Education Abroad: Experience the World
by Amy Harper
When Antioch College established its first study-abroad program in 1958 with Tübingen University in Germany, there were very few other U.S. universities and colleges that offered their students study abroad and no programs in Germany. Antioch’s program in Germany was the first. Today many colleges and universities offer study-abroad programs, but Antioch’s is distinctive for the same reason the college itself stands out among liberal arts schools. “What’s different is our commitment to experiential learning, our knowledge of being able to integrate it into our educational curriculum,” said Paula Spier, former dean of Antioch International, and now a consultant in the field of international education. “We’re pretty good at helping students figure out what they’ve learned.”
For AEA director Andrzej Bloch experience by itself does not necessarily translate into learning. “The essence of experiential learning is reflection,” said Bloch. That is what separates experience from experiential learning in his view.
Students who study abroad are given plenty of opportunities to reflect on what they have learned. They are expected to read extensively, attend lectures, visit people and places connected to their program of study, write in field journals, do field research, and conduct independent study projects. They engage in continual discussion and analysis, with each other, guest speakers, and with faculty, of their observations and experience. “Experiential learning is continuous throughout the program,” said Bloch. “Students have to have the opportunity to reflect, and reflection happens very much by sharing.”
Each program is led by a director, three of whom are based at Antioch, and others elsewhere. According to Bloch, during the last three years, to make the study-abroad programming “a much more integrated part of the College” has been one of the principle objectives of AEA. A key element of this effort involves making the directors of the major programs part of the college faculty. This arrangement allows program directors “to learn the special culture of Antioch, to bring their experience to the program, and to bring the experience of teaching and learning abroad back to the Antioch environment.”
It also involves college faculty more closely with AEA. “We want all faculty to have a vested interest in the long-term functioning of the program,” said Bloch. In addition, “it may also allow for faculty in the classroom to substitute for faculty abroad,” he said. This extends experiential learning, the cornerstone of an Antioch education, to faculty, who become “interactional practitioners” with students. “It’s a powerful experience – hard work but extremely rewarding,” said Bloch, who has led programs himself.
While program directors may be members of the Antioch faculty, program instructors are primarily associated with the various countries in which the programs take place. The Brazilian Ecosystem Program, for example, is led by Antioch faculty member Suzanne Kolb but is affiliated with two Brazilian universities and supported by other Brazilian organizations and institutes. Brazilian professors, research scientists, graduate students and activists provide expertise on regional issues. This program has been in existence since 1989.
AEA’s newest program, The Middle East and North Africa, is set to begin in 2002. Its resident director has yet to be appointed; its site coordinator is Ambassador Mahmoud Kassem. It involves collaboration with the Institute for African and International Affairs in Cairo, Egypt, and involves lectures by Middle Eastern scholars, site visits and field work.
Students in the Antioch in Germany program at Tübingen University enroll for a semester or a full year in classes taught by German professors in German. Program staff includes a resident advisor from Tübingen whose primary role is to advise students in their academic work and to facilitate their reflection on learning through immersion in the German culture.
Immersion is an important part of the AEA experience and always has been. In Tübingen, for example, students are required to live with German students; there is no opportunity for them to stay with each other in the dorm, said Bloch. Many of the study-abroad programs may also include home stays.
Field research required by most of the programs also helps immerse students in the cultures of their host countries. “There is always the opportunity to place students in the most direct immersion experience,” said Bloch.
AEA programs are open to students from other universities as well as those from Antioch. In fact, said Bloch, out of 147 students enrolled in AEA programs, 116 are from outside Antioch. Antioch has “longstanding agreements” with some institutions with regard to its study-abroad programs. “Antioch is well known in the field of international education. We articulate ourselves into the needs” of other institutions, he said. “Right now the trend is toward international education, and many colleges are unable to offer programs of their own. So they look for the assistance of third parties. They treat us as suppliers of that kind of service.”
