Students Go Abroad to Different Locales

May 6, 2008

ARGENTINA.- She has ballroom danced in Swaziland, camped with crocodiles and hippopotamuses in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and worked as a peer mentor in a Jamaican HIV orphanage. Her interest in global health and development, which has taken her to the Chinese Center for Disease Control in the past, will bring her to the Dominican Republic and Sierra Leone this summer. For Amy T. Wu ’09, living and breathing the developing world is the only way to truly understand the “global economy.”

Wu is not alone in wanting to study and work in developing nations on her study abroad trips.

While students overwhelmingly still favor Western Europe in their travels—France, Italy, Spain, and England were the most popular accredited study abroad locations for Harvard students in 2006-2007, according to the Office of International Programs (OIP)—less traditional countries are quickly gaining popularity.

LOOKING BEYOND EUROPE

The number of Harvard students studying in Argentina for credit grew from 12 in the 2006-2007 school year to 36 in 2007-2008, and the number of students studying in China is only a few shy of those in England.

In their May 2007 White Paper, the Institute of International Education reported a 53 percent increase in number of American students studying abroad in Argentina from 2003-04 to 2004-05, while Brazil showed a 28 percent gain. Both figures far outpaced the eight percent increase in total students studying abroad.

These figures, especially those in Latin America, come as no surprise to David Carrasco, a professor who specializes in Latin American studies and holds posts in both the Divinity School and the Department of Anthropology.

“Latin America is the great borderland that we live in today, for culture, economics, and music,”

Carrasco says. “It’s the place where these cultures are mixing and coming up with new combina-tions, and students like the sense of dynamism.” Carrasco says three factors may be driving Harvard students to travel to Latin America: the extensive resources and contacts provided by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS); a greater media focus on Latin America and a “new orientation of American history, focusing more on north-south rather than east-west” that cause students to explore their own roots; and the rich cultural and intellectual resources of Latin America, including its indigenous societies, economic and social inequalities, literature, and architecture.

DRCLAS coordinates Harvard study abroad programs in Chile, Argentina, and Cuba, and assists students in applying for other pre-approved study abroad programs in Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. In addition, its summer internship program in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Brazil helps students find internships and coordinates homestays in these countries.

“Most students that go on [the summer internship programs] are on some form of aid,” says Katie G. Ferrari ’05, the Student Services Coodinator at DRCLAS. “It’s really not a money-maker for us at all, it’s really about students having an experience down there.”

Ferrari also emphasized Harvard’s distinct advantages in aiding study abroad, including DRCLAS’s extensive contact and alumni network throughout Latin America.

FROM THE LAB TO THE DANCE CLUB

Katherine R. Clapham ’08, a biochemistry concentrator, traveled to Rosario, Argentina. Working in a lab suggested to her by a Harvard professor, she also found a non-Harvard affiliated program through the OIP that allowed her to take classes in Spanish and Argentinian art and literature.

While living with her host family, Clapham also took lessons in tango and squash.

“I wanted to live somewhere different, somewhere that took me out of my comfort zone,” Clapham says. “I wanted to improve my Spanish. All these factors, combined with the opportunity to work with this professor who worked on the same bacterium [as me] made it a good place to go.”

While labs in developing countries may have less resources on hand than those in the U.S. or Europe, Clapham says this may actually prove advantageous for budding researchers.

“I learned a lot from working in an Argentinian lab as opposed to a North American lab,” Clapham says. “They have many fewer resources than Harvard has, so I had to be more creative.”

From the moment her plane touched down, Clapham was exposed to the unique Argentinian milieu. When she extended her hand to greet her post-doctoral lab partner, he replied, “I’ll let you get away with that this time, but in the future you’ll have to do the kiss on the cheek.”

She also says she was pleasantly surprised by the spontaneity and communal nature of Argentinian culture. On one occasion, a convenience store worker offered to share “mate,” the national drink of Argentina, with her.

“People will share mate with you even if you don’t know them,” Clapham says. “It’s a very communal activity.”

