A whole new world: Study abroad programs experience a strong year

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Tending to tortoises at a nature preserve in Ecuador, exploring the performing arts in London’s famed West End, playing with children at an orphanage in Mumbai.

Three years after the Covid-19 pandemic brought international study programs to a near halt, Union students have immersed themselves in these activities and more while living and learning in countries around the world.

“I am having the time of my life in the Galápagos,” wrote Keerthi Konda ’23, a Leadership in Medicine student who volunteered on habitat conservation projects on the remote Ecuadorian archipelago as a Union Klemm Fellow last fall.

She spoke of feeding tortoises at the Galapaguera nature reserve; monitoring sea lions, iguanas and birds at the beach; and painting murals at a high school to raise awareness about the rich biodiversity on the islands.

Students are pictured on an archaeological dig in Populonia, Italy.

Students are pictured on an archaeological dig in Populonia, Italy.

“It’s been a great year,” said Lara Atkins, director of International Programs. “After such a sustained period of restricted global travel, it’s been gratifying to see our students making the most of opportunities to interact with others from different cultures.”

Indeed, Union’s study abroad programs have rebounded strongly, many with a renewed emphasis on experiential learning.

Last summer, for instance, the Populonia mini-term known as U-Dig debuted in the ancient Etruscan city in Tuscany, Italy. Led by Tommaso Gazzarri, assistant professor of classics, the program combined a full immersion in Italian culture with basic techniques of a professional archaeological excavation.

Working alongside members of an Italian team, students spent three weeks on the excavation of the Roman Villa Poggio del Mulino The mini-term also included an Etruscology course taught by Gazzarri; ceramic, Roman glass and physical anthropology labs; and sessions devoted to graphic documentation and 3d modeling, all at the excavation site.

Also for the first time, students on the program in Rennes, France, took a six-day excursion to the cities of Rabat-Salé and Marrakech in Morocco.

“It was a thrilling addition to our term,” said Charles Batson, professor of French and Francophone Studies. “We had two Moroccan students join us for the entire time, and our students met and spoke in French with families and other people with diverse experiences and origins, including migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. We returned to France enriched by our experiences with Morocco’s contributions to world cultures.”

Students and Professor Charles Batson are pictured in Morocco.

Professor of French and Francophone Studies Charles Batson and students immersed themselves in Moroccan culture as part of their term abroad in Rennes, France.

Physics major Will Grimwood ’24, who is from New Zealand, spent the term in Greece, waking up in the Athenian suburb of Pangrati. “If, like me, you are an Athens-based classicist, the archeological sites are hard to beat, including the Agora, Hadrian’s Library and the Acropolis itself,” he said.

Eighty-seven students, most accompanied by Union faculty, went abroad in the fall, typically the busiest season for Union’s international programs. That number is somewhat lower than pre-pandemic years, although other factors, including China and Russia being off-limits, impacted participation.

Economics and computer science major Ryo Hashimoto ’24 was an exchange student at the Institute of Scientific Economics and Management (IÉSEG) in Lille, France. His courses in financial accounting and reporting, organizational behavior, supply chain management and capital markets aligned with his career goals and will be valuable when he interns at the Bank of America as an investment analyst this summer.

The exchange wasn’t solely about economics, however. With France being one of the world’s top wine-producing countries, Hashimoto also enjoyed taking a class in French wine and champagne. “This experience not only expanded my knowledge of the local culture and language, but it also allowed me to connect with my classmates and professors on a personal level,” he said.

Biology major Caitlin Williams ’23, who plans to pursue advanced studies in study freshwater ecosystems after she graduates, spent the fall in Australia with support from the Chelsea Leigh Cobb Class of 2008 Term Abroad Fellowship.

“My term abroad helped me realize that I am capable of taking on challenges and adapting to new environments,” Williams said.

Students on the fall term program to Cordoba, Argentina, with William Garcia, professor of Spanish and Hispanic studies, learned about the harvesting of salt on a visit to the Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s salt flats. They also saw the geological wonder known as the Mountains of Seven Colors in Purmamarca.

Amy Aranda ’24, a double major in Spanish and sociology, said her Argentinian experience improved her Spanish skills, sense of independence and appreciation for life’s everyday moments. “We tend to get so tangled with reality, school, work or what our future will be when we should be focused what’s in front of us, which is exactly what I did in Argentina,” she said.

During winter break, 129 students went on three-week mini-terms to Egypt, England (London), India, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain (Cordoba).

Laurie Tyler, professor of chemistry, accompanied the students on the mini-term in India, where travel to nine cities shed light on the country’s politics, heritage, history and culture. In Mumbai, where a story in a local newspaper heralded their visit, the group brought funds they had raised for St. Catherine’s, officially called the Welfare Society for Destitute Children. They also donated clothes, school supplies and toiletries, and learned firsthand about child labor, homelessness, hunger and education efforts.

Paige Kent ’23 was part of the New Zealand mini-term, which focused on renewable energy, natural resources, volcanology and earthquakes, and Māori culture and practices. “Going abroad has shown me the power of independence and going with the flow,” Kent said.

For Abby Smith ’23, an English major, the London theater term was eye-opening.

“I have always enjoyed engaging with theater, but never I felt so impacted by it as on this term,” Smith said. “Seeing productions like ‘The Doctor,’ ‘Orlando’ and ‘Baghdaddy’ have shaped my concepts of identity and purpose, and have truly changed the way I engage with the world.”

Dan Venning, professor of theater, led the London term. “The chance to see so many shows in one of the leading theatrical centers of the world is extraordinary, as is the chance to get to know some of Union’s very best students in a relatively short but intense course,” Venning said.

This spring, typically a quieter time for Union’s study abroad programs because of the term’s many on-campus activities, 28 students have been living and studying in Germany and Italy. Come summer, students will go on the NHS (National Health Systems) program, which looks at several countries’ global healthcare systems and public health policies. And in the fall, the greatest number of Union students will once again embark on programs in multiple continents.

“Despite recent disruptions, complexities and ongoing challenges that are a reality in today’s world, studying abroad continues to be one of the defining experiences of a Union education,” Atkins said.