Students who studied abroad last year learned the United States is just one piece of a huge multicultural world puzzle.
Julie Haferkamp’s adventure began Jan. 1 when she left for Alicante, Spain. She said she will always remember the experience.
“It was the best and hardest thing in my life,” said Haferkamp, who is majoring in advertising and Spanish.
Haferkamp, 21, was one of 625 participants in MU’s Study Abroad program during the 2002-2003 school year. The enrollment increased by 101 students from the previous year. Barbara Lindeman, the program’s director, said much of this increase came from departments starting their own study-abroad programs.
About 200 of the students spent at least one semester overseas — long enough to absorb the host culture and to experience a reverse culture shock upon their return. Like Haferkamp, many saw their lives changed and their horizons expanded.
“There’s more than the U.S. has to offer,” Haferkamp said. “There’s more than one viewpoint than the U.S.”
Lindeman said she is not surprised students’ views have changed.
“The better people adjust to their host culture, the more difficult it will be to readjust to the U.S.,” she said.
Students said they gained a broader perspective on the world and learned they should not take everything the U.S. media says at face value.
“I am more questioning now — not necessarily questioning the president, but questioning where America’s place is in the world,” said Mary Kertz, who spent a semester in Salzburg, Austria, in a Truman State University program.
Kertz, a 21-year-old majoring in political science and geography, said she did not join an MU program because she did not want to know anyone who was going with her. Kertz visited 12 countries in the five months she was overseas and said she is more appreciative of different cultures.
“America repeats itself generation after generation unless they are exposed to anything other than American culture,” she said.
Sarah Tomkowiak said her experiences with cultural differences in Germany spell contradiction.
“I was surprised that people have very anti-American political views, but they are surrounded by American culture,” she said.
Tomkowiak, 21, is majoring in communication and German. She said her time in Saarbrucken, a town on the border of Germany and France, helped her mature. “A lot of things that were important to me before seem very silly,” she said.
Lindeman said students often are skeptical about culture shock and think they won’t experience a re-entry adjustment. But she said most of them do.
Edward Kampelman, an international business major from St. Louis who spent the winter semester in Spain, said he misses his study-abroad experience.
“I still have my days when I am depressed and wish I was back there,” he said.
Kampelman, 21, said he has problems adjusting even almost two months after his return. Like many other students who study abroad, he said it is not easy to talk about foreign experiences with friends in the United States.
“They say, ‘That’s cool’ and talk about something else,” he said.
Tomkowiak said her best friends remained her best friends, but she found out she can connect a lot more to people who have had the same experience.
The International Center, which includes the study abroad office, encourages returning students to speak to their advisers about their experiences and the readjustment period.
“They have to figure out ways to keep the best of the U.S. and the best of the host country,” Lindeman said.
Studying abroad in times of war
Studying abroad this past spring was particularly interesting because of the war in Iraq. When Haferkamp saw the American flag burning during the Spanish anti-war protests, she said she was disturbed. “It definitely was frustrating,” Kertz said.
Kertz is not the only one who said she tried to keep a low profile around crowds during the war. “They didn’t hate us as Americans, but they hated what our government was doing,” Kampelman said.
It was hard to support the United States when Spanish media were opposed to the war, Kampelman said.
When Kertz got caught in a large anti-war march while visiting Madrid, she had to cut through protesters to get to her hotel. Although it was a tough experience, she said she knew the anger was not directed at American students there, but rather at President Bush.
Jennifer Kiely, a 21-year-old advertising studentwho studied in England, said she wanted to learn what other people really thought about the United States.
“I have been going through life thinking that everyone thinks we’re wonderful,” she said. “It sounds naïve, but it was surprising to see that so many people despised us.”
Tomkowiak said she didn’t appreciate all the comments she heard during that time, but it caused her to examine her beliefs and strengthen them.
Remembering the host culture
Most students choose Western Europe as their destination. Lindeman said the International Center suggests alternative places, but students ultimately make their decisions based on their cultural background, language skills and academic requirements.
She said usually a few students return each year before finishing the program because of personal reasons. Bad experience was never cited as a reason.
“It opened my eyes a lot to what is out there,” Kampelman said.
To remain close to his host country’s culture, Kampelman said he watches a lot of Spanish television, reads Spanish and calls and sends e-mails to his friends in Spain. Kertz just started a job at the International Center as a peer adviser for students asking about study-abroad opportunities.
Tomkowiak said she would love to use her German skills for translating.
“I’d like to have the CIA call me and say, ‘Translate all these secret German documents,’ ” she saidwith a smile.
Haferkamp was not about to give up on her newly acquired Spanish skills, either. She got a job at a Spanish restaurant because she said she can speak the language.
Kiely is set on going to Scotland and Ireland for spring break, and Kampelman said he wants to go back as soon as possible.
For students considering studying abroad, Kampelman said: “Don’t be scared.Go there with an open mind, and if you do, it’s going to be the best experience of your life.”