Study Abroad Restarts, Includes About 50 Seniors

Kalamazoo College Students on Study Abroad at the Universidad de Extremadura in Caceras, Spain
Kalamazoo College students on study abroad pose outside the main building at the Universidad
de Extremadura in Caceras, Spain. Photo by Resident Director Victoria Pineda.

When COVID-19 forced Kalamazoo College to pause its study abroad programs last year, many juniors feared they would lose out on a life-changing opportunity. Delaying it a year is usually not possible with academic obstacles. Plus, varied pandemic protocols continue to make it difficult for students to travel at all.

“If you think about the preparations, the considerations and the protocols that we had to implement for students to be on campus in the last year, just multiply that by 50 for study abroad,” Center for International Programs (CIP) Executive Director Margaret Wiedenhoeft said. “It’s one thing for our international partners to have an academic plan. It’s another to think about all the components and putting them together to offer a meaningful program.”

However, students still had hope and refused to give up.

“When they realized they wouldn’t be going abroad as juniors, we had quite a few determined students who said, ‘I’m going as a senior. How do I make this work?’” Wiedenhoeft said.

Combine that desire with a flexible faculty that recognizes the importance of international immersion, plus a lot of hard work from the CIP, and K had a game plan to restart study abroad, especially for this year’s seniors. Their combined efforts and the availability of international partners are allowing about 50 seniors, in addition to the regular batch of juniors, to go abroad—about 161 students in total in study abroad and study away. That’s proving to be a point of pride at K and a significant number for any Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) school.

“When I talk to my colleagues at other colleges and I tell them how many students we have abroad, their responses are genuinely full of joy and envy for these students,” Wiedenhoeft said. “There are other schools sending students abroad right now, but we definitely have a significantly higher number of students going abroad compared to our peers.”

More than 50 study abroad programs are typically available to K students and most of them are open again by meeting local protocols and health restrictions. Programs this year include two interim opportunities in Lyon, France, and Lüneburg, Germany, which might at some point become yearly destinations. There also are more permanent options opening for the first time in London and Belfast, which are launching a year late because of the COVID-19 hiatus.

Wiedenhoeft said the united effort across campus to make these programs possible should help newer students see the importance of visiting the CIP early and often should they desire a study abroad opportunity.

“I think this underscores our willingness to be flexible and support students who want to include a study abroad component as part of their experience at K,” she said. “It may not be exactly what the student had initially planned when they first arrived. But for students who are flexible and willing to adjust some of their expectations, we can do our best to work with students and make sure that they achieve that goal of getting off campus.”

Wiedenhoeft added students largely have expressed gratitude over study abroad restarting and their experiences, especially the seniors, even when additional COVID-19 protocols are required. For example, students who are now in Thailand and South Korea had to quarantine at a hotel for two weeks for the sake of public health laws.

“That speaks to the type of students we have at K,” she said. “They’ve demonstrated a lot of adaptability and flexibility. As it got closer, they got very excited and we were giving them very specific instructions. I think those instructions made it more intimidating to think about traveling. But the students we’ve heard from, including those who had to quarantine, are just excited to be abroad.”

International Internships Offer Global Work in Study Abroad’s Absence

Three students who had International Internships standing in front of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership
Julia Bienstock (from left), Ella Knight and Addissyn House worked in international internships this term, writing articles for a university’s publication in Spain. One of the articles provided Spanish students with an American view of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When study abroad stayed on pause this fall, Kalamazoo College faculty and staff got creative. In a short period of time, they developed positive, educational experiences for many of the juniors who expected to spend time in another country, showing the strength of the College’s relationships with its external partners.

“Our challenge partly was to identify what students could do to engage with our international partners and folks off campus, but the question was what that would look like,” Center for International Programs Executive Director Margaret Wiedenhoeft said. “It took working with our partners to see what would be possible.”

The solution for this term was a unique set of internships offered through K’s Center for International Programs (CIP), Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD), Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and Center for Environmental Stewardship (CES). The opportunities were designed quickly as a credit-granting class that provided work experience to 20 juniors, allowing them to build their resumes.

Five of those juniors, in fact, still had a chance to learn about another culture in working at virtual international internships with K partners overseas. Addissyn House, Ella Knight and Julia Bienstock are working with the Universidad de Extremadura in Cáceres, Spain, writing articles on current events from a U.S. perspective; and Reyna Rodriguez and Maricruz Jimenez-Mora are teaching English as a second language to people in San Jose, Costa Rica.

‘The Perfect Internship’

For House, Knight and Bienstock, this meant working virtually on a weekly basis with Gemma Delicado, an associate dean and study abroad director, on producing articles for the December issue of Vice Versa, a publication from the Universidad de Extremadura Humanities College, similar to an academic journal.

“A lot of students come to K because of study abroad,” Bienstock said. “It’s a big part of the K-Plan. It was disappointing not to study abroad. However, getting this internship opportunity was a positive thing because we’re going to have to navigate this pandemic for a while, which made the experience really powerful.”

