It is rare when you hear a first lady indicate she has regrets. But Michelle Obama did recently, in front of a university auditorium full of students interested in studying abroad. She urged them to do so and suggested that she wished she had herself when she was in college.
“Getting ahead in today’s workplaces isn’t just about the skills you bring from the classroom,” she said at Howard University Jan. 19, the after-noon before the elegant State Dinner at the White House for the visiting president of China. “It’s also about the experience you have with the world beyond our borders, with people and lan-guages and cultures that are very different from our own. These experiences set the stage for young people all over the world to come together and work together to make our world stronger.”
The first lady enthusiastically detailed the num-ber of opportunities that college students now have to go abroad. “We’re headed in the right direction,” she said. “But still there are many stu-dents here in the U.S. who have that chance but are reluctant to seize it. Maybe they feel that study abroad is something that only rich kids do, or they ask ‘How will this really be relevant in my life?’”
“Now I say this because I understand these feelings,” the first lady continued. “I felt that same way when I was back in college. The idea of spending time abroad just never registered with me. My brother and I were way more focused on getting in, getting through and getting out of college than we were finding opportuni-ties that would broaden our horizons.”
Interrupted several times by loud applause, Obama continued: “The truth is also, however, that with the high cost of college these days, many young people are struggling just to afford a regular semester of school let alone pay for air-line tickets and living expenses to go halfway around the world to study. So we know it’s not enough for us to simply encourage more people to study abroad. We need to make sure that they can actually afford it.”
The first lady described several new pro-grams oriented to giving more students from widely diverse backgrounds the chance to study abroad, especially in China. “My husband just announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative to double the number of Americans who study in China – a program that the Chinese government is offering – listen to this! – 10,000 scholarships to cover all in-country expenses for American students and teachers who study in China.
“We’re launching a new “Community College Minimester” program that provides shorter-term, more affordable study abroad opportunities. And we’re placing a special emphasis on reaching Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges with these programs,” the first lady said, amid cheers and standing applause.
Valery Lavigne, a senior at the College of New Jersey who was born in the Dominican Republic and who had just returned from five months in China, confirmed everything the wife of the pres-ident said as part of a panel that followed the first lady’s talk.
“Even though I started learning Chinese in high school, I was still a little hesitant about going abroad, mostly because my main obsta-cles, like I imagine most students, are financial. But then I heard an EOF student talk who had just gotten back from Oxford University in England, and I knew I just had to go abroad myself. I’m glad I got the opportunity through the Gilman International Scholarships program, which provided everything I needed – not only financial support but also encouragement from staff and other scholars.” Now Lavigne is “giving back” by making recruiting for Gilman Scholars her return project.
The Gilman Scholarship program is among the most successful and growing U.S. govern-ment-sponsored study abroad programs, such as the Fulbright Program, the National Security Language initiative and Critical Language Scholarships. “Gilman was established particu-larly to increase the number and diversity of young people who are studying internationally,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Ann Stock, who followed Obama at the podium.
The Gilman Program offers grants for U.S. undergraduate students of limited financial means. Its specific mission is to “broaden the student population that studies abroad who have been tra-ditionally underrepresented, including not only those who might not participate due to financial constraint but also community college students, students in underrepresented fields such as the sciences and engineering, students with diverse ethnic backgrounds, and those with disabilities.
In 2009, 13 percent of the Gilman Scholars were Latinos, compared to 6 percent in national study abroad programs, according to the Open Doors report of the International Institute of Education in New York City. In 2001, only 8 per-cent of Gilman Scholars were Hispanic.
The congressionally funded program (through the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000) gives those who qualify up to$5,000 for school expenses and airline tickets and an additional $3,000 for studying critical-need languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Chinese (both Mandrain and Cantonese), Russian, Swahili, Korean and a number of Turkic, Persian and Indic languages. The Gilman program encourages students to choose nontraditional study abroad destinations – mainly those other than Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
“Of course for many students who are the first of their families ever to go to college or even leave their home states, going to England can be very far-reaching for them, and we consider that as well,” said Marianne Craven, managing direc-tor of academic programs for the BECA. Students apply for the Gilman grants once they have been accepted into a college-based study abroad pro-gram for which they will receive academic credit and which requires them to study in another country for at least four weeks.
“Grants are based on student qualifications and the programs they are going on. We encour-age stays for a semester if possible,” said Craven. “But we are looking for diversity. There is no age limit for students, and no general criteria for language achievement – no pre- or post-tests. But of course, language learning is a big part of the experience.”
Two Hispanic Students: One in China, One in India
Lavigne was just the kind of student the Gilman Scholarships were established to help. Growing up in English and Spanish, “I always liked languages,” she said. So in her junior year in high school, she started studying Japanese. In her senior year, she took a special online course in Chinese. “Studying these languages greatly enriched my social anthro-pology major,” she said. “After all, for my genera-tion who grew up with other languages, we know that the best way to understand another culture is to know the language.”
