Seeing the World Can Open a Student's Eyes
U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that a quality education in the 21st Century needs to be an international education. Experts agree that there is a need to increase study abroad opportunities for students and a need to internationalize university curriculums.
Winston-Salem State University and its Office of International Programs have been working diligently to increase student exposure to the world beyond their campus and their hometowns by using grants to support professors in developing internationally focused courses, bring international scholars to speak on campus, using videoconferencing to link students with their counterparts in other parts of the world and increasing the number of students studying abroad each year.
Increasing that number is particularly difficult for students whose families are not able to support their travel. Scholarships and financial aid are limited in the face of growing interest in education abroad. Yet, WSSU continues to work to help make these experiences possible for its students.
"Before this effort, we sent about 15 students abroad each year and in recent years it averages about 45 annually," said Dr. Joti Sekhon, director of international programs. "It's small still, but meaningful for us."
For those students who have been able to take advantage of study abroad sessions, the opportunities have been more than meaningful. They have been life-changing.
For Shaquana Lashawn Aikens, a Spanish major with English and deaf studies minors, going to Spain turned out to be one of the best experiences of her undergrad career.
"I think the most memorable moment I encountered was having the opportunity to teach English to Spanish students at College Claret," Aikens said. "Seeing how motivated the students were to learn a new language was encouraging and fueled me to promote learning another with all of my Freedom Schools scholars and other programs that I work with. Studying abroad in Spain was most rewarding because I overcame so many obstacles financially, mentally and physically to be able to do it."
Aikens also had an opportunity to participate in a program that planned cultural activities and considers "El gran Camino de Santiago," a religious pilgrimage, to be her favorite activity. Hiking 15 miles of the pilgrimage with participants in her program brought them all closer to one another.
Gloria Mesa, a junior healthcare management major who is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, participated in a study abroad program in Kenya in March of this year.
"The main purpose of my trip was to study at Kenyatta University and do research on female genital mutilation (FGM)," Mesa said. "I knew a bit about the topic before I left, but we had lessons and lectures on gender issues and issues of women’s leadership in Kenya. One of our local guides was from Somalia and she explained that had she stayed there that she would have had the procedure. She told us that FGM can start as young as nine. Once the girl is given time to heal, her parents then choose a husband for her and that husband often is already married. I became interested in research on girls leaving Somalia to keep from having to undergo FGM."
Having been in the United States for only about 10 years, Mesa knew some of what to expect in Africa and was surprised by the misconceptions held by other students on the trip. Tashieka Brown, a senior nursing major, certainly was impacted by misconceptions.
"None of my family has been out of the country," she explained. "They didn't want me to go because of the perceptions they had based on what they've seen in the media. The trip helped me get a better understanding of African culture."
For all of the students on the trip, however, the one experience everyone reflected on was a visit to a Kenyan slum. Seeing people living without so many things they had taken for granted provided a whole new way to look at life for them.
"We went to the slums and when you see people without the basic necessities while you have so much you know that you should be thankful for everything," said Linda Boyd, a junior accounting major.
"Seeing life in the slums with my own eyes was quite shocking and emotional," Mesa added. "However, seeing the energy and spirit of the girls who live there made me humble and appreciative. I can't forget how difficult it is for them to find water. That means the only water they have for a bathing is what they can cup in their hands. Traveling is the best form of education. Nobody can teach you any better because you've seen it with your own eyes."
Berenice Rodriguez, a sophomore entering the nursing program, went to Brazil because of her interest in Afro-Brazilian disparities and what is needed to close those gaps.
"Studying and traveling in Brazil opened my eyes to what is out there," Rodriguez said. "Learning the culture, seeing how active the students there were in politics, and how passionate those students were about issues really changed how I look at things. It made me want to reach out to the international students on the WSSU campus and become more involved with our international program." She is now an intern in the Office of International Programs.
The time in Brazil also made Rodriquez want to see more of the world and possibly be involved in international health care for a time after she graduates.
Rodriguez, Mesa and Aikens, along with other WSSU students who have studied abroad, attended the Go Beyond Abroad: The North Carolina Study Abroad Reentry Conference at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on Saturday, April 18, 2015. The conference was designed to bring former study abroad students together from across North Carolina to share their experiences, and discuss some of the common challenges and benefits that come from studying abroad.
Secretary Duncan and other education experts understand the need for international education to support student success in today's global economy. Study abroad programs, however, go beyond that idea and include changing not only how the students see the world, but how they see themselves in the world. That depth of education is certainly worth the price of travel. "We hope that with the new strategic plan, WSSU will move to the next level in global education through more creative programming for education abroad and curriculum internationalization," adds Sekhon.