Wiedenhoeft compared their experience to a virtual version of the integrated cultural research project (ICRP) that students would normally write while reflecting on their study abroad experience. House described it as the perfect internship for her.

“My goal was to immerse myself in Spanish, which was what I intended to do on study abroad, and I think we’ve done that to the best of our abilities,” House said. “We’re learning to read and write Spanish at a different level than what we could in school. It’s especially different because we’re online and collaborating a lot more. We can see where Gemma’s making edits, and she can explain why she makes them. I didn’t know that would come out of this experience.”

The topics the students write about include current events such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the U.S. presidential election, and the virtual format helps them understand such events from a Spanish perspective. The takeaway remains a cultural immersion that most interns elsewhere will never receive.

“It was disappointing not to study abroad, but this has been enriching in other ways,” Knight said. “It shows that no matter what happens, there’s hope that another opportunity will come along. I hadn’t written articles like this before for a Spanish audience and I’m learning new ways to talk about and teach culture.”

‘I See Myself in These Students’

For Rodriguez and Jimenez-Mora, an international internship meant teaching English to Costa Rican high school students.

K’s study abroad program has connections to Skills for Life, a Costa Rican government initiative targeting bilingualism among citizens for the sake of higher education and better employment. Within that program, Project Boomerang—a reference to volunteers giving back—helps high school students expand their English skills.

Rodriguez was excited for her chance to volunteer through her internship because she struggled to learn English as a child after moving to the Chicago area from Mexico.

“I came home crying because I couldn’t understand my teacher because she seemed to be speaking English so fast,” she said. “I see myself in these students. I know if they’re passionate enough, they’ll be able to succeed. I love the concept of the program because it means I’m giving back.”

Rodriguez typically teaches virtual classes of one to six students three times a week. The students have studied English for at least four years and can read it and write it well. Some even study additional languages. The program, though, provides the students with a stipend as they build their conversation skills on topics such as ice breakers, feelings, cuisine, culture and traditions.

Her fellow volunteers are from countries such as Korea, Brazil and the Netherlands. They all know at least some Spanish, and she and Jimenez-Mora speak it fluently.

“I think students really appreciate that we can speak Spanish because they’re able to ask questions in Spanish if necessary,” she said. “English can be difficult. The context you use and the conjugation can sometimes trip them up.”

Rodriguez has prior experience with teaching as a third-grade language arts assistant at El Sol Elementary in Kalamazoo through CCE. She doesn’t expect to pursue teaching professionally, although the internship has helped her build other job-related skills and she’s grateful for them.

“When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “As I’ve seen it growing up, teaching has been a passion. I don’t think it will be a career path, but this helps me see it will be something I pursue in my own time. Professionally, I’ve been able to communicate better with people just by learning how to say things differently. My time management has improved, and I think my creativity has improved as I’ve made my lesson plans and shifted them from elementary to high school students.”

Setbacks Create Opportunities

Although less than ideal with the pandemic, these opportunities have shown that K can channel its relationships abroad to create further opportunities for these students and others.

“It was our relationships with our international partners that really factored into our ability to develop this programming for students,” Wiedenhoeft said. “We try very seriously to nurture these relationships and these internships are the fruit of that. I think these students have demonstrated an ability to adapt to ambiguity and manage understanding how expectations can change, and can change based on a cultural perspective.”

K Student Earns FEA Scholarship to Study in Rome

Kalamazoo College sophomore Robert Davis ’18 was one of 51 students selected recently out of nearly 1,500 applicants nationwide for a $5,000 scholarship from the Fund for Education Abroad (FEA). The money will go toward his study abroad trip to Rome, Italy.

Robert Davis Education Abroad Scholarship
Robert Davis ’18 plans to take creative writing and theatre courses at the America University of Rome after earning a scholarship through the Fund for Education Abroad (FEA).

The FEA is a non-profit scholarship program that seeks underrepresented minority, LGBTQAI, first-generation, veterans, returning learners, disabled and community college students, as well as students pursuing language instruction and non-traditional destinations.

The students, who combined were awarded $225,000, will study abroad for up to a full academic year. This year, 88 percent of the students are of minority backgrounds, and 84 percent are first-generation college students. Almost all awardees, 98 percent, will study the host country language and 46 percent have a community college background.

Robert is excited to be connected with other students across the US and to embark upon a new chapter in his collegiate career in Rome. Robert says, “I’m excited to see ancient ruin sites like the Coliseum and the Arch of Constantine and glean more knowledge about theater of ancient Rome and explore how it has influenced contemporary Roman theatre. I plan to take courses related to creative writing and theatre at the American University of Rome and I’m excited to learn more about those disciplines in a new environment.”

He plans to take creative writing and theatre courses at the America University of Rome. He feels confident that his accomplishment will be a necessary stepping stone to advance to the grad school of his dreams so that he can return to his old high school to become an educator and publish his works.

Text by Aunye Scott-Anderson ’18