T HE P OIN T- C OUN T ERP OIN T P UBL IC AT ION FOR OC TOBER 19, 2 011
POINT STUDY ABROAD AT U OF M A CONVERSATION WITH DR. AFONSO & CELINE SMITH
Travel restrictions within U of M’s study abroad policy are in the best interest of student’s safety and have minimal impacts on the relationship between studying abroad and cultivating intercultural education.
Volume 25 Issue 4
Opportunities Despite Restrictions U of M’s International Oversight Committee restricts University sponsored study abroad programs in countries under travel advisories issued by the US Department of State. Advisories are issued upon two condition: (1) when “long-term, protracted conditions […] make a country dangerous or unstable,” or (2) when the “ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of […] staff.” Dr. Janet Afonso of LSA Academic Advising, who specializes in study abroad issues, agreed to sit down with Consider staff to discuss this policy. She defends the U of M travel policy because she believes it champions the safety of students while offering a rich intercultural education, no matter the location. She began by stating that studying abroad (anywhere) is a valuable tool in achieving intercultural education. Rather than merely reading a book or taking a class, students interact and engage with people of another culture and truly acquire a window into that culture. Seizing the opportunity to explore a different country and immerse oneself in the wide variety of aspects of its particular culture (such as food, music, language, humor, attitudes, and customs) culminates in experiences that go farther than any traditional class can even hope to offer. U of M offers a wide variety of study abroad programs in both developed and developing countries, with programs including “full immersion,” where students are studying side-by-side with native students, arranging homestays and internships, and satellite campuses where study abroad students live and take classes together. In addressing the current travel restriction policy, Dr. Afonso was quick to retort, “Quite literally, the entire world is open to U of M students.” Despite U of M’s adherence to travel advisories, many other accredited universities hold programs in countries under alert, which students can attend and from which they can most likely transfer credit back to U of M. Dr. Afonso particualry singled out Israel as a country that, while not a U of M program destination, enjoys a very generous transfer credit policy under University guidelines. When reflecting on the symbolic and ethical nature of the restriction, Dr. Afonso sympathized: “I can completely understand a university’s position […] to [not] wholeheartedly endorse sending a student to a place where there is knowledge that a student could be put in harms way. Today, we live in a more litigious society […]; people are scared about being sued. However, above all, it is about the student’s welfare and keeping them safe. A university has a responsibility that comes with endorsing a program.” Dr. Afonso didn’t entirely discourage students from traveling to places under the safety advisory.
She shared a personal account of one of her own study abroad experiences about being in Nicaragua in 1973 amidst the revival of the Sandinistas, a political party confronting, often violently, the federal government: “In retrospect, I am shocked that anyone let me go to Nicaragua in 1973. However, I am glad they did. If I had been deterred by danger I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to many of the places that I did. We encourage resourceful students to travel anywhere in the world they wish to go regardless of whether there is a specific U of M program. I would like to think that a student who truly wants to go to a place like Nicaragua circa 1973 is resourceful enough to make it happen, and frankly they should be that resourceful if they are to be placed into such an environment. Most likely the student is going to face much greater challenges when they arrive in that country than trying to work around a non-U of M program.” Given her own numerous and influential travels abroad, Dr. Afonso encourages all students who can to study abroad and to impart to their peers, future employers, and grad schools a coherent narrative of their cultural growth experience. Dr. Afonso implores all students to go “beyond awesome” and truly articulate what they have leaned from their experience abroad. True to Dr. Afonso’s mission, read on to learn about a student’s experience with U of M’s study abroad programs:
A Student’s Experience
I was—and remain—bitten with the travel bug. Through U of M programs, I first went to Zambia to participate in workshops on HIV/AIDS in religious communities after my freshman year. During the winter semester of my sophomore year, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, I took part in an internship with the organization Un Techo Para Mi Pais, which is similar to Habitat for Humanity. By directly working and living with Argentines, I gained a deeper insight into not only the diversity of the world, but also the similarities that unite us all. A unique aspect of studying abroad is that the majority of what you learn is outside the classroom. This is unmatched by any experience you could have on campus in Ann Arbor. These opportunities in Zambia and Argentina have had an incredible impact on me not only as a student but also in my daily life. I am more open-minded than ever before. Even though there may be drawbacks to the study abroad process at U of M, the personal growth that is cultivated during the experience outweighs any struggles. Dr. Afonso is a LSA Academic Adviser and serves on the International Student Committee, specializing in study abroad issues. Celine Smith is currently a junior double majoring in International Studies and Cultural Anthropology with a minor in the Program in the Environment. She works as an Education Abroad Peer Advisor at the International Center.
