By Joan I. Duffy
Jacek Lubecki remembers the exact moment he discovered a new world.
It was the summer of 1988. The young Polish student was hitchhiking around France tasting his first sips of freedom thanks to his country’s glasnost with the West.
“I stopped in a French supermarket, and I was shocked by all of this abundance of goods — the shelves fully stocked with groceries and all the goods,” said Dr. Lubecki, now a UALR political science assistant professor who directs the International Studies and Middle Eastern programs. “I cried. I was overcome.
“It was such a shock to see such a super-surfeit and abundance of material goods as compared to what I had experienced in Poland. I did not experience any kind of extreme poverty in Poland, but it was an extremely austere place. At that time and place, the gap was extreme and very visible.”
Among the produce and canned goods, Lubecki knew his life had changed.
It is this kind of learning jolt the professor sees in his students who are transported from their world to another when they study abroad. Their senses open in a way that no book or lecture could.
“You look at your own country with different eyes after an experience like that,” he said. “But after the shock, you see beyond the first impression. I hope my students (who travel abroad) learn and love and appreciate the differences in the world.”
A growing number of American students and their professors understands that learning to operate in different cultures is an essential skill where even the most provincial of businesses can find that their customers live halfway around the world. Study abroad programs — even those lasting only a few weeks – can provide that experience.
“Students should get a passport along with their student ID, and they should use it to study abroad at least once during their academic careers,” said Allan E. Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education (IIE).
The Open Doors survey that IIE publishes annually to track global education reports that the number of American students studying abroad increased a record 8.7 percent in 2007 over the previous year. The number of U.S. students receiving academic credit for their study abroad has increased 150 percent in the past decade, according to the report. In 2007, more than 223,500 American students were studying abroad compared to 90,000 in 1995-1996.
The University of Wisconsin’s (UW) new bachelor’s degree program in global studies, the first in the nation, illustrates the nuances between traditional study abroad and 21st century global education.
UW-Milwaukee says the program, intended to create globally literate students, “is an innovative interdisciplinary program based on a philosophy of experiential learning.” Its approach combines studying abroad, mastering a foreign language, and pre-professional coursework from across the traditional disciplines and allows students to focus on five tracks: global classrooms, global cities, global communications, global management, and global security.
“We are in an economy that is increasingly globalizing,” said Renfro, a native of Malvern, Ark., and graduate of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts. “The U.S. is further and further imbedded and more and more interconnected with every other country. If you are going to do any kind of work where you deal with people who are different, who aren’t born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, you are going to need the experience of dealing with people whose cultures are different.”
Renfro, a first-generation college student majoring in history and German studies, spent more than a month in a German language immersion program in Graz, Austria, in 2006 through UALR’s study abroad programs. This year she spent two months taking Mandarin Chinese at Pingtung University of Education through the Taiwan-United States Sister Relations Alliance Summer Scholarship Program. In September, she will return to Graz for a full semester of study.
English major Greg Clark came home from a month of study in Orleans, France, with plans to visit friends in London, Mexico City, and Kyoto, Japan.
“I found friends all around the world. That’s probably one of the best things about the program,” he said.
The latest study abroad statistics in Open Doors 2007 also indicate that American students are increasingly choosing nontraditional destinations for overseas study abroad experiences. Latin America excursions are up 14 percent; Africa, up 19 percent; Asia, up 26 percent; and the Middle East, up 31 percent.
UALR students are among those numbers experiencing study abroad in exotic locales.
Dr. Yupo Chan, UALR Systems Engineering professor, was instrumental in forging an agreement with the University of Hong Kong for a student exchange: each institution may send two undergraduates who are studying systems engineering to the other school for one semester.
Construction management Professor Jim Carr accompanied a UALR group to Russia for three weeks in 2005, interacting with a Moscow developer and — after two days of train travel — worked with a Siberian scientist from Sustainable Development of Human Settlements.
“We worked on a green building project,” Carr said. “We also went to the Altai Mountains and Lake Telskoyoe and visited with a local environmentalist.” In between, the group toured Moscow and St. Petersburg, attended a ballet, and visited museums.
The experience is more than just cultural enrichment. Phillip McMath of Little Rock, who obtained three grants to study for a total of nine months in the Middle East, landed a job at the end of his travels.
McMath, who attained three grants to study for a total of nine months in the Middle East, said he has been able to bring back special knowledge to the academic and nonacademic community.
“I have been offered a position as an archaeologist, as well as assisting in public education on ancient Egypt for an exhibit at the Arkansas Art Center in 2009,” he said.
“These opportunities were due in no small part to my professors, who believing in my commitment, gave me a chance to make the most of my time at UALR.”
Lubecki said the best study abroad programs are those where the faculty, who are experts in that country, can travel with the students.
“Then the faculty member, who has legs in both societies, can be a transitional bridge for the student between the country being explored and the home country,” he said.
Lubecki, who took another group of students to Poland this year, was a study abroad student himself last year. He joined McMath, UALR student Anna Evatt, and post-graduate Nathan Owen in Cairo, Egypt, for a two-month intensive Arabic language program.
“All of a sudden, all of your conventional wisdom just ceases and one is put in this strange world,” Lubecki said of the shock all three experienced upon landing in Cairo. “It was fantastic. You have gleaming high rises right next to what you would call slums, but they are really villages with dirt streets.
“It’s hot, dirty. Goats, wild dogs and cats and little creatures that look like small ferrets, sheep, horses, and camels are all together with 20 million cars and 27 million people — sheer chaos and energy. But then one discovers the goodness behind it. It was tremendous.”