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Study-Abroad Program Gives Students Clearer Picture of the World

July 30, 2004

By Jane Ford

Matthew Whiting found something more than he expected in a study-abroad program.

“An eye-opening experience,” he said.

DIS picnicWhiting, an American politics and psychology major, spent the spring semester at Denmark’s International Study Program in Copenhagen. At a DIS picnic (right) for students, host families, faculty and staff just before the end of the semester, Whiting said he was attracted by the program’s reputation for academic integrity, small classes and the size of the city. What Whiting hadn’t realized, he said, was that the experience would expand his views about government and society’s relationship to the individual.

Visits to both an open and closed prison with his Scandinavian Criminal Justice class provided Whiting a perspective of incarceration that was very different from the American system.

The Danish prison systems emphasize normalization. To help prepare inmates for re-entry into society, they are in charge of their own laundry, and they live and cook in groups with access to kitchen utensils, even knives.

The experience impressed Whiting, who grew up in what he described as “predominantly conservative Northern Virginia.”

“Everything is not as black and white [to me] now as it was,” he said.

Visiting the prison “made me realize you need to take many aspects into account and to appreciate the Danish social welfare system, where the government works to benefit everyone.”

Anders Uhrskor, director of DIS, said he tells the students at orientation that DIS is not about “just bringing the classroom to Europe, but making Europe a classroom.”
Europe and Denmark deal with many of the same issues in society, politics and international relations as the United States but often with different solutions. “We have different answers to the same questions. Learning about those differences makes you more qualified to make up your own mind,” Uhrskor said.

Field studies, like Whiting’s class visit to the prison, provide hands-on access to leaders and their ideas in most classes throughout the curriculum. Depending on the class and the student’s area of concentration, students might visit the Danish Parliament for discussions with leading members, the Central Bank of Denmark to learn about international finance from a European perspective, Scandinavian Airlines for a perspective on the European business environment, or the headquarters of the European Union, whose growing political and financial influence is being felt worldwide.

A Nordic Mythology class exposes students to what it was like in 900 A.D. to live at the Trellenborg Viking Fortress. Trips to see 20th-century Danish architecture provide a unique view of contemporary suburban housing for those studying architecture.

Students at DIS have a wide range of classes to choose from in 10 programs — humanities and social sciences, politics of the European Union, international business and economics, architecture and design, science and health, marine biology and ecology, molecular biology and genetics, medical practice and policy, nursing in Scandinavia, and child development and diversity. Classes are offered during the academic year as well as in the summer.

Both field studies and regular classes are taught in English by academics; leaders in research, government and business; and practitioners in professions such as law, architecture and medicine.

McIntire School of Commerce major Carrie Lawrence said she appreciates the exposure to the experiences and viewpoints of the professionals.

“They bring a different perspective from the real world. They make the material more relevant,” Lawrence said.

That is the intended goal of the DIS program, according to Niels Gottlieb, director of academic administration and humanities. In designing each area of study, he tries to answer the question: “How can students meet reality? How can we expose them to reality, not just books?”

Economics major Benjamin Yaeger selected courses in European politics and culture to complement his major. For each of his classes he was required to write a 10-page paper that focused on independent research and emphasized critical thinking skills. Yaeger spent many hours in the Royal Library, one of the many DIS-affiliated institutions in Copenhagen.

Current events played a large role in his cases in the European Union and Russia under Putin. The Russian presidential election and the enlargement of the European Union both took place last spring, and his professors were often the experts quoted on the news for the Danish viewpoint.

“It was an exciting time to be in Europe,” he said, and added that the experience would add immeasurably to his skills in a global world.

The popularity of courses about the European Union has prompted DIS to organize related courses into a European Union Politics Program. The new concentration is timely, Gottlieb said. “With the formation and expansion of the EU there is a renewed American interest in Europe as a competitor, rival and partner. It’s a new Europe, which is now larger than America.”

U.Va., a longtime partner with DIS, has sent students since 1973 to study in the program. The greatest numbers study architecture, international business/economics and the humanities. DIS works with partner institutions to create courses that complement their curriculums.

This summer, nine nursing students studied at a pilot DIS program, offered in cooperation with the Copenhagen School of Nursing; and one Curry School of Education student, majoring in communication disorders, will join the child development and diversity program in spring 2005.

Clay Hysell, assistant dean for graduate student services at the U.Va. School of Nursing, is excited about the new relationship with DIS. Students are exposed to the theory and practice of nursing from the perspective of Scandinavia’s social welfare system, which provides a “nice comparison to what they see in Charlottesville,” he said.

Although the immersion in academics is challenging and intense, there is ample time for socializing and fun.

Program-related study tours, which last three to seven days and offer an academic, cultural and political look at cities in both Denmark and Europe, often take students beyond Denmark and are an integral part of the DIS program. A tour to Russia gave the students an inside look at the country since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The tour included visits to the Hermitage, Catherine’s Summer Palace, Lenin’s tomb, dozens of churches and out-of-the-way places inaccessible to most tourists, as well as exposure to a society in rapid change.

“Russia felt very foreign, particularly after Denmark. There were two armed guards at McDonalds,” Whiting said.

What could be more eye-opening than that?

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