“There were a lot of choices in study abroad programs to go on,” Lavigne said. “Although my [Latino] heritage is important to me, I was look-ing for something different. I wanted to go for my personal growth and career development as well. Once I decided on the Chinese program, though, I saw the costs and thought, ‘there is just no way I can go!’ I couldn’t have done it without the Gilman Scholarships. Now I advise everyone not to look at the bottom line of the program you want to go on. Many of the costs can be negotiat-ed – especially personal expenses once you are in the country where living costs are cheaper.”
In China, Lavigne studied at Beijing University in a special Council on International Educational Exchanges (CIEE) program. She spoke mainly Chinese with her fellow exchange students, who were from all over the world but especially Russia, Korea and Spain. “I almost always ate in the campus cafeteria with Chinese students, who were very friendly and interested in meeting us,” she said. She took martial arts classes, shopped in local stores and traveled throughout the coun-try, both with CIEE students and alone, by train, bus and even donkeys.
Lavigne continues to take Chinese courses, and remains in contact with her friends in China. And yes, she learned to write a bit in Chinese. “Necessity is the mother of all language learn-ing,” she laughed.
“In the end, I learned as much about myself as I did academically. The experience made me become more adaptable, independent but also able to work with all kinds of different people. It made me realize that I want to work with inter-national people, teaching in the United States or abroad, maybe being able to enter the Foreign Service and the State Department some day.” Until then, Lavigne is applying for the Peace Corps – hoping to be placed in China. The first lady and the audience applauded that.
Erika del Cid, a senior in political science/international relations at Virginia Commonwealth University who grew up in Woodbridge, Va., of El Salvadoran parents, came to many of the same conclusions as Lavigne, after studying in India. At first, she had wanted to go to France, since she’d studied French for seven years in school. Then she thought about Latin America, but her parents promised her a graduation trip there. “The only other country I really wanted to go to was India.”
There were lots of reasons why India attract-ed her. She enjoyed Bollywood films. She is a vegetarian and loves Indian food, and she had grown up with many Indian and Pakistani friends in her hometown and schools in Virginia. “I actu-ally knew a lot about what to expect there,” said del Cid. “It was noisy, colorful, crowded with pedestrians, and had a completely different infra-structure, especially traffic.” She knew people pushed and shoved there and didn’t say “sorry” or “thank you”; “It seems rude, but they’re not; that’s just the way it is,” she said. “The food was spicy; the people were friendly. All my senses were on high all the time,” she said.
Del Cid lived in a foreign student dorm on Hyderabad’s university campus (unlike many other buildings there, the dorm had air condi-tioning and seat toilets in the bathrooms, which del Cid said she very much appreciated). But the exchange students attended regular university classes with Indian students. Instruction was in English. “The grading was completely different,” she said. “They don’t have multiple-question tests; all the exams were open questions, and their answers were expected to be pages long. I was advised to write big and repeat a lot.” The issues they discussed in political science classes were also completely different than in the states. One big topic: farmer suicides. “They also talked a lot about religious ideas in politics, about Hindi vs. Moslem disturbances.” Del Cid did not see much tolerance for the mixing of religions and ethnic groups. But everyone constantly asked her about studying in the United States. “Everyone wanted to come.”
Her most surprising experience happened almost every day. “Everyone thought I was Indian. Only one student of all she met guessed that I was Latina – on her second guess.” Being considered native was a big advantage on the streets, she said. “I didn’t get accosted as much by street vendors, who at times could be exceed-ingly physically aggressive, and I was often charged the cheaper Indian prices for everything I bought in the stores.” Many acquaintances invited her to their homes, to see “their” India. But she also saw how skin color affected blatant racism, class and social status, and poverty. “The thing I never could get used to were all the muti-lated children begging in the streets (she would give them a bottle of water, not money), and how many even simple middle-class families had ser-vants in their homes,” she said.
Del Cid would love to go back to India and spend more time. But not immediately. After graduation, she is applying for teaching posi-tions in Spain or El Salvador. And she is actively encouraging other Latino students to go abroad to study and live for a while.
There are more and more opportunities for Hispanic students to do so. Many colleges and even professors have unique study abroad pro-grams, such as Political Science Professor Larry Martínez at California State University-Long Beach. Every summer, he takes a dozen or so students to Kazakhstan for four weeks of joint accredited classes, study projects, travel and a model United Nations day with native students. “Model U.N. gets the students emotionally involved in arguing issues from another coun-try’s point of view,” Martínez said. The course is called “Politics Through Culture.” More than 50 percent of the California students who go are Latinos. “That matches our campus demograph-ics,” said Martínez. “Latino students go because it’s what all students should do as part of their university studies.”
Perhaps Lavigne summed the study abroad experience up best at the panel with the first lady. “It wasn’t until I studied abroad in China that I realized that I am not just an American cit-izen, but I am a citizen of the world. I know that my career and life goals do not have to be limit-ed to even one country, one region nor even one continent.”