Making Education Real

By Jackie R. Flaum


Megan Colnar ’08 flying high off the coast of Ipanema in Rio de Janiero

Whether it’s confronting a dishonest Scottish landlord, debating politics with fellow students in Brazil, teaching English in China or simply lunching with marketing colleagues in Paris, Rhodes College study/work abroad programs open up mind-altering experiences for students.

Many find the experience abroad so profound they can’t slip back into old ways or accept life as they knew it.

“It was hard sometimes for those of us who studied abroad to find common ground with students who have not studied abroad. We had this ‘out of world’ experience,” says Megan Colnar ’08 of San Antonio, TX, who studied in São Paulo, Brazil. “I got to live life with different priorities. In São Paulo people work to live, not live to work. People never sit at their desks for lunch—it’s unheard of.” Yet, she adds, São Paulo has a booming economy.

For Eben Cathey ’06 the experience of living and working in a variety of countries was even more profound. He now questions the extreme nationalism he feels in American culture.

“I’m beginning to believe America is not the only nation under God. There may be others,” he writes in an e-mail from Bolivia.

Through such experiences as tracking lions and elephants in an African ecological study for a nonprofit organization, viewing art masterpieces in Italy with Tim Sharp, dean of academic affairs-fine arts, and the Elizabeth G. Daughdrill Chair in Fine Arts, or speaking Russian in Russia, Rhodes students gain a deeper understanding of other cultures—and their own.

The impact these experiences make on Rhodes student travelers is gratifying to the professors who lead study programs and the administrators who oversee international internships, research projects and third-party or privately-contracted academic study at schools abroad. Just as important, news about the benefits of international study is spreading: Rhodes is graduating more and more students who have studied abroad—many of them for a semester or more. Of the 2001 graduating class, only 40 percent had studied in an international setting. By 2006, that figure was up to 60 percent.

Rhodes students can pick from a number of study abroad options that can last several weeks to several months, such as:

  • Programs designed and led by Rhodes faculty. Most of these programs occur during the summer and include offerings in intensive language study in China, France, Germany, Russia and Spain; environmental field programs in Honduras and Namibia; a marketing program at the University of Antwerp; and British Studies at St. John’s College, Oxford University. In summer 2008, Rhodes will operate a program in Turkey on the history and politics of identity within the country. Rhodes also offers a semester-long program, European Studies, which provides students an opportunity to study the history and civilization of Western Europe on-site. 
  • Exchange programs and programs operated by other institutions. Rhodes has bilateral exchange agreements with seven universities around the world and is a member of the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP), a consortium that includes more than 130 universities. Through an exchange, Rhodes students directly enroll in a university abroad while a student from abroad attends Rhodes during a semester or academic year. In addition to exchanges, students may also participate in programs offered by other institutions. Eighty-six students participated in semester-long programs in the 2006-07 academic year.
  • Internships both at home and abroad. Through Rhodes Career Services, 10 students worked abroad in summer 2007 in places such as France, Spain, Germany, India, Ghana and Belize. The Buckman Center for International Education encourages students to participate in study abroad programs that include internships for academic credit as part of a program’s curriculum. Recently, one Rhodes art major interned at Sotheby’s in Paris while taking French language and culture courses.

Students who travel abroad through Rhodes develop a real appreciation for the depth and breadth of today’s world, says Sandi George Tracy, director of Career Services. Rhodes is one of the few schools today that offers undergraduate international internships—a coup Tracy says is only possible through cooperating Mid-South companies and forward-thinking Rhodes supporters.

“We all live and work in a global society. Today there are no roadblocks—we have to work with others around the world,” Tracy says. “There are political and social scenes in the world that we have to understand … and we have to have a better idea of our role in those scenes.”

Katherine Owen Richardson ’83, director of International Programs and head of the Buckman Center for International Education, says students should come back from a study or work abroad experience changed.

“We help them understand that change and how to use it,” she says. “Sometimes they know they’ve changed, but don’t know how, or how to use it.”

She finds students who come through her office have acquired “skills that make them more sensitive to others—transferable skills.”

They are better communicators, better listeners, she said, and they have a great deal more self-confidence.

Moreover, John Planchon, associate professor of target=_blank>economics and business, says international study makes students more attractive to employers since they know these young people have been exposed to different ways of thinking and solving problems, can navigate in unfamiliar waters and deal successfully with differences and change.

For Planchon, combining classroom instruction and study abroad brings abstract ideas home. He led 27 international business students to study in Belgium and France in May. While they studied Harvard Business School cases, they also talked with officials of the diamond exchange in Antwerp, the European Union in Brussels and Moet et Chandon champagne in France.

“We can talk and read about cultural and regulatory differences (between Europe and America),” he says, “but being inside business and government makes it real.”

Making education “real” is at the heart of all Rhodes study abroad opportunities, says Richardson. Students who come to her office “should be very intentional about learning. This is not a travel agency. This is an office that facilitates out-of-classroom experience.

“One of the biggest concerns about international study is that it is too expensive,” says Richardson. “We’re hopeful that the current Campaign for Rhodes will dramatically put these opportunities within the reach of many more Rhodes students and open the door to the world for all of them.” 

