By Randy Fiedler
Baylor students who study abroad not only gain course credit and improve their language skills, but the experience can change their worldview and open the door to new life opportunities.
Each year, hundreds of Baylor students take part in one of more than 100 Baylor study abroad and exchange programs on five continents. About two-thirds of the programs last a full semester or an entire year, while the remaining third consist of shorter programs offered in the summer. Some programs aim primarily at increasing a student’s fluency in a foreign language, while others provide academic training in business, health care, applied sciences, education, journalism and the arts and humanities.
When you ask Baylor Arts & Sciences students what they enjoy most about studying abroad, some common themes emerge.
Especially during concentrated summer sessions, students are often able to catch up or move ahead of schedule in regard to required coursework. And for students who spend time on a trip devoted to the study of a foreign language, immersion in a new culture allows them to achieve language fluency more quickly than they would back home in a classroom.
Baylor alumnus Alex Jania, now working on a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago, was a history major who went on the inaugural Baylor in Japan study abroad trip in the summer of 2012.
“The Baylor in Japan program gives you about a year’s worth of language training in six weeks,” Jania said. “It is very intense, and that’s what appealed to me.”
Jania said using Japanese in daily interactions with native speakers gave him more confidence in his abilities, and made learning the language seem natural.
“Our Baylor sponsor, Dr. Yuko Prefume, did this funny thing. We’d be on a train or in a public area, and she’d tell us to go talk to a Japanese person and ask them what they’re doing,” Jania said. “You were forced to get out of your comfort zone, be sociable and use Japanese. It was intense, but fun –– and I now have friends there that I met randomly because Dr. Prefume wanted me to talk to them.”
Cody McKitrick, a senior film and digital media major, said going on the Baylor in Spain trip to Madrid in the summer of 2017 forced him to learn Spanish at a faster pace.
“When you’re living in Spain for five weeks you use the language every day, versus at Baylor when you cease to use it once class is over,” he said. “By the end of the trip, I felt comfortable enough to hold a conversation with a Spanish person and get around town on my own, which is what I wanted.”
The Baylor professors who supervise each study abroad trip are not only proficient in their academic area, but are well acquainted with the customs, language and geography of the country. Being able to explore new cultures with the guidance of an experienced professor is something that students appreciate.
Clara Ruth West is a senior journalism, public relations and new media (JPRNM) major who went with senior lecturer Maxey Parrish and his wife on the journalism-themed Baylor in Budapest trip in summer 2017.
“Maxey had a lot of knowledge he shared that I would not have been able to get on my own,” West said. “He knew the best places to see and the best ways to get there. There was a security knowing he’d be there to answer our questions and be our guide.”
Christy Soto, another senior JPRNM major, went on the same trip to Budapest and shares West’s assessment of Parrish.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much Maxey knows –– he’s traveled a lot, and every place we went throughout Europe he had been there and studied it,” Soto said. “Also, having him and his wife on the trip was nice because they were the parental figures who were there for us if we needed them.”
A trait that almost every Baylor student seems to bring back from a study abroad trip is the ability to see different cultures –– and the world itself –– through new eyes.
In March 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan occurred in the Pacific Ocean east of Tokyo, creating a tsunami with 30-foot waves that caused almost 16,000 deaths. The tsunami created nuclear accidents, destroyed or damaged more than a million buildings and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
As part of the Baylor in Japan study abroad trip, Baylor students have joined with students from Tohoku University to visit areas still recovering from the tsunami and offer assistance. Samantha Cook, a senior education major, said talking with tsunami survivors in the heavily damaged town of Minamisanriku in 2017 was the most memorable part of her trip.
“It was so sad, going to these areas and hearing everyone’s stories, but it was amazing at the same time,” Cook said. “It made me question what I did in my life to deserve to be around these people, who had done such amazing things with their lives. But after spending time with them I realized that we are all human.”
Alex Jania also spent time in Minamisanriku with tsunami survivors during Baylor in Japan. The experience made such an impact on him that he has continued friendships with people he met in the city, and when it came time to pick a topic for his doctoral dissertation, he chose to write about the history of natural disasters in Japan and how the people deal with them.
Even though Clara Ruth West couldn’t speak a word of Hungarian before her Baylor in Budapest trip, she was able to see similarities between her life and the lives of those she met.
“It was kind of a reality check,” she said. “Learning how they live their lives, I kept seeing parallels. It was eye-opening because while they are people who speak a different language, they’re just like you and me. The students there are working and taking classes and preparing for their futures, just like I am.”
During her Baylor in Budapest experience, Christy Soto spent time with an elderly Hungarian woman named Elizabeth who was a Holocaust survivor.
“We were at a place called the Museum of Terrors, which is a museum of everything that happened during the Holocaust,” Soto said. “I had heard a lot about the Holocaust, but not how it affected Hungary. Elizabeth had a personal connection to it, and I got to hear her story of how she had to leave the country as a political refugee. I also learned that people in Hungary really know their history and don’t want to let it die.”
Besides giving them new perspectives on the world, studying abroad tends to teach Baylor students a few lessons about themselves.
“My goal is to become a language teacher in Japan, so one of my goals on the Baylor in Japan trip was to find out what life was like there, and see if I could make it living there,” Cook said. “It was challenging to be in a place so heavily populated with a completely different mindset, but it brought out parts of me that I needed in order to adapt to that environment.”
West made similar discoveries about herself during her time in Budapest.
“I found that despite my inadequacies, I can survive in a place where someone doesn’t speak my language,” she said. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I found that I can get around when I’m not necessarily comfortable. I can make it as long as I have an open mind.”
For more information on Baylor study abroad, visit bearsabroad.baylor.edu.