Vassar Today

Exploring the Global Campus

By Samantha Soper '91

At a recent lecture sponsored by the University of Southern California Center for Global Education, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated, “It is important for American students to learn other languages, experience foreign cultures, and develop a broad understanding of global issues.” Vassar undergrads seem to agree. Student interest in studying at foreign universities has always been popular at Vassar: typically one-third of a class will leave campus for at least one semester of their junior year — and the numbers are steadily rising. But it isn’t only the traveling students who benefit from this program; the knowledge, experience, and confidence they bring back to the campus enhance classroom discussions as well as personal relationships.

Leaving behind the comfort of friendships, a familiar campus, and often one’s native language can be overwhelming. But for some students, these very challenges have led to personal growth and increased self-confidence. Melissa Langdell ’03 found herself embarking on an adventure, more “foreign” than anticipated. Just one month before boarding a plane to study overseas, Langdell changed her destination from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, due to Argentina’s uncertain economy. “The first thing I thought was, ‘This is so much harder than Vassar,’ in terms of the day-to-day life rather than academics,” said the international studies major. “I missed the campus life and student involvement beyond the classroom. I wasn’t involved in as many clubs [in Santiago] besides a local church youth group. Also, she noted, “being obviously American was frustrating at times, but I found it helpful in some ways because it was an experience I hadn’t had before: how do you deal with being an outsider and how do you deal with xenophobia?”

Although Lillian Kennett ’03 spent a year in more familiar territory — at English-speaking Lady Margaret Hall College at Oxford University — there were still some significant academic differences. “I was entranced by the tutorial system,” Kennett said, noting that her largest class consisted of two students. “I think Vassar teaches you to be engaged and fully participate in your classes, but there is something about having to defend your work one-on-one that was really attractive. I think it really helps you grow intellectually….Vassar gave me excellent preparation — good solid analytical skills that allowed me to succeed at Oxford. And that experience in turn is feeding back into my experience at Vassar.”

Also in England, Ethalie Aruoture ’03, a British citizen who spent her childhood in Liverpool, England, studied at University College London. Aruoture, too, enjoyed the challenge of self-motivated academia. “The classes are a lot larger, but the [teachers] don’t hold your hand,” she said. “They give you a book list for each lecture, but they don’t tell you which books to read when. I liked the independence of thought. Now back at Vassar, I find myself reading more closely. Here, when a professor mentions a point or suggests you read a specific chapter, you tend to start looking at it from that point of view — to be guided in that way. I find that when I go to class now, my professor might say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about that’ or ‘That’s a good point that nobody’s mentioned before.’”

Friends of Tim Shea '03
Friends of Tim Shea '03

Tim Shea ’03 snapped a photo of friends he met while touring a village near Hà Nôi.

Besides increasing their independent thinking, Junior Year Abroad (JYA) students often get a chance to examine areas of study that aren’t available at Vassar. For history major Tim Shea ’03, studying in Vietnam offered an opportunity to explore a very personal subject as well as further his academic career. “Vietnam has always been a special interest of mine; I had an uncle who died early in the war and another who served much later,” said Shea. When he mentioned to people familiar with Vietnam (mainly war veterans) that he was going there, they’d often reply, “Why the hell are you going to Vietnam?” “Going in,” Shea explained, “I had this image of Vietnam as barren and devastated by the war, and I was primarily an historian of the Vietnam War as defined by the parameters of 1960 to 1975. You think of Vietnam as a war, not a place. But when I got over there, I fell in love with Vietnam as a country….The courses I took were about the Vietnamese economy and political culture. Courses about the history of Vietnam touched on the war, but a lot of what we talked about was French colonialism.”

Another main reason students travel abroad is to see first-hand the theories they have been studying. Jenna Wilkinson ’03 spent her fall semester in Africa. “Ghana is often cited as both a success story and a failure for International Monetary Fund stabilization packages, and as far as development goes, there has been a lot of debate about it. So I wanted to see for myself.”

And seeing for themselves not only enhances students’ knowledge of a subject matter; it can also enrich the Vassar classes to which those students return. Shea is currently in a development economics course. “You can talk about development, you can look at economic figures, and you can read anecdotes, but I don’t think I’d understand the full sense of it if I hadn’t been in Vietnam. I have taken a totally different view of economic development. I don’t profess to know everything, but just to have a personal experience and connection makes that class a lot more interesting.” Wilkinson agreed, “[Studying abroad] brought a different focus to my seminars. I can speak with a little bit more authority on how people outside of the U.S. actually view this country, particularly from a West African standpoint.”

Jenna Wilkinson '03
Jenna Wilkinson '03

Jenna Wilkinson ’03 explores Kakum Nature Park, just north of Cape Coast in Ghana.

Equally important as the intellectual stimulation and growth is the global awareness and cultural exchange that all JYA students experience. Mark Drury ’03, an Africana studies and French double major, spent one year in Africa — fall semester in Morocco and spring in Madagascar. “I think language was something that made me very nervous beforehand,” he recalled. “But maybe the most rewarding part was learning Moroccan Arabic and Malagasy. I found communicating with people while not using the language of their colonizer (France) made it easier to get through to people.”

In Italy, meanwhile, Miguel Peschiera ’03 — a Peruvian who spent his childhood in the U.S. — started to feel like a native in Bologna. “Living in a dorm with Italian students, I learned what Italian food was on the cheap and got to know the city very well,” he said.

Miguel Peschiera ’03
Miguel Peschiera ’03

Miguel Peschiera ’03 spent his semester exploring Italy.

But what about Vassar? When students go abroad, do they miss anything about it? “Vassar professors are more accessible,” claimed Peschiera. “In Italy the professors are seen as godly. I had one class with 150 students, and the professor only offered one office hour a week. Some professors even live out of town and only offer office hours at their houses.” Drury added, “I realized that the courses at Vassar are so good. It is a different kind of education abroad — experiential, taken from daily life — but for me the classes weren’t nearly as inspiring.”

Despite cultural difficulties, different academic structures, and language barriers, JYA students wholeheartedly recommend the experience to underclassmen. “I think everyone should be required to leave campus for at least one semester — even if it’s not out of the country,” said Shea. Langdell completed that thought: “The thing that helped me the most was just physically getting away from my life at Vassar. It helped me redefine my academic and personal goals, my direction as a person.”

Armed with this fresh perspective, students often return with a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation for Vassar. Wilkinson said, “I was eager to start embarking on the rest of my life and [to consider] how I could come back to Ghana in a more effective capacity.” For Aruoture’s part, “I am seeing Vassar with fresh eyes. I remember coming back to Vassar before junior year, seeing Main Gate, and thinking, ‘Oh, back here again.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t like Vassar — I love Vassar — but it was just ‘the usual.’ After JYA, I was excited, but also a little scared because I had changed and I wondered how Vassar had changed. I re-experienced a little freshman insecurity, but it ended within days.”