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Cal students head overseas in record numbers

– Cal Parents chairs Jon and Gail Folan just said goodbye to their youngest daughter, Cameron, a Berkeley junior who's off to see the world.

Education Abroad Program works to ensure student safety

Cameron has long considered study abroad to be an integral part of her education, said Jon. "More and more, students begin planning from their freshmen year to go abroad as juniors. Our daughter Carli also spent a semester abroad. She went to the U.K. with Berkeley's Education Abroad Program to study performing arts."

While not a UC Berkeley program, Cameron's "Semester at Sea" program helps meet a rising need among students who want to add an international dimension to their Berkeley curricula.

In a world that seems increasingly scary, wouldn't you think students would just stay home?

 Students on Madrid plaza
Students on the historic Plaza Mayor in Madrid. (EAP Photo/Leticia Sotelo)

Apparently not. Jan Kieling, assistant director of Berkeley's Education Abroad Program (EAP), says Berkeley students are applying to study abroad in record numbers. More than 620 Berkeley students studied in foreign countries in 2002-03, up from 495 the previous academic year. An estimated 800 students are expected to go abroad in 2003-04. That's only the enrollment in programs that Berkeley sponsors. And that's despite outbreaks of SARS in China, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, tensions with North Korea, and international terrorism.

Indeed, far from dissuading students from traveling, these momentous world events seem to have sparked student interest in the international scene. Nicole Roberts, a Spanish major, wanted to live in another country and could hardly believe she'd earn units for it. Never outside the U.S. before, she snapped up the chance to go to the Carlos II Study Center in Madrid in spring 2003.

Marshal Holmes is a first-generation college student from Georgia who enrolled at Diablo Valley Community College, then transferred to Berkeley. His interest in Japanese culture and history took him to Japan for the 2002-03 academic year.

One-quarter Italian, Christina Buonaccorsi's heritage is her incentive for studying in Italy this spring. She wants to speak Italian with relatives there whom she has never met, she said. "How can you pass up such an amazing opportunity to travel and meet people?"

Culture shock

As eager as they are for adventure, Berkeley students can find aspects of studying abroad a bit daunting once they arrive.

Kieling said that EAP prepares students for their new environments with one to three pre-departure orientation sessions at Berkeley as well as on-site orientation, in which students are told how to use the banks and telephones, where the Internet hookups are, and something of the customs of their new cultures.

Small differences can fall below the orientation radar, though. Nicole had trouble at first finding street signs, which she expected to be on signposts. "In Madrid they are painted on the sides of buildings," she said.

Wanting to get the full cultural experience of living in Spain, Nicole opted to live with a Spanish family, a woman and her 24-year-old daughter, neither of whom spoke English.

"It forced me to speak Spanish," she said. "We shared our cultures-watched TV together and asked each other questions."

The homestay carried its own perplexities; Nicole said her Spanish mother "always put mayonnaise on lasagna and expected us to put it on everything. She didn't understand why we didn't want it."

Wadaiko performance at ICU
Wadaiko drummers perform at International Christian University in Tokyo during the university's cultural festival. Several EAP students are part of the Wadaiko club. (EAP photo)

The challenges of a new culture are compounded for students visiting non-Western countries. Marshal spent his year abroad at the International Christian University in Tokyo, one of several UC study centers in Japan. His spoken language skills were good when he arrived, but his reading knowledge was nonexistent. "I was illiterate," he said. "I couldn't read Kanji, the Chinese characters. I was often lost because I couldn't read the street signs. I didn't know how to pay bills, didn't understand the banking system-in Japan you pay your rent directly into the landlord's bank account."

Part of culture shock is not knowing the conventional forms of protocol and etiquette in social settings. Marshal found that it is considered impolite to pour wine into your own glass, for instance. "Somebody else pours your wine and you pour someone else's," he said. "You learn differences among polite, professional, and informal languages. I learned them all by the time I left."

Blending in

EAP encourages students going abroad to try not to look too American. Nicole took this advice to heart. "I tried to blend in. Spanish students dress nicer than we do; I had to buy new clothes. No one wears sweats on the street, no flip flops. They wear leather shoes and pointy boots in winter, skirts and pants, very very tight jeans, scarves, real fur coats, floor length." She added with a laugh, "There are no animal rights groups in Spain."

Nicole was in Spain when the Iraq war broke out and reported lots of anti-war protests in the center of Madrid. Blending in became a matter of safety. "The program director told us to stay away from the protests and not to say anything. I wasn't at all worried. The Spanish government is our ally even if the Spanish people were so against the war."

Caucasian students traveling to non-Caucasian countries don't have the option of blending in.

Like Nicole, Marshal was abroad at the beginning of the Iraq war, and found that he really stood out in Tokyo. "The Japanese prime minister supported Bush on Iraq, but the people didn't understand what we were doing, and there were lots of protests from the general population outside the American consulate," he said. But he never felt personally threatened as an American.

Culture shock does diminish as students become adept in navigating their new environments. Marshal thought that that was a good reason to stay the entire year rather than a single semester. "After six months I hit a low point," he said. "It got cold, I wasn't home for Christmas, classes were hard. I thought it was important to stay through that period and come out on the other side."

And he did. "By the end of my stay I thought, I can't believe where I was a year ago. Even with the ups and downs, this was one of the coolest things I've ever done."

Kieling says that one of the most important things that Berkeley students take away from their experiences abroad is a change in attitude about what it means to be an American. She noticed it for herself when she went abroad as an undergraduate to Padua, Italy, during the Vietnam war.

"I saw myself from another point of view," she said. "European students had a lot to say about Vietnam. I didn't realize how complicated it is to be an American because we have such a big shadow in the world. It was humbling . . . . I became more critical of U.S. foreign policy and also more appreciative of our freedom. I also realized that I wanted an international component in my work."

She added, "It's important to get American students out of their comfort zones and see that there are other ways of doing things that are just as valid. Any student on EAP would say the same thing."