COUNTERPOINT LET US EXPERIENCE THE WORLD Last summer I had the opportunity to study abroad in China. The trip was arranged through the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU), and the goal of the month-long sojourn was to learn about Chinese nuclear energy policy. The internship was phenomenal, and it’s precisely for this reason that I’m compelled to confront U of M’s study abroad policy, which almost prevented my life-changing experience. Our program was scheduled for the month of May, less than two months after the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. As our travel group had a scheduled layover in the Tokyo airport, there was obvious cause for concern. The United States Department of State issued a travel advisory for the country of Japan soon after the incident. Luckily, some of the nuclear scholars assessing the level of danger in Japan were the Michigan professors set to lead our tour. It was with great relief that in the weeks after the accident they assured us that there was no threat in traveling through Japan. Our planned travel, however, remained in question due to the University’s policy to ban travel to areas with official State Department travel advisories in effect. In late April an online statement from the University confirmed that with the lifting of the government’s travel advisory, all study abroad programs could proceed as planned in Japan. Although this particular conflict was resolved, it highlights the drawbacks of the school’s blanket approach to study abroad safety protocol. The University has an obvious responsibility to ensure the welfare of its students, but in fulfilling this commitment, they have begun to curb the potential for meaningful cultural exchange. According to the State Department’s website, there are thirty-four travel advisories currently in effect. While the conditions in some of these countries do pose a substantial risk (for example, Somalia) other areas seem to have been included out of an abundance of caution (for example, Mexico). Last year, the Michigan Daily reported that the University’s travel ban on portions of Northern Mexico had forced two student groups to abandon their original plans. There are rising instances of violence in parts of Mexico, but to brand the country as “extremely dangerous” overlooks the fact that travel occurs in the country all the time without incident. In cases of moderate risk, the University’s restrictions create the false perception that portions of the world are practically uninhabitable and deprive students of the rich cultural insight such areas have to offer. This precedent of erring on the side of extreme caution has negatively affected one study abroad group in particular. Last summer, a group of GIEU students working in El Salvador to promote waterfiltering technology was sent home prematurely after only one week. The departure was prompted by the nighttime mugging of several of the students. Fortunately, none of the students were harmed. According to a field site participant, however, the university
was “thrown into a frenzy.” Despite the general sentiment (even amongst those who experienced the robbery) that the crime was an isolated incident that was not indicative of conditions in the surrounding area, the decision was made to abort the program. The final verdict was reached not by the team leader, but by administrative figures in Ann Arbor. The same student objected to the University’s actions, saying “[they] made it impossible to absorb and digest the new world that had opened up.” In addition to halting this cultural absorption and the service component of the trip, the decision leaves the country stigmatized as unsafe - a place of terror rather than a site of intercultural education. Moreover, the University’s policy does little to combat long-standing trends in national study abroad patterns. The Institute of International Education released statistics showing that about fifty-five percent of approximately 260,000 American students who studied abroad between 2008 and 2009 elected to travel within Europe. There is no doubt that many students experience genuine growth in European travels. On the other hand, just as many students are insulated in what an article from the Detroit Free Press calls “American bubbles.” The article reports “hot spots like London, Barcelona and Florence […] feel like exclaves of […] Ann Arbor.” The report notes that, on average, students studying abroad in such locations spend over four hours a day on the Internet. The University has achieved a great deal in creating culturally enriching alternatives to this classic vacation equation; but as long as school policy allows safety concerns to define any trip out of the ordinary, trends are unlikely to change. Any sort of travel involves inherent risk. When weighing safety concerns, it’s crucial to place reports of danger in their proper context and consider potential educational value. According to The Guardian, a student publication at UC – San Diego, during massive, often violent student protests in Chile, UC – San Diego students made the decision to remain in Santiago, arguing that “witnessing the social movement is an important education in and out of itself.” U of M’s explicit adherence to State Department travel advisories and reflexive reactions to any possibility of danger undercuts its ability to facilitate meaningful cultural discourse.
JON ATH A N L E WA L L EN
The travel restrictions enforced by U of M’s study abroad programs narrow the potential for cultural exchange and generate negative perceptions about restricted countries.
The author is a sophomore in LSA studying Political Science and Philosophy. October 19, 2011
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FIVE THINGS about Studying Abroad U of M does not sponsor study abroad programs in any location where the US State Department has issued a travel warning. Some of these countries are: Israel, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Haiti and Pakistan.
Ireland, Italy, Spain, France, China, Mexico, Germany and Costa Rica. Vista Wide
U of M students are allowed to study abroad in restricted countries, however, they must go through a non-U of M program.
Nationwide, the top 10 study abroad destinations are the United Kingdom, Australia,
Many students who study abroad are bombarded by criticism of American Foreign Policy and the American lifestyle. U of M
About 50% of international students who study in the US are from either India, China, South Korea, Canada or Japan. Vista Wide
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