Hamilton Cook '12 came to Brandeis to pursue his interest in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. During high school, a world history class sparked Cook's interest in Islam and the societies and cultures that practice it. When a ski accident left him unable to walk or attend school for six months, he kept himself occupied by studying a new language: Arabic.
"The language just drew me in like a hook in a fish's mouth," he said. "I just kept studying it on my own, and then I wanted to study it in college."
Having traveled to the Middle East as a volunteer in Oman during high school, Cook knew from the beginning that he wanted to study abroad during college. The summer after his freshman year, he studied Arabic in Amman, Jordan, at an academy run by Islamic scholars. As fall semester 2010 drew to a close, he was preparing for what will perhaps be his biggest adventure yet in the Arab world — a semester studying Arabic and classical Islamic philosophy and theology at the American University of Beirut. Cook is one of over 150 Brandeis juniors preparing to go abroad during spring semester.
In a rapidly globalizing world, more U.S. students than ever before are opting to make international study part of their college educations. Seeking to improve their language abilities, apply the skills they have learned in the classroom to the real world, or even just experience another culture, these students set out on adventures that often transform their perspectives and expose them to ways of life they would never otherwise experience.
Assistant Dean of Academic Services J. Scott Van Der Meid, the Director of Study Abroad, has seen enormous changes in the number of students who choose to study abroad since he started working at Brandeis 12 years ago. Back then, 19 percent of the junior class went abroad during the academic year. Two years ago, the number of juniors studying abroad hit a record high of 45 percent. In addition, the number of students going abroad in the summer has doubled, and the numbers pursuing internships and doing research abroad also has increased dramatically.
Van Der Meid isn't surprised.
"Study abroad is an opportunity for students to take what they are learning in the classroom and apply some real-world experience," he said. "Putting yourself in a different setting allows you to learn not only about a different culture and worldview, but also a lot about yourself."
Jamie Fleishman '11 echoes these sentiments when describing his experiences during a semester in Beijing, China, on the CET Academic Programs intensive Chinese language semester. Besides substantially improving his ability to speak Mandarin Chinese, Fleishman also found China to be a place of reflection on his own society.
Study abroad "makes you not only learn about the other culture, but it also a lot about your own," he said. "When you're put in this different environment with a lot of people who are different from you, it makes you realize in many ways who you are. There are a lot of intangible benefits in terms of personal growth, personal development, and a sense of independence."
For these reasons, Fleishman feels that the most important knowledge students can gain from studying abroad is not simply cultural or linguistic, but also personal.
"I think a lot of people go abroad and they expect to come to become proficient in another language and really knowledgeable about another culture and history," he said, "but they don't realize that they're going to come back so much more well-versed in themselves, too."
Molly Schneider '11 had a similarly transformative experience during the summer of 2010 when she participated in the SIT "Peace and Conflict Studies in the Lake Victoria Basin" program in Uganda and Rwanda. Strongly grounded in experiential learning, the program exposed Schneider to the cultures of Uganda and Rwanda by placing her with local host families and in classes that were taught by a constantly rotating group of local people — professors, doctors, NGO workers, senators and
Schneider, who is a double major in Sociology and African and African American Studies, with a minor in Social Justice and Social Policy, felt the two countries in which she studied were excellent locations to learn about conflict and peace. Both have long histories of war and internal strife, and are still grappling with how to peacefully move forward.
According to BBC News, Northern Uganda has been the site of a 20-year anti-government rebellion by the Lord's Resistance Army, a religious and military group that demands Uganda be ruled according to the Ten Commandments. In Rwanda in 1994, extremist nationalism among people of the Hutu ethnic group led to the systematic murder of ethnic minority Tutsi. Known today as the Rwandan Genocide, this violence took the lives of 800,000 men, women, and children, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
While studying abroad, Schneider was forced to face the legacy of war and violence on a daily basis. She and the other students were constantly encouraged to get to know local people and hear their stories, and to visit key historical sites.
For Schneider, one powerful and disturbing moment was when she visited a mausoleum beneath a church in Rwanda, which served as a mass grave for 40,000 people killed in the genocide. Descending via a narrow earthen passageway, Schneider found herself surrounded by shelves upon shelves of bones.
"It was just overwhelming," she said. "It just hits you: the numbers of people who were killed. I went back to my house and cried."
Though emotionally stressful at times like this, Schneider found her experience studying abroad very rewarding. "I became more aware of my abilities, my strengths, and my weaknesses," she said. "I came to know more about how I can adapt to different situations."
Back at Brandeis, she feels that her experiences abroad have allowed her to contribute more in class. Study abroad "enhances your ability to participate in the classroom when you have experience to draw on," she said.
From Fleishman's and Schneider's glowing appraisals of their experiences, it is clear that they chose study abroad programs that were well suited to their interests and academic goals. According to Van Der Meid, this is key: Students need to consider how study abroad will work with both their academic and personal goals. He recommends that students who want to study abroad first start by thinking about what they're doing at Brandeis and what topics they'd like to explore overseas. In addition, they should consider the kind of setting in which they would like for study abroad — a traditional classroom or an internship-based program, for example — and whether they want to study in English or in another language.
On the personal level, he suggests that they consider what kind of city they would like to be in, whether they would like to live in a dormitory or with a host family, and how integrated they would like to be in the local community.
Van Der Meid also stresses that the Office of Study Abroad can and regularly does help students make decisions about study abroad and addresses any concerns or fears about studying abroad they might have.
"We really see ourselves in some ways as an advising hub," he said, "but not the only source of information. We also try to provide students with other sources of information so they can make an informed decision that will work for them."
When choosing his study abroad program, Hamilton Cook considered many of the factors Van Der Meid recommends students take into account. Deeply interested in classical Islam and its philosophy, Cook wanted to know what destination would be best for his academic career. His professors recommended Lebanon because the American University of Lebanon has a very strong program in Classical Islamic Studies and the classical Arabic language.
However, Cook wondered if there might be a destination farther from the glitz and glamour of Beirut, often called the Paris of the Middle East, where he could live in and experience an Islamic culture more in touch with its traditions and past. Many people pointed him to Morocco.
"Morocco — its architecture, its rural society, its institutions of Islamic scholarship — they all represent Islamic society closer to its traditional roots," Cook said. "But it doesn't have something like American University of Beirut, where Westerners can easily go study."
Ultimately, academics won out, and Cook decided he would benefit more from spending a semester in Beirut. "I'm really excited," Cook said, "especially to see the old mosques of places like Tripoli [Lebanon's Tripoli, not the Libyan capital] and Byblos and the old monasteries and churches that dot the valleys and mountains throughout Lebanon, and to experience their contrast in the bustling metropolis of modern Beirut."
The author, Matt Kupfer, worked and studied in Kyrgystan last summer and will be studying Russian at St. Petersburg State University spring semester 2011.