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Fernando Opere
Fernando Opere founded one of U.Va.'s oldest sponsored study abroad programs at the University of Valencia.

U.Va. seeks to bolster study abroad

By Charlotte Crystal

Living in a foreign country, speaking the language, eating the food, seeing the sights and making new friends opens students' minds like nothing else on earth, say U.Va. faculty members who run language study abroad programs for the College of Arts & Sciences.

Students return to their university programs in the United States not only more comfortable using other languages but also more mature, more tolerant of differences and more understanding of the world, said Fernando Opere, professor of Spanish and director of the Hispanic Studies Program.

Opere founded the University's foreign study program in Valencia, Spain, in 1984, making it the oldest of seven U.Va.-sponsored programs and, if numbers are any indication -- more than 5,000 students from across the U.S. have participated in it -- the most successful.

"My son called it a 'magic year,'" said Opere, whose son, Philip, spent time in Valencia before graduating from U.Va. last spring.

Fourteen students, 13 from U.Va. and one from the College of William & Mary, participated in the University's Lima, Peru, study abroad program in 1998. Several of the students went on a tour of Machu Picchu, these ancient Inca ruins, with Jorge Secada, director of the U.Va. program and associate professor of philosophy.

Students who study abroad may not be the top language students when they arrive, said William McDonald, professor of German, but they tend to be very motivated individuals who get out and meet people and don't worry about making grammatical mistakes when they speak. McDonald supervises two foreign study programs, one in Dortmund, in western Germany, and the other in Jena, in the former East Germany.

In addition to classes on grammar, composition and conversation, most of the U.Va. programs offer classes in other fields, such as literature, culture and civilization.

The Fall Semester-in-India program in Jodhpur, for example, offers language classes for students at the 1st-, 2nd- or 3rd-year levels, and a course on Indian culture and civilization; it also requires students to complete an independent research project. The U.Va. program, which has operated in Jodhpur for the past six years, is jointly administered with Emory University, and builds on an earlier program run by the U.Va. Department of Religious Studies, according to Daniel Ehnbom, professor of art and director of the Center for South Asian Studies.

The summer program at the Universidad Catolica del Peru in Lima, along with language classes, offers classes on liberation theology, Peruvian history (pre-Incan to the 20th century), Andean and Amazonic anthropology, and business Spanish. The Peruvian program offers only the language classes in Spanish; the other classes are taught in English to enable non-Spanish majors from other departments to participate in the program, said Jorge Secada, professor of philosophy who directs the Lima program. While students live with Peruvian families, English-speaking host families can be arranged, he said.

William Quandt, the newly appointed vice provost for international affairs, would like to establish new English-language programs overseas in an effort to encourage even more U.Va. students to study abroad.

Only about 16 percent of U.Va. students currently pursue for-credit study abroad, well behind U.Va.'s peer institutions, according to the Virginia 2020 International Commission. One of the commission's goals is to boost that figure to 80 percent by 2020, and Quandt hopes to push it to about 30 percent over the next five years.

Increasing the number of U.Va. students who study abroad will require nothing less than an institutional cultural change, Quandt believes. "We need to make study abroad a cultural expectation around Grounds," he said.

But along with a cultural shift must be other changes that make it easier for students to sign up for foreign study and easier for U.Va. faculty to administer such programs, Quandt said. First among the needs is improved information, and upgrading the International Studies Office Web pages, which is now under way, should help.

For their part, faculty program directors speak of being personally overextended, without adequate financial resources or administrative support.

"Valencia is my second job," said Opere, who noted that he dug into his pocket to cover the administrative costs -- including telephone, postage and travel -- in the early years of setting up and running the program.

Now, because of the large number of students attending the Valencia program, there is enough of a revenue stream to support Liz Wellbeloved-Stone, assistant director of the Hispanic Studies Program at U.Va., along with two administrators in Valencia and other program costs.

Mohammed Sawaie, professor of Arabic who directs the summer language program in Irbid, Jordan, has secured successive U.S. Department of Education grants -- $50,000 over three years -- for program support. Even so, the University is supposed to share administrative responsibilities, which he said has proved difficult to arrange.

The challenges of running successful language study abroad programs are many. They involve handling administrative details on the U.S. end as well as logistical matters on the other end. Janet Horne, a professor of French who is currently in France to help smooth operations of the new U.Va.-run undergraduate program in Lyon, said students need help with everything from enrolling in French university classes to renting an apartment, connecting a phone, obtaining health insurance and just generally getting accustomed to life in a foreign city.

The French program has arranged with a professor in Lyon, a former Fulbright scholar in the U.S., to provide part-time help to U.S. students, while the German program depends on colleagues at the German universities who informally provide a friendly face and a helping hand to American students.

"Institutions don't run programs, people run programs," noted Opere.

Karen Ryan, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, faces additional challenges in administering a semester-long program in Kazan, Russia. Students, who need at least two years of Russian to apply, fly to Moscow then take a 12-hour train ride to Kazan, which lies on the Volga River about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. Students live with friendly families whose homes may not always have hot water during the below-zero winters.

Students attending the summer program in Jordan don't have to worry about freezing temperatures, but they do face other cultural challenges.

Western women entering a conservative Muslim society for the first time have a lot of adjustments to make in a culture that restricts women's dress and movements, said Sawaie. He has compiled an extensive handbook for students, including such common-sense tips for women as "How to Avoid Unwanted Attention." Other language programs likewise offer students help in navigating new cultural waters to make their stays, while eye-opening, as pleasant as possible.

Despite the programs' differences, directors agree that nearly all students who study abroad come home transformed in some way. The experience catapults many students into serious academic careers in the field. Or it may encourage them to continue building their language skills and seek international careers. Or they may return to the country to work for nonprofit organizations, to volunteer or to teach.

The foreign study programs don't only benefit the students who go abroad, faculty directors say. The students who go overseas often establish friendships with people of other countries, allowing foreigners to get to know Americans personally, creating a kind of informal diplomacy. They raise the visibility of the University of Virginia, which helps to recruit foreign students who may have been familiar only with Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Exchange programs also bring foreign students to the University to study and gain insight into the American mind and the American perspective, while sharing their own views in class. They serve as teaching assistants in language classes and may even supervise language dorms. They enrich the intellectual life here at U.Va.

The experience may never appeal to everyone, but Quandt believes many more students could benefit from study abroad than currently participate. Even Thomas Jefferson, who lived in France from 1784-89, first as a commissioner of trade and then as minister, managed to squeeze a foreign experience into his busy life.

U.Va.šs foreign language study programs
Year Place Language Length Number of students (cumulative)
1983 Valencia, Spain Spanish summer, semester, year 5,000
1984 Irbid, Jordan Arabic summer 400
1995 Jodhpur, India Hindi semester 90
1995 Kazan, Russia Russian summer, semester, year 40
1996 Lima, Peru Spanish summer 50
1996 Dortmund, Germany German semester, year 10
1996 Jena, Germany German semester, year 15
2000 Lyon, France French semester, year 10

 


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