like a month. the first day we started in ponferrada. we walked through vineyards most of the day and it was beautiful … it actually reminded me a lot of sonoma county … yesterday we walked up hill most of the day and were on main roads for most of it (main meaning that every once in a while a tractor goes by and the road is paved)
the people in the villages come out and wish you luck and try to bless you and or feed you. the hostels we stay in are called “albergues” and are only open to the “pilgrims” (that’s me and jaime!) you have to get a stamp at every town you go through to prove that you’ve been walking the whole time. most of the albergues we stay in are old hospitals or churches that have been (more or less) converted. today we are staying in a nice place that is more like a hostel. this is a bigger town so there are more options (meaning, i think there are more people than cows here) everyone, everywhere is unbelievably kind.
this is, thus far, by far, the most amazing thing i’ve ever done. we feel really good (despite our sad little feet). our minds and our hearts are in such a good place that sore bodies don’t really seem to matter all that much. we have done between 16 and 18.5 miles each day. i wish i could explain how beautiful and peaceful everything is … but i know i can’t. and i know the pictures won’t do any justice.
anyway, i am (very) alive and (very) well. Thinking of each of you at different points along the way. wish you could see this and experience it too. love you!
About the author
Christine Vovakes is a freelance writer in Red Bluff. Her articles on the North State often appear in The Sacramento Bee.