Study Abroad Programs Educate Students About Life As Well As School
by Brent J. Atema, Student Newswriter
Every year thousands of American college students choose to participate in a study abroad program. Baylor University senior Brent Atema had no idea his life would be so profoundly affected when he chose to study for 10 weeks last summer in Germany. Here is his story:
When I made the decision to take two semesters of German at the University of Wnrzburg, I thought, like many other American college students, that I had a good idea about what to expect and the impact it would have on my life. When I got there I realized that I had much to learn.
The preconceived ideas that I had about Europe and specifically Germany developed as I grew up in American society. Because I never spent any significant time in Germany, I assumed that my perceptions were most likely true. Why not? No one ever taught me about German culture or that my views of the country were not entirely true.
Americans, especially younger generations, have grown up with television and movies as a primary source of information. While television and Hollywood can, at times, facilitate positive learning, they can also fill people's minds with misconceptions and stereotypes. One way students and others can overcome these views and learn about a specific culture, while at the same time learning about themselves, is through study abroad programs.
Jessica King, exchange program and study abroad advisor at Baylor, says that students who study abroad come back more self-confident, independent, slower to pass judgment, and they "understand their culture in contrast to another one." King added that participants in study abroad programs return "knowing who they really are."
While King's statement is not true for every student that studies in another land, it certainly applies/applied to me. From the moment I arrived in Germany, I realized that certain ideas I had about the people and culture were outdated or just plain false, such as all old German being women being strict and mean (even though that can be true at times) and the people of Germany being very punctual (they will be the first to tell someone that is not true). Had I not chosen to study abroad, I would still be someone with thoughts and ideas that do not represent actual German life.
King, who is responsible for the 60-plus programs offered at Baylor, says "when [students] study abroad they are able to tie together a variety of disciplines learned throughout Baylor and see how they apply to their life and other cultures."
Just spending time experiencing another part of the world does not guarantee that a student will be able to understand and accept that culture.
King said that students need to experience foreign customs and traditions by being prepared with an open mind and sincere interest.
A great example from my time in Germany is my visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp. It was established in 1933 and was the first concentration camp in Germany. I had heard a little about Dachau before I visited there. I assumed, because it had a relatively low death count (about 38,000 compared to reportedly over one million at Auschwitz), that it would not be as moving or revealing as some other camps. Whatever views and ideas I had prior to entering Dachau were quickly proven to be false and shallow. On the train from Dachau to Munich I tried to write about my experience while it was still fresh on my mind, here is an edited portion of what I wrote:
Walking around the grounds gave me an uneasy feeling of humility. The experience was very humbling and caused me to reflect on my views of concentration camps and the Holocaust. I felt upset because I thought that I understood, if only slightly, how life at Dachau actually was. I had no clue about the violations and atrocities that occurred in this camp.
Dachau Concentration Camp, a small booklet about the camp, says, "Even today the name Dachau evokes horror. It remains unchanged as a symbol of inhumanity."
While I now knew more about life at a concentration camp, I also realized that I would never be able to fully understand the hell that prisoners had to endure. Adding to the tortures and executions, the detainees were humiliated and given a false sense of hope. A phrase built into the iron of the front gate reads: Arbeit Macht Frei, or "Work Makes You Free".
Just a short visit to Dachau caused me to change the way I look at life and death. One part of the camp in particular was especially moving. It was the wooded, grassy area next to the gas chambers and crematorium. This land was so lush and healthy because it had been fertilized with the ashes of thousands who died at Dachau. It made me appreciate the ability of death to create and nourish new life.
I never would have thought that a three-hour tour of a concentration camp would have affected me so much. However, without an open mind and a thirst for knowledge, I never would have experienced such a life-changing event.
While the study abroad program I chose allowed me experience several different cultures and lifestyles, any study abroad or exchange program will provide students the opportunity to experience something life changing and revealing. With more than 60 programs in two dozen countries, Baylor offers many wide-ranging programs that can facilitate growth in a person's life. The programs include Baylor in East Africa and West Africa, Baylor in Cuba, and Baylor in Italy at the Lorenzo de Medici Art Institute in Florence.
The study abroad and exchange programs department also is sponsoring a "Study Abroad Photo Contest" Nov. 13-21 to showcase many of the programs offered at Baylor and the students who participated in them. Entries will be taken until Oct. 7. Forms are available in the study abroad office and the second floor of Poage library.
King also offers some advice and information on a regular basis for anyone thinking about studying abroad. Interested students can attend information sessions every Monday and Tuesday at 4 p.m. in room 201B in the Poage Library.
Finally, King said the most important thing for any student interested in exchange or study abroad programs is to "just go." This is advice I was given and I think students should do exactly that, JUST GO.