Juneau can feel isolated, a paradise accessible, as we well know, only by air or by sea. But there’s a whole world out there for adventurers, vacationers and, more and more, students on exchange or a study abroad program. A campaign, dubbed Generation Study Abroad, seeks to have 600,000 U.S. students studying abroad annually in five years in either credit or noncredit programs — compared with the 295,000 students who did so in the 2011-12 school year. At the University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau’s hometown university, anywhere from 20 to 50 students might study abroad (or away) during a school year, according to UAS’ Academic Exchange and Study Abroad Coordinator, Marsha Squires, who said the school sends out a slightly higher percentage than the national average.
According to Daniel Obst, Generation Study Abroad’s deputy vice president for international partnerships, career enhancement is one of the main reasons it’s important to get more students abroad. Squires cited career enhancement as one of three major reasons she thinks studying away from one’s home institution is important.
Ellie Sica, a recent UAS grad, participated in two study abroad programs and said her travel is shaping her career choices right now.
Sica participated in a semester of study in Siena, Italy, and a summer program with UAS professors and students in Cuba. Studying abroad, she said, gave her confidence that allowed her to pursue travel to more exotic locales without the support of a school-facilitated program.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone to Asia had I not gone to these other places first,” Sica said. “It’s so different, so out there. I know Spanish, so got by in Italy and Cuba, but didn’t know Cambodian, Thai or Sri Lankan. Getting out of these places alive and in one piece gave me confidence to do other things.”
After volunteering in Cambodia during her travels in Southeast Asia, Sica decided she wanted to take a more hands-on approach to health care and plans to pursue a nursing degree in an accelerated program.
“I think what really did it for me this winter was I worked at an orphanage with kids with HIV in Cambodia. I saw how sick they were and how much I loved being around them ... I don’t want to work in an office. Nursing is more hands-on,” Sica said.
Hunter Brown, who had traveled before his exchange, studied in Botswana, an impulse choice, where he had expected to take classes that would be helpful toward his environmental science degree program. He did end up taking a course on Botswana’s environment, but he was really able to marry his studies and experiences when he returned to UAS and took a hydrology course.
“Water is a huge problem in Botswana,” Brown said. “I’m considering the hydrology field. If I could go back and apply it (in Botswana), it would be great.”
Andria Budbill did both domestic and foreign exchange programs through UAS and Squires said she is currently pursuing her masters in teaching at the university.
“The skill set she acquired during that is probably going to help her in the classroom in terms of working with students of different backgrounds,” Squires said. “That makes a huge difference for students, I think.”
Career success is important coming out of college, and it’s possible the other two results of study away Squires cited may contribute to that, as well as the students as well-rounded individuals.
It may be a bit of a cliché, but broadening one’s horizons was on the tip of everyone’s tongues.
“They are diving into things they don’t even realize ... on top of that career path, they have a new world perspective as well,” Squires said.
Whether it’s applying what they’ve learned at home abroad or vice versa, students who study away do learn a great deal about their home and the world at large. Traveling through Southeast Asia during a time of political unrest, Sica said, “People complain about things here, we are so much more lucky than a lot of other places.”
But it’s not simply comparing the difference from one place to another, though that can be important, students may come away with greater empathy and appreciation for those in very different places.
“Botswana was not any different,” Brown said. “They say ‘hi’ and invite you into their homes. They’re so interested in your story and excited to share their country. A lot of times these people didn’t have a lot, but they were willing to give out of the kindness of their hearts.”
Students can also learn about the less warm and fuzzy aspects of humanity as well — worrying about getting pick-pocketed in southern Italy or paying too much for an item in a foreign currency and a foreign language.
The most expansive transformation the study abroad experience provides is a stronger sense of self and independence.
“I was put in uncomfortable situations,” Sica said. “And I got through them.”
Squires said students may not fully realize it until six months later, but, Squires said, “I think students walk away realizing they are more confident and self reliant and independent and more resourceful. They come back saying, ‘I’m a new person.’”
“We’re so isolated here in Juneau that having students come to UAS is a great comfort. It’s close to home, you can get your feet wet starting classes, and the ability to spread your wings a little bit but still have the backing of all of us here at UAS and your home is really important as well,” Squires said. “It’s only fair for that student to help increase their academic opportunities for them and still be a UAS student.”
Squires said she feels her office and the student resources office as a whole offer students face-to-face support to get where they want to go, as a student, in their career, or studying outside Alaska. Students can choose between studying at universities in most of the 50 states, US territories, or around the world and, Squires added, “They get to come back and realize this is a great place too.”