Clapham says she was also able to explore the nightlife of Buenos Aires. She found a thriving tango scene in the ‘milonga’ tango bars, as well as free drinks in a flower shop that had been converted into a makeshift night-time bar, and then a free art exhibition down the road.

“The nightlife in Argentina is really, really amazing,” Clapham says.

Clapham says she was pushed out of her comfort zone when robbers smashed the windows in her host family’s house and stole her computer and camera. But she says dangers such as these should not be deterrents to traveling in developing countries.

“I think they should be aware of what the dangers are in the place they’re going to, but I still think there’s a lot to be learned and gained,” she says.

Clapham also says she found a substantial degree of anti-American sentiment, although certainly not among everyone.

“They think all Americans are really fat, that they are always spending their money, that the [U.S.] government takes advantage of and abuses Latin American countries economically,” Clapham says, referring to some of the stereotypes she encountered. “There’s some truth at the root of these feelings, but it’s a very passionate feeling.”

“Sometimes these conversations [about America] would make me feel bad, and I would try to explain my side of the story, but we got into some very heated discussions,” Clapham says. “You know, it could be uncomfortable, but that was also good for me, to challenge my own notions about what our culture is actually like, and how someone from Argentina might see it.”

A STRUGGLE TO FIT IN

Wu’s experiences working with the Clinton Foundation and researching abroad in Botswana and Swaziland exposed her to a different setting in the developing world.

“You go to a developing country not to do quality research, but rather to widen your perspective on issues that these countries have to deal with,” Wu says.

Among these issues in Botswana is its disjointed and stratified health care system, which features large regional hospitals, medium-sized clinics, and small health posts composed of a couple nurses throughout the nation. One of her projects was a task to examine medical equipment at these remote health posts.

Along with her medical work, she says she frequented many game parks, and saw wild animals on the side of the road including ostriches, warthogs, as well as elephants crossing the road.

“[Africa] is the most beautiful place in the world, the most unadulterated and natural place,” Wu says. “Here it’s beautiful too, but in a sense it’s commerialized.”

Safety is one aspect of the developing world that Wu says students should know about before they travel. Wu described one incident when thieves had a knife to her throat

“Before I went, people were telling me how Botswana is extremely safe, but in reality, it’s still a developing country,” Wu says. “Students traveling abroad don’t think that [crimes] will happen to them, but they do. You just have to be careful.”

Wu says integrating into local communities is one of the most challenging tasks in studying abroad.

“There’s a really big culture gap, especially in Africa, that makes it hard to integrate,” Wu says.

To aid that process, she joined a ballroom dance team that sometimes practiced for over five hours a day, and eventually went with them to a competition in Swaziland.

As the only non-black female in attendance, Wu says, “I got hit on a lot by guys.”

Wu says that integration only truly occurs with time, requires months and even years of living in the nation.

“Some people go to developing countries and then take on a condescending attitude, like they’ve seen everything,” Wu says. “If you spend your entire life in the U.S., it’s just not enough. Traveling abroad, especially to less traveled places, where you can see and experience poverty, helps mitigate misconceptions that people have about these places.”

NO EXCUSES

Wu says her trip had a transformative effect on her life and that she would whole-heartedly recommend traveling to developing countries.

The $100 million gift of David Rockefeller ’36 in April, the largest donations ever given to Harvard by an alumnus, will be used in part to fund these international programs.

“There’s no excuse for students, especially broad-minded students at Harvard, not to be spending time abroad,” says Wu, who also says she appreciates Harvard’s study abroad programs and infrastructure.

“Unless people do this, the gap in poverty, the developmental issues, will not be solved,” she says. “People just do not understand it.”

But Wu says that students traveling to these countries should keep an open mind.

“It’s wrong to think that these people need our help and we need to help them,” Wu says. “One of the main things that people should realize when they travel is a sense of humility, and that you are a guest to these countries. You have so much more to learn from them than they do from you, even though you might be bringing the resources.”

Source: Harvard Crimson