Three years ago, the only thing Fabien Tondel, a native of Cannes, France, knew about Kentucky was that it was the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “I didn’t know anything else about Kentucky. Not even about the horses,” he says. But Tondel signed on all the same to pursue a master’s degree in agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky through an exchange program that the UK College of Agriculture has with his former university in Dijon. Now, Tondel loves it so much here, he’s decided to stay on at UK for a Ph.D. “The longer I live in Kentucky, the more I appreciate it here,” he says.
Tondel credits his easy assimilation in America to the UK-Dijon exchange program: just before moving to the States, he’d befriended some UK students studying abroad in Dijon, and he ended up rooming with them back in Kentucky the following semester. “Those friendships really helped me get used to the culture much more rapidly than if I had been on my own,” he says.
Forging friendships that span the globe is merely one benefit of the many exchange and study abroad opportunities offered to high school and college students today.
There’s also the chance to get immersed in a foreign language. After all, it’s one thing to practice saying “Je voudrais du café” (I would like some coffee) in French class, but the phrase takes on a rather more exciting meaning in context in a Parisian café. Bellarmine University senior Jason Nguyen spent a year studying in Caen, France, with only one semester of college French under his belt. “The language barrier was a challenge,” Nguyen admits, “but in Caen I was learning from the right people, professors who actually are French. So I got a great language foundation.”
More and more, though, colleges and universities are making inroads in convincing their students that study abroad opportunities aren’t only for students majoring in foreign language studies, like Nguyen. Last year, the University of Kentucky sent students abroad from across 59 different majors, says David Bettez, director of UK’s International Affairs office. And with fully 75 percent of its students participating in study abroad opportunities, Centre College’s Study Abroad program is ranked in the top 10 nationally. The college hopes to increase participation to 90 percent within the next three years, says Milton Reigelman, Centre’s Study Abroad director.
Through university partnership programs such as the International Student Exchange Program (a consortium of more than 260 member institutions across 35 countries, including Bellarmine University and University of Kentucky) or the Kentucky Institute for International Studies (with membership among 16 Kentucky colleges and universities, as well as participating schools in Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee), students can choose from literally hundreds of study abroad opportunities. They can explore the geography of volcanoes in Iceland. Fashion design in China. Wine production and marketing in France. Physical therapy in Australia. Nursing in Ecuador. There’s also the chance to sightsee: Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis, Stonehenge, and a whole world of sights. And the best part: many times, depending on the program, students can do all that while still paying their school’s regular tuition and fees.
Through exchange programs like AYUSA (Academic Year in the USA) or American Field Service, high school students can also enjoy study abroad in virtually any country around the globe.
While Lesa Thomas of Hebron, now 18, spent her junior year studying abroad in Argentina, her parents, Joseph and Sheila, and younger brother, Joey, hosted an exchange student from Bolivia. So while Lesa was learning firsthand about the economic depression plaguing Argentina since 2001, her family in Kentucky got to witness another, brighter side of South American culture. Their student, Ramiro “Danny” Bracamonte, showered them with gifts from Bolivia, and often played music for them on his zampoñas, a traditional instrument akin to a pan flute.
While Lesa Thomas was shocked by the poor economic conditions in Argentina, she brought home with her warm memories of how friendly the people were there. “I’m a little bit shy, and I only knew enough Spanish to say my name, but everyone went out of their way to help me,” she says.
Experiencing the positive as well as the negative aspects of a foreign culture—to truly live them, rather than just reading about them in books—is often what makes the study abroad experience so rich.
When Stephanie Eisbein, a high school foreign exchange student from near Cologne, Germany, prepared for a year-long stay with her host family Louis and Sandra McCoy of Smith’s Grove, she had one fear: that what she’d heard about Americans and fast food would be true. It was. “There’s fast food everywhere here,” she laughs. But she found many things about America that she loved, especially the fact that “students here can choose fun classes like choir or band.” Taking part in Bowling Green High School’s spring musical was one of the highlights of Eisbein’s trip—an experience she’d never have gotten at home in Germany.
Dary Picken, a Centre senior, enjoyed leisurely dining at French cafés during his stay in Strasbourg. “You’d ask for the bill and get it 40 minutes later. Everyone takes their time. There is no rush,” he says. Another perk to his trip abroad: it was a chance to share American culture and help dispel negative U.S. stereotypes. Some of the first questions French students asked Picken were what kind of car he drives and how many bathrooms he has in his house, he says. Meeting Picken helped convince them not to believe everything they see on TV: not everybody in the U.S. lives like Donald Trump, after all.
A Life-Changing Experience
For many students, studying abroad offers a peek at how they might call a larger slice of the world “home” than they’d ever thought possible. After a few weeks in Strasbourg, Centre College senior and Brooksville native Rebecca Bush felt she’d become “a regular, like one of the locals” the day the owner of the patisserie (bakery) she’d frequented told her that she could pay later when she didn’t have enough money for her breakfast.
Experiencing the differences between the French and American day-to-day routine (such as walking to the local market versus a car drive to Wal-Mart) also helped Bush see “that there are different ways to live, that there are different ways to go about your day,” she says.
“Students who go abroad return more open-minded, more independent, more self-reliant, flexible, and empowered,” says Gabriele Bosley, director of International Programs at Bellarmine University. “They discover layers of their personality that they didn’t even know existed to their international experience.”
When Andrew Porter, a junior at Bellarmine, boarded a plane for a semester of study at the University of Central Lancashire in England last year, he says, “It seemed I was leaving everything I had ever known: my city, school, family, friends, culture.” But the trip allowed him to “separate my own identity from that of my environment.” And that allowed him to “find out who I really was.”
Last year while studying in Quito, Bellarmine senior Megan Edwards experienced firsthand the cultural upheaval surrounding the impeachment of Ecuadorian president Lucio Gutiérrez. It was a “historic event, an example of the cause and effects of poverty and inequality of the type most students only study about in history class,” she says. But Edwards lived it, and it gave her a “new perspective on the world and my place in it,” she says. “Now, the ‘rest of the world’ is much more real for me. And that will affect my way of thought and my way of life forever.”
KENTUCKY INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
The Kentucky Institute for International Studies (KIIS) is a consortium between Murray State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, Morehead State University, Northern Kentucky University, University of Kentucky, Berea College, Union College, Transylvania University, Bellarmine University, University of Louisville, Georgetown College, Midway College, Kentucky State University, Campbellsville University, Centre College, and four affiliate institutions in Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary year in 2005, KIIS offers both semester-long and summer study abroad opportunities in destinations as diverse as Brazil, Austria, and Cameroon. Students participating in KIIS receive Murray State University course credits, as Murray State University serves as the KIIS headquarters.
For more information, go on the Web to www.kiis.org or call (270) 762-3091.
WANT TO HOST A FOREIGN EXCHANGE STUDENT?
“There is no better way to experience the true soul of a culture than to open your heart and home to a young person from another country,” says Lina Fong, a Lexington-based coordinator with AYUSA, a program that places high school foreign exchange students throughout the United States. “Hosting a foreign student is a wonderful way for a family to discover the wonders of life in a foreign country without leaving home,” she says.
Here are just a few of the many programs seeking host families that you can check out on the Web. Often, local high school guidance counselors may know which programs are active in your area.
• AYUSA Global Youth Exchange—www.ayusa.org
• American Field Service—www.afs.org
• Council on International Educa-
• American Institute for Foreign
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: STUDYING ABROAD?
For a list of tips for making the most of your experience abroad, click here: study abroad