“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness..." -Mark Twain
If you've ever taken the fantastic opportunity to check out the International Students Club, you may have met Marie Adams without realizing it. She works here in the International Education Offices as the Graduate Assistant for the International Student and Scholar Services, facilitating programs for the many International degree seeking and exchange students. She is also a student herself, in a Master's program for counseling psychology. As an undergraduate, she took the opportunity to study abroad in Italy as part of a Theology class. Her conclusion? "It was fantastic…the best money I ever spent."
"I didn't expect it to be as life altering as it was. Just being immersed in another culture and having that experience of being displaced in a way, even for a short time, was eye opening—a little nerve wracking, but eye opening." While on the trip, which took place through the university she attended in Davenport, Iowa, Marie had the opportunity to visit Rome, Milan, Florence, Assisi, and Sienna. It was a trip style similar to the short term faculty led trips offered here at UW-P. There were no formal classes, but students picked a topic beforehand to write a paper on and present. Marie picked Dante: "We had to write a paper on that and it was due before we left. During the trip we had to keep a cultural immersion journal. While in country we had to do a presentation in whatever place was significant to the topic we had chosen. Someone presented in the coliseum for example. I presented in Florence, which was Dante's birthplace."
The group left for Italy just after Christmas, and spent New Year's in Rome. They had heard that there would be fireworks in the Coliseum, so they set out to see for themselves: "The process of getting there was an odyssey…it was kind of ridiculous. We left our hotel about 10 or 10:30 at night. On the way there we just kept getting stopped by people that wanted us to party, everyone was drinking on the streets. We thought everyone would be in St. Peter’s square. But when we got there it was completely empty. We were wondering where the entire city was. We couldn't find the metro at first either... But when we finally did, we realized that everybody in Rome was there…in the metro, waiting for the train to take us all to the coliseum. It was crowded beyond belief; we were scared we might get pushed onto the tracks. Everyone wanted to get to the coliseum and see the fireworks…which, by the way, were amazing. When we got on to the train you were practically plastered against the windows because it was so crowded. But despite the crowds, it was one of the better nights of the entire trip. The restaurants stayed open afterwards and our group split a couple bottles of wine and had some food. It was nice to see the city at night and see it come alive and to share the moment with friends."
Given her current job working with international students, I asked Marie if she thought this experience had any impact on where she is now. "Absolutely it had an impact" she said. "When working with international students, it helps to understand the initial barriers they might face: simple things like language, not knowing where they're going, or getting food can all be challenges in the beginning, as well as getting used to a new culture's expectations. Having studied abroad has helped to make me more patient and compassionate toward international students, and to understand that while they might be very excited, they are probably very nervous too."
Studying abroad also has an impact on her studies as well: "As far as my academic pursuits with counselling psychology, the field itself is seeing a recent resurgence of multiculturalism. Having experienced a different cultural experience personally, however briefly, of having to respect differences because you're the visitor and all without losing yourself has been a great learning experience. And that compassion and self-reflection is so essential to being a counselor. You have to be aware of other people's culture but also very aware of your own. You learn very rapidly when you're in another culture which biases you bring to the table. Having had that experience on a study abroad has been helpful."
So what were the best parts about studying abroad? “One was seeing things that I had only read about, and being so immersed in history. I was very aware that I was in a very ancient city that was basically the center of people’s universe for centuries, and all the things that that meant. It was awe inspiring.
Also the community that developed with everybody that went on that trip was great. We had about nineteen people and the friendships that formed while we were in country were something that I didn't expect. Navigating another place together was really cool.”