Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Why Students Should Study Abroad Early in their Academic Careers

By Annie Gibson

Studying abroad instills a lifelong passion for engaging in intercultural connection. In my opinion, the earlier this experience happens, the better. My first experience going abroad without my family happened when I was 13 years old. I spent the summer in Mexico working as an au pair, and that experience marked the course of the rest of my life: It influenced me to want to become fluent in Spanish and to be engaged with international education, leading me to the career that I have today.

Because of the influence that traveling abroad had on me during my early life, I am a huge proponent of immersion education. To fully grasp any subject to the point of being able to apply and manipulate that knowledge, you must be immersed in learning so fully that all senses are engaged. We try to replicate this learning on the college campus, but sometimes college can end up feeling like an academic bubble. When classroom learning is integrated with â’‘¬Å“livingâ’‘¬Â the information being discussed in class, the learning outcome is much greater. The life skill of becoming culturally bilingual, of learning to both understand and embrace differences in order to draw objective conclusions and build alliances, is one of the most important skills to develop—and it is best learned and practiced in the real world.

Living abroad gives students the opportunity to learn to adapt their body language, their spoken language, and even their written language based on cultural contexts in order to communicate more clearly who they are and what they want. If students can learn this adaptation skill it makes for more aware and more confident scholars who are better equipped for any class, career, or experience that may arise during their lifetimes.

This fall I have had the chance to meet four freshman and two sophomore students whose spirit of adventure led them to make the decision to study abroad at Tulaneâ’‘¬’“¢s first ever Early Experience Abroad in Costa Rica program. Tulane students in Costa Rica are studying and living in dormitories in CIAPA (Centro de Investigación y Adiestramiento Político Administrativo), a social science research institution located in the Curridabat neighborhood of San José. They are taking classes at CIAPA as well as at the University of Costa Rica. The classes are designed as experiential learning classes, using the urban and natural environments of Costa Rica as the classrooms.

Early experience abroad programs are a recent trend in many colleges across the country. The programs are geared at giving freshman (and some sophomore) students an exposure to international exchanges from the get-go in their college careers in order to build a more globally aware campus. Studying abroad inevitably brings the classroom outside of the Ivory Tower and into the streets, museums, buildings, and forests, creating students who see engagement with community and environment as part of the educational process.

A successful study abroad experience fosters an interest in lifetime learning that goes far beyond the four years of undergraduate higher education. Have you ever heard of a student who returned from a study abroad trip and did not have at least one life-changing experience to talk about? I havenâ’‘¬’“¢t. Traveling inevitably makes students have to think on their feet and learn the skills of budgeting, navigating new ways of socializing, and quieting the internal clashes that arise when living outside of our comfort zones. I feel lucky to be able to experience those emotions vicariously with my students this semester. I wish there had been a program such as this when I was a freshman in college; I would have surely signed up. When I studied abroad in Brazil my junior year, I came back with a whole new worldview that I wished I could have applied to my studies much earlier.

Students should study abroad as early as they can in college so that their experiences can have the greatest impact on the course of their academic lives over the next three or four years. These six students here in Costa Rica who decided to begin their college careers by studying abroad will now have the space and time to carve out an academic path back at Tulaneâ’‘¬’“¢s main campus with the new knowledge that they have gained during the inevitable life-changing moments happening while living in San José. By studying abroad freshman year, these students will be able to use their later years to focus on their major requirements or on doing more in-depth research for their senior thesis, all with the added advantage of having learned the tools of being a world citizen while living abroad. Or, even better, they could use their junior year to once again go abroad, and this time with a greater focus and purpose to their studies.

The cohort of students in Costa Rica is a self-selected group that understood the importance of global education from the moment that they filled out their college applications. It was a smart decision because the experiences that they have had in Costa Rica will add to their careers upon returning to Tulane. These students have gained a new sense of independence while navigating life in another culture. Every day events such as learning the bus schedule to get to class, finding new social groups, making purchases in another language, and learning to plan weekend trips have been activities that have built confidence and aided their maturation.

The courses that the students are taking are made more practical by being applied to field trips and to their lives in San José. By having a core group of classes that focuses on using oneâ’‘¬’“¢s surroundings, learning at CIAPA has direct repercussions in studentsâ’‘¬’“¢ daily lives. For example, when we discussed differences in colonial architecture in
Costa Rica versus other parts of Latin America, we walked through the churches of Orosi and Ujarrás, looking at how the building materials had been influenced by Costa Rican indigenous culture. The students got to secretly lift the skirts of the saints on the altar to discover that the statues were no more than a head and hands, a testament to the fact that these colonial statues had to be brought via ship and then horseback to the central valley region. The next weekend they themselves had the butt bruises to prove that they rode horseback for four hours to arrive at the Rara Avis Biological Research Center, making references to our discussions about transportation in colonial Costa Rica. They got to study climate change by walking through both rain forest and cloud forest and holding in their hands frog species that are on the verge of disappearing due to climate changes in the region. They later saw photographs of frog species that have already
disappeared. Another weekend they got to feel Costa Rican national pride by listening to President Laura Chinchilla speak at an Independence Day celebration and then another evening they experienced national pride by seeing the rivalry soccer game between Costa Rica and Mexico.

