Study abroad grows, changes students’ perspectives

During Leslie Martin’s two weeks in China, she experienced many elements of the vastly different culture. But one thing that really stuck out to her was the food.

“My friend ate pig brain,” Martin, junior in Education, laughed as she recounted her study abroad trip during winter break last year. “I couldn’t do it. It was boiled, so it was chewy. Very weird.”

She made it clear that “you’re not eating General Tso’s chicken.”

On Marianne Bellorín’s last night studying abroad in the Dominican Republic during winter break this year, she and two of her friends slept on the beach.

“We took our pillows and blankets from the hotel,” said Bellorín, junior in Media. “It was super cheesy, and it ended up being super cold. But it was totally worth it.”

Katie Weber, senior in ACES, said she never imagined herself studying abroad in South Africa. However, that is exactly what she did in the summer after her sophomore year.

She said in her three weeks there, one of her favorite things she got to do was visit a cheetah sanctuary.

“Cheetahs get killed a lot by farmers because they kill their livestock, so they have this sanctuary that will go and rescue them, so that was pretty cool to see,” Weber said.

In recent years, more students like Martin, Bellorín and Weber have decided to study abroad on one of the University’s 400 programs. According to a running tally compiled by the Study Abroad Office, more than 27 percent of University students study abroad, which is about one in every four students.

According to national averages, the percent of college students who study abroad has increased 150 percent in the last 10 years.

“It’s just easier to travel,” said Bo White, director of Study Abroad Office. “We have a global economy now, so I think it’s not as scary as it used to be.”

In particular, the short-term study abroad programs at the University are growing the fastest. Students choose these programs rather than going abroad for an entire academic year, which can create challenges when it comes to completing requirements in a particular major.

With more and more seniors choosing to study abroad, White rejected the notion that studying abroad delays graduation. As long as the student is responsible, he believes there should not be a problem with graduating on time.

In fact, according to White, “it probably could accelerate it. It’s the responsibility of them and their advisor.”

Teresa Finis, director of International Programs in Engineering, agreed with White.

“Can it put someone behind? Sure,” Finis said. “But there’s enough historical evidence of students who go abroad who graduate on time.”

She added that study abroad programs can help Engineering students in particular majors meet their requirements and gain necessary experience in their fields with opportunities they would not have at the University.

With research partners set up in Spain, Singapore, Hong Kong and Germany, studying engineering abroad is now more accessible than ever.

“We want our engineers globally engaged,” Finis said. “That’s where they’re going, global engagement is very important.”

Studying abroad also allows students to utilize their majors in “real life” situations. As an education major, Martin was fascinated to see how different education works in China. She was able to visit a variety of schools during her trip, ranging from day cares= to colleges.

“There wasn’t a lot of Special Ed, which was really interesting to hear about,” Martin said. “They’re moving in the right direction, but it was hard to find a Special Ed program.”

Bellorín also felt studying abroad allowed her to connect to her advertising major.

“In my years at U of I, I kind of felt a little disconnected in terms of what my major is gonna do in the real world,” Bellorin said. “I went to the Dominican Republic because we were studying visual pollution and how advertising affects the environment, visually speaking.”

White, who studied abroad in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong as an undergraduate, said for students, studying abroad is “one of the most transformative experiences they’ll have in this college in the four years they’re here.”

Martin, Bellorín and Weber all participated in programs shorter than a semester. They all said they wished they stayed longer and Weber even plans to return to Cape Town.

“We didn’t get enough,” Martin said. “I needed more.”

All three students stressed the importance of open-mindedness while studying abroad. They said the experience taught them to embrace the challenges that come with being somewhere completely foreign.

“Be flexible,” Bellorín said. “Things will always go wrong, people will always be late and buses might not show up. You’re not going to know where you are sometimes. Just take everything in stride, and smile about it.”

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@MaggieSulliivan