Of the eight programs offered by AEA, perhaps the most sought-after and utilized by other institutions is the Buddhist Studies Program in Bodh Gaya, India. Begun in 1979, it is led by Robert Pryor, who divides his time between Bodh Gaya and Yellow Springs. Students participating in this 15-week program examine Buddhism and its impact on several Asian cultures while living and studying in Bodh Gaya, an international pilgrimage center.
Buddhist Studies in Kyoto, Japan, which began in 1999, is also “highly recognized,” said Bloch, noting that it is likely to attract the same number of students next year as the program in India. Students in the 14-week program spend the majority of their time living in Buddhist monasteries studying the Buddhist traditions of Zen, Shingon and Pure Land Buddhism. As in Bodh Gaya, their study includes meditative practices, language and theoretical instruction, and field research. Patricia Masters, a former faculty in the Buddhist Studies program, leads the program.
Other AEA programs include:
• Comparative Women’s Studies in Europe. Directing the program is Professor Penka Skachkova. Begun in 1985, the program provides an opportunity to examine and compare international feminist issues. It includes lectures and discussions with feminist leaders, students, workers, artists and professionals in four European countries.
• Europe in Transition. Formerly known as Urban Term, the pro- gram has been in existence since 1971. Its director is Dr. Manfred McDowell. Participants investigate contemporary social, economic, and political change in Germany, Poland, Hungary and Britain. The program includes interviews and discussions with politicians, business executives, labor unionists and civil- and welfare-rights activists as well as guest lectures, readings and assignments.
• Antioch in Japan. Kyoto Seika University has hosted the Antioch in Japan program, which is directed by Harold Wright, since 1991. Offered in the summer, it provides students the opportunity to learn about the people and institutions of Japan.
Participation in study-abroad programs has increased steadily in recent years, according to Bloch. Two years ago enrollment was at 120; this year it was at 147, and he expects it to increase again next year to at least 170. The cross-cultural requirement implemented in 1993 has contributed to the increase, he said.
Suzanne Kolb, Ph.D., director of the Brazilian Ecosystems program, is a firm believer in the value of in situ learning. “I’m passionate about the program and what it can deliver to students,” she said. Before coming to Antioch two years ago to lead the Brazilian study-abroad program, Kolb’s primary focus was classroom teaching and research. The study-abroad experience is “closer to the lab experience” than the lecture experience. “It’s more spontaneous and improvisational, showing what we should be looking at as we come across it,” she said. “The program is so exciting. It’s such a powerful experience.”
The backbone of the Brazilian Ecosystems program consists of visiting a variety of very different ecosystems. “For each ecosystem, we hit on a range of topics,” said Kolb. She asks students “to look at regional issues, what’s going on and at some of the important questions conservation biologists should be exploring.”
Kolb views students “as the next generation that’s going to contribute to solving the world’s problems,” and her expectations of them while studying abroad reflect this. She is meticulous in her review of their written work and requires students to analyze and discuss the problems they observe in the field. “It’s important to treat them as if they are valid participants in the process of contributing to solutions,” she said.
Students receive scientific training in such things as data collection and plant identification, but they also learn first-hand that “all environmental problems involve people.” They learn that “they can’t remain in an ivory tower if they’re going to solve problems.” They have to work with the people involved. “They can’t just collect data and go home.”
Seth Gordon ’00, who was co-community manager this year, is among the students who have gone on the Brazilian Ecosystems program. One of the things that stood out for him, he said, was the integration of the experiential with the intellectual. “I was taking everything I had learned in the classroom and putting it to use,” he said. “If I get to talk to somebody, and touch something and see it, it brings it alive. To me that’s a much better way to learn” than just through books.
His awareness about people’s relationship to the ecosystem and the connection between seemingly isolated incidents was also heightened by one experience he had while in Brazil. The students visited an old rubber plantation planted 60 years ago as part of a failed experiment by a U.S. automobile manufacturer. All the trees were diseased or dead because of the way in which they had been planted. In the middle of the plantation, Gordon saw an old tractor manufactured in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. That kind of connection, forged 60 years ago and 2,000 miles away, “was really interesting,” said Gordon.
