Stepping off a plane in Hanoi, Vietnam, Jacob Schuit instantly thought to himself, “Why did I come here?” He literally knew nothing about Vietnam. All he knew was that the piece of paper he was clutching was the key to getting to his destination.
Thoughts of not knowing anyone or anything filtered through his head while he rode in the back of a cab to a dormitory where he would spend roughly the next four months of his life. By the next day, the uneasiness he felt quickly faded and the experience of studying, living, teaching, and traveling around Vietnam began for Jacob.
Jacob Schuit is one of the many students who studied abroad this last fall quarter through Western Washington University’s International Programs and Exchanges. His story is one of a handful that are interesting, life changing, and motivational for any student who has toyed with the idea of studying abroad.
The International Program and Exchanges (IPE) office is located in College Hall 104. This is generally the first stopping place for anyone who is curious about studying abroad, wants more information about programs offered, financial aid, and any other questions that a student might have in regards to taking their education to various parts of the world.
That’s not all IPE provides for students though. Within their office, there are brochures and pamphlets about international internships, volunteer opportunities, and other informational materials.
Anyone interested simply can go into the IPE office, and speak with one of the peer advisors. There are also head advisors who will help answer questions once the application procedure gets closer to becoming finalized.
According to Richard Bruce, assistant director of the IPE, 280 students studied abroad this last fall quarter with roughly 500 people per year going on study abroad programs or exchanges. Currently, there are 130 international students at Western. He says it’s somewhat rare for there to be more students going out to study abroad than coming in, but Western students have always expressed a lot of interest.
So why do students study abroad anyway? What kind of benefits do students gain from the experience?
Molly Horne-Brine, who studied abroad in Madrid, Spain during fall quarter says, “As cheesy as it sounds, you really do learn a lot about yourself.” Horne-Brine had never traveled outside the U.S., so the study abroad experience was a first for her in a lot of ways.
What brought her to pick Spain as a study abroad destination is because Spanish is her minor. Not only does she feel she learned a lot about herself, but also gained the language skills to feel more comfortable with speaking Spanish in class and other Spanish speaking students.
“In a lot of little ways I have more of a feeling of independence now,” says Horne-Brine. “There were some times where you get nostalgic for home, but then you realize that you have this amazing opportunity right in front of you, so you can’t just dwell on ‘Oh I wish I were home right now.’ I guess becoming more independent in that sense, where you realize what an incredible opportunity you have and taking it for what it’s worth.”
Megan Bedard, an English Literature major, studied abroad in Bangkok, Thailand, over fall quarter for reasons slightly different than Molly. Bedard had very little knowledge of the Thai language. In choosing to study abroad in Thailand she wanted to experience a culture opposite of where she lived.
“I decided to study there because I wanted to throw myself headfirst into something that would be exactly opposite of what I live like here,” says Megan. “I wanted hot hot heat and language barriers and spicy food and new people, and I wanted to be a part of the other side of the world for a while. I wanted to study abroad because I needed that next level in my life, that next off-to-college stage that would make me grow up again.”
Like Horne-Brine, Bedard felt she gained a stronger sense of independence and cultural understanding.
“I learned what it was like to be an outsider,” says Bedard. “I walked into my classroom and was the only white girl, sitting dead center and knowing no one. It was pretty humbling… I had to be independent and resourceful and aware, and I learned that, left to my own devices, I am capable of all three.”
Cameron Harsh, Political science major with a focus in international relations, studied in Nairobi, Kenya, over fall quarter as well. His study abroad experience is another example of how vastly different each individual trip can be. He volunteered in an orphanage for 3 to 4 days, and then attended class late in the evening.
“The best part of the trip was working in the orphanage,” says Harsh. “It was amazing. The kids were so great. There were definitely hard moments when you realize that these kids have what most us would consider a hard life. Most of them were left in bags on the street and then found by someone later.”
“The whole experience of being immersed in another culture was amazing and trying to learn about their culture and also what they think of Americans,” continues Harsh. “A lot of people would ask if I was Republican or Democratic. So I found it really interesting how important American politics were in other countries.”
“Going abroad is an amazing experience that I would recommend to everyone,” says Harsh. “It’s so worthwhile to get out of the United States in so many ways that you appreciate what you have a lot more. You get to hear about their world views, you get to see how other people live, you get to see perspectives in one country and you get to share in another person’s culture.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Seth Fienberg can relay a different side of the study abroad experience. Over winter break, Professor Fienberg led a group of students to Ghana following a class entitled: “Sociology 397: Study Abroad in West Africa.”
“It takes a lot of energy from my point of view,” says Fienberg. “I had to navigate their physical safety and their emotional well-being and their academic experience and their physical health in addition to my own. So in that sense there is a lot of energy involved. But, it’s also very rewarding seeing peoples eyes open right before your eyes, especially knowing that I had a big part in making that happen.”
“I think there is something to be said about seeing thing or experiencing things with your own eyes,” says Fienberg. “I mean you can see a video about there being harmony here or there’s a problem there, but when you’re standing in it and there is sounds and heat and sights— that is going to be with them forever.”
Some students though, don’t go about studying abroad in the “traditional” way. Patrick Hastings, a student in the Human Services program, is required to do an internship for his degree. He had known for a while that he had wanted to live and work in China, so he figured it would be a good opportunity to get relevant work experience. While he had his internship, he took classes online. During his time living in Tianjin, near Beijing, he worked with a school where children had cerebral palsy, in an H.I.V. sexual health education project, and on a few other projects like working in orphanages.
“In a lot of ways it confirmed my calling or the desire I have to go back to China and live there and work there,” says Hasting. “My Chinese improved a great deal too.”
“I learned how to be alone,” said Hasting. “I grew up with four siblings and three other step siblings and I’m an extrovert with a lot of friends. So just learning how to be alone and not be lonely.”
“I think it can help broaden the perspective,” says Patrick. “When you live with people and learn from them and learn to think how they think and see how they think you get such a richer perspective. It puts yourself in perspective and your own culture in perspective.”
Common advice from all these individuals is that if a student is thinking about studying abroad, that he or she should just do it. The application process is not as daunting as it at first seems, and the IPE staff helps ensure that all questions are answered on the student’s behalf.