These students are also living Tulaneâ’‘¬’“¢s commitment to community service by working weekly with Fundación Acción Joven, a non-profit agency that seeks to boost high school retention rates by teaching at-risk high school students lessons that cultivate an awareness of civic identity and social responsibility. Each Tulane student has independently designed a project that forges relationships and influences directly the young students at Napoleón Quesada and Julio Fonseca high schools. Some of the projects that Tulane students have worked on are: teaching English classes, setting up a pen pal system between the high school students in the US and those in Costa Rica, creating a bilingual bookmaking project, designing the set for the theater program, and preparing a field trip for a day of games and activities at CIAPAâ’‘¬’“¢s campus for the high school students in the program.

So when I get asked the question of whether or not I think that studying abroad early is a good idea for these kids, my answer is a strong yes. One of the most frequently asked questions that I received from parents this summer as they were deciding whether or not to let their child spend their first semester of college abroad was whether their child would be able to readjust to life at Tulane after spending their freshman fall semester abroad. In terms of personal adjustment, this cohort of students in the CIAPA Fall 2012 program has learned to navigate and make friends in another culture; making friends at Tulane is going to be a breeze. As they have begun to learn about Costa Rica, not only are they getting a clearer picture of Costa Ricaâ’‘¬’“¢s connectedness to the rest of Latin America and the world, but they are also getting a clearer idea of themselves. This will help them build relationships wherever they go. Plus, the students have the added benefit of having created bonds with each other. Going through the experience of living out of the country and travelling together is the best bonding experience that there is. I am almost certain that these students will remain close over the course of their college careers, even as they take their separate paths. Each one has benefitted from the diversity of the others and they have gone through experiences together that will give them a connection that will last.

In terms of their adjustments academically, students benefit from small classroom size, interest-oriented field trips, and daily access to their professor here at CIAPA. These students are going to return to Tulane worldlier and more engaged than if they had spent their freshman fall on campus and this is going to greatly benefit Tulane. On top of that, after their freshman fall they have already forged a personal relationship with a faculty member that most students only develop after many semesters if they have the chance to develop it at all. I see this group of students every day. We eat meals together, take trips together, have classes together, and share the same common spaces. I can sit down with each one individually to talk about their writing or to discuss a reading. I learn when they had a bad day or when they are having family trouble. I know these students inside and outside the classroom just as they know me. This means that, not only do I know their strengths and weaknesses as scholars in my classroom, but I also know their interests beyond disciplines and even beyond academics. This gives me a position to be able to advise them about other faculty, classes, clubs, and programs back at Tulane that they may not have ever discovered on their own.

In this blog you will hear from these students who were brave enough to sign up for Tulaneâ’‘¬’“¢s first ever-Early Experience Abroad program. You will hear first-hand about the enriching experiences that studying abroad in Costa Rica at a young age has provided for these young scholars as academics and as people. I hope you enjoy their stories!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Annie Gibson

    Administrative Assistant Professor - Department of Global Education

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Latin American Writers Series: Luis Negron

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This series brings together Latin America’s most representative creative voices and the editorial entrepreneurs that publish them. By way of interviews conducted by renowned Ecuadorian writer Gabriela Alemán and presentations of various editorial missions, the guests will shed light on a literary world shaped by the contemporary issues of the continent. Moving forward, their conversations will comprise the centerpiece of a digital archive that introduces their ideas to a global audience.

Este serie reúne a los autores más representativos de la escritura continental y los editores que los publican. A través de entrevistas con la reconocida escritora ecuatoriana Gabriela Alemán y presentaciones de proyectos editoriales, los invitados explorarán los vínculos entre el mundo literario y la realidad continental. Sus conversaciones se convertirán después en el eje de un archivo digital que busca llevar estas ideas a un público global.

About the author

Luis Negron was born in Puerto Rico and is a writer, film critic, and bookseller. The English translation of his short-story collection Mundo Cruel, a work originally published in Spanish in 2010, won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award. Negron has also written a brief collection of chronicles, Los tres golpes (2016), and served as the editor of Los otros cuerpos: Antología de temática gay, lésbica, y queer desde Puerto Rico y su diáspora (2007). His film reviews have appeared in periodicals like Boston’s La semana (Boston) and Puerto Rico’s Claridad and El poeta.

Bate papo!: Portuguese Conversation Hour

View Full Event Description

A weekly hour of Portuguese conversation and tasty treats hosted by Prof. Megwen Loveless. All levels are welcome!

The theme for this semester will be Passion Fruit. So bring your sweet tooth to try this week’s homemade delicacy: Bolo de maracujá.