Also revealing for Gordon was the experience of being a stranger in a strange land. “It’s an experience every American needs to have and internalize,” he said. It’s good for you to be the ‘other.’ It’s good to be in a situation where most of what’s said around you, you don’t understand.”
Language preparation begins in some cases before students leave the country; in other cases it begins with an intensive language course once they have arrived in their host countries. Though learning another language is a “fundamentally important part” of the each program, “language is not the exclusive reason why students go abroad,” said Bloch. “In Brazil, for example, it’s really a program in environmental science, so the most important objective is to get experience in working with a Brazilian scientist. Language comes along because the students need language in their studies and research, but it really is a by-product, not a focus.”
The fact that she is a peace studies major drew Amanda Bilecki ’01, who will graduate this April from Antioch, to the Buddhist Studies program in Bodh Gaya, India. She learned enough Hindi as a result of her study abroad term to effectively communicate while doing her field research and while on co-op later at the Tibetan Relief Project in Dharamsala, India. The Hindi she learned will also serve her upon her return to India, which Bilecki hopes will be soon. She wants to continue research on Buddhist folk music, which she began in connection with the study-abroad program.
Students must justify their participation in any study-abroad program – be it through Antioch or another institution – based on their curriculum, said Bloch. “It has to fit into their degree program,” and they have to show how it does before being approved as participants. If they do not study abroad through AEA, the credits they receive through another program must be transferrable.
“I think intentionality in any form of experiential learning is quite important,” said Bloch. “It is important that students are put in the mind-set that they are searching for answers. It helps make them active inquirers. The element of intentionality helps them learn well.”
It does not, however, always lead where expected. Seth Gordon was a self-designed ecology/ biology/anthropology major when he signed up for the Brazilian Ecosystems program. When he returned, he changed his major to anthropology. While in Brazil, Gordon said he realized he was more interested in observing people than in collecting and analyzing biological data. “I wrote more about the relationships I was experiencing” than about the ecosystem, he said. “The experience helped crystallize things for me. It was one of the more relevant experiences of my life.”
Both Bilecki and Gordon say their study-abroad experience helped prepare them for the co-ops they did after completing their respective AEA programs. “With AEA somebody holds your hand as you’re exposed to a new culture,” said Gordon. “If you fall down, there’s somebody to pick you up. Having this focus grounds you.”
After she had begun her co-op in Dharamsala, Bilecki said she “really realized how [AEA experience] had given me a heads-up culturally. I wasn’t thrown into a pot of boiling water,” but was allowed to “ease into it.” Learning about the culture through the AEA structure provided knowledge that came in helpful during her co-op job and also left her with more energy to do it well. “My mind was not always being drained by cultural adjustments,” she said.
Like generations of Antiochians who have gone before, both Gordon and Bilecki say their AEA experience had a profound influence on their lives.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a more transformative period in my life,” said Bilecki. The meditative practice required of students who participate in the program was of particular significance, she said. “It was wholly engaging for me” on both an intellectual and psychological level. “It was very integrative. My whole world, the way I viewed it, the way I thought about things, became illuminated. I felt like I was provided some wonderful tools to confront the problems that kept coming up in my life. Having this type of clarity was transformative.”
Bilecki knows now that her career “has to be something that feeds me and nourishes me.” It can’t be distinct from her private life, but rather part of a continuum. “I can’t separate my life into compartments,” she said.
AEA “changed me as a person,” said Gordon. Before he went to Brazil, he said, he did not have the “fearlessness” characteristic of many Antioch students. When he returned, “I was different: more gregarious, more outgoing, a little more balanced” – and more willing to take risks.
What he learned is that “when you travel, the place doesn’t make a difference. It’s how you react, cope, and how you reflect that makes you different.”
“If you said, ‘Seth, you’re going to Africa,’ I’d say, ‘Okay, give me a little time to pack.’ That’s different than before. And this time, I’d only take one bag. I could go and probably do just fine.”
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