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Student: Thinking about studying abroad? Look outside Europe

BY ALLIE PANTHER - GUEST OPINION | FEBRUARY 26, 2010 7:30 AM

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When I first considered studying abroad, I fantasized about touring ancient cathedrals, shopping at H&M, and gorging myself on French bread. Like most UI students who study abroad — 57 percent, according to the University of Iowa Office for Study Abroad — I pictured myself in Western Europe.

Instead, this past winter break I found myself atop a camel in northern India. The “winterim” study-abroad program I participated in lasted only three weeks, but in that short time I learned, felt, and experienced far more than I do in an entire semester back home.

The India winterim program is unique in that each class spends the majority of the trip working with a nongovernmental or social entrepreneurship organization. My gender and justice course partnered with an organization that focuses on a group of impoverished communities with a complex religious history, providing individuals rudimentary resources and information to empower themselves in ways that they see fit. We examined this organization from a critical perspective to see how its values, mission, and actions interact with concepts such as Western imperialism and globalization.

More importantly, however, we engaged in a continual dialogue with the organization’s staff. This allowed the members of our class, many of whom are interested in careers in the nonprofit sector, to gain great insight into the operation of an NGO. We also hope our constant questioning and thoughtful observations left behind something helpful for the organization and its staff.

Despite this exciting opportunity, I was nervous to venture so far outside of my comfort zone. During our brief layover in Frankfurt, I was tempted to bolt out of the airport and spend three weeks in Germany instead. Europe certainly has its differences from the United States, but things generally look, sound, smell, and taste pretty much the same as at home. You can usually find someone who speaks English without too much trouble, chocolate is readily available, and though you may have to pay to use a public restroom, in it you’ll find a toilet that you know how to use.

Not so in India.

From the moment we stepped out of the airport in Delhi, I was aware that India was unlike anywhere I’d ever been. The air smelled different, and there was a continual chorus of honking horns that would put even New York City to shame. We were unable to communicate with almost everyone around us, and the “American” food we ordered in restaurants often tasted more foreign than Indian food. As our days abroad grew, the stark contrast between the country’s striking beauty and devastating poverty confounded us far more than the squat toilets we struggled to use.

For me, however, the biggest surprise of the journey was that I got used to all these things. By the end of the trip, the geckos that shared our hotel room with us no longer fazed me. I stopped fearing for my life whenever I got in a car. We picked up some basic Hindi and fell in love with masala-flavored potato chips. Most importantly, we learned to go with the flow and expect the unexpected.

I firmly believe that these are lessons I would not have learned in a more familiar environment. I encourage others to look beyond the European horizon.

I, for one, am stronger for it.

Allie Panther is a UI junior.


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