Richardson says studying abroad is not just a good idea, it is a practical one too. For one thing, it opens students to career opportunities available outside the United States.

The newest study abroad program at Rhodes introduces students to one of the world’s largest economic and cultural powers—the People’s Republic of China.

Steve Ceccoli, chair of the International Studies Department, led seven students in a language immersion program to Tianjin in the People’s Republic of China last summer. All of them—including Ceccoli—studied at Tianjin Normal University in a port city of 10 million people southeast of Beijing. It was a varied group: Four had studied some Chinese, and three were recent graduates who had not. Their majors ranged from international studies to business to Spanish to history. The three recent graduates liked China so much they found jobs and stayed behind—two are now teaching English in Tianjin and one works for Apple in Beijing.

“There are tremendous opportunities for Rhodes students and recent graduates in China,” says Ceccoli. “While thousands of American companies are doing business in China, Chinese companies are also interested in hiring American employees.”

Of course, he says, China may not be for everyone. Air pollution can be considerable, hygiene standards aren’t what Americans are used to, and then there is the occasional meal of donkey meat or snake.

But for All-American golfer John Jennison ’07 of St. Augustine, FL, China with its huge population, growing economy and the upcoming Olympic Games seemed like the land of opportunity.

“My thought process as graduation neared was simple: Rhodes has been great experience, so what’s next?” he writes from Beijing. His next thought is illuminating—he felt he hadn’t done enough to differentiate himself significantly from other top 2007 liberal arts graduates around the country—so he decided to do just that by learning another language and gaining valuable international business experience.

Jennison asked Ceccoli to accept him in the summer language immersion course, and along with a backpack full of clothes he brought his résumé and several recommendation letters.

Ceccoli reports that it was not long before Jennison had set up an internship in the Channel Strategy Department of Apple in Beijing. Three months later he was invited to play golf with one of the top executives in the Asian division of Apple. Shortly afterward, he was hired full time in Apple’s sales department as a major account manager working to establish and develop strategic partnerships with multinational corporations in China.

“Trying my luck by moving abroad to Beijing alone has been one of the most challenging—and often frightening—but smartest and most rewarding decisions I have ever made,” Jennison says.

For his professor, watching students grow in a foreign culture was satisfying. Ceccoli realized early on his main job was “to step back and let the learning unfold naturally.” He urged them to explore the city, meet people, try new things and challenge themselves.

There is, after all, a difference between studying a culture and being part of it.

Today, Richardson said, 70 percent of high school seniors come to college expecting to study abroad.

She said Rhodes endeavors to ensure their study abroad experience doesn’t simply mean “taking a classroom from the second floor of Palmer Hall and putting it in Antwerp.

This is so much more.” 

Rhodes Graduate Learns His World Isn’t the Only One

Eben Cathey’06 of Smyrna, TN, remembers walking the desert with a man who slept in a sand dune, a Columbian veterinarian who gave him dog pills to cure a bacterial infection, a family in the Peruvian jungle who gave him food and a place to sleep when he was hungry.

He remembers being poor. Desperately poor.

He admits that before his travels he lived a sheltered, idyllic life in a small, conservative American town—his mother teaches third grade, his father owns a small construction firm, his sister Sally is a Rhodes junior. While at Rhodes, Cathey was a baseball player, musician and part of CUP (Contents Under Pressure), the comedy group. He double-majored in political science and Greek and Roman Studies.

“I became interested in studying and living abroad after I learned from friends in other counties how differently they study history and international politics,” he says.

For example, while traveling in Latin America he says he learned there are only six continents—North and South America are one. Where a person from the United States refers to himself as an American, the people in Latin America call him a “United Statesian.”

“So when I say, ‘I want some American food,’ or, ‘I like American music,’ they give me hell about it because they think they’re Americans too,” Cathey says.

Studying and traveling abroad has opened his eyes to the adage that the more you know about the difference between people, the more you realize everyone’s the same.

“People really all want the same things that they do in the first world: to go to school, have kids who go to school and have a job that pays well enough to own a house,” he says.

Most of the people he met were kind and considerate and went out of their way to help him—his Scottish landlord being the notable exception. While working as a cook in Scotland, Cathey had a landlord who forged a document that made Cathey liable for property taxes. At first his paychecks were heavily taxed, but when the ruse was uncovered Cathey had a lot of money refunded—money he used to travel.

The people he met—French students, Polish sailors, Bolivian guinea pig farmers—all want to live in peace, he says.

Cathey’s first study-abroad experience came when he was a junior at Rhodes. He joined the European Studies program, which is sponsored through Rhodes. He studied at Sewanee for a month, Oxford University in England for two months, then an Oxford professor led a group across Greece, Italy and Turkey for a month.

Immediately after graduation Rhodes helped him find a work-abroad program that landed him in Scotland. Since then he has traveled abroad picking up odd jobs—even singing on the street in Paris—and learning about the cultures of different countries.

His goal is to earn his doctoral degree and teach on the college level. He begins his study toward a master’s degree in February at Rhodes University in South Africa thanks to a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. He credits faculty and staff at Rhodes College with helping him find and secure that scholarship.

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