Study abroad: the corniest, truest message

William Witwer

Studying Abroad at Whitman CollegeWhen senior Jenna Stearns visited a slum, or basti, in Jaipur, India, she was surprised to find that the women there seemed perfectly content.

“The houses were literally cardboard and it was on the side of a railroad track and they didn’t have sewage, didn’t have a safe place to cook food,” said Stearns. “All the women there were so happy with their life and we asked them what would make their life better. They were like, we’re just happy that our kids are healthy, that we can all live together and share the work.”

Whitman Students AbroadThis stoically contented attitude in the face of adversity altered Stearns’ attitude about her Whitman experience, as many study abroad programs have done for students.

Studying abroad allows students to realize just how lucky they are, and to know it emotionally rather than just intellectually.

“Coming back to the U.S. and Whitman, it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, I have so much work to do, I’m so stressed, I’m so down on life’,” said Stearns. “It’s such a contrast to those people who were so much worse off but had such a healthy outlook on life.”
While she acknowledges that stress is a very common affliction, Stearns can now put it into perspective with her first-hand experience in India. Senior  Lauren Schneider, who studied abroad in both Buenos Aires, Argentina and Nante, France, shared the same grateful realization.

“It sounds so trite and so cliché,” said Schneider.   “But I am just so lucky for this quality of everything: quality of education, quality of life, quality of friends, and even just being around people who are intellectually curious about things, and having the resources to do virtually anything that I would like to do.”

Whitman Students AbroadSchneider’s global gratefulness for the “quality of everything” in her life comes from her unique experience abroad. On a more local level, she realized how much energy it takes to simply listen.

“Oh my God, everything is in Spanish [in Buenos Aires],” said Schneider. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t really hit you until you go there. Of course you know intellectually yes everybody’s going to be speaking a different language but when you sit in a cafe and realize that you can’t understand what the person next to you said, you have to make a huge effort.”

Schneider realized how important and taken for granted the skill of actively listening truly is. While realizations like the true value of listening or how lucky one is might not seem surprising, they are almost universal among students who have studied abroad.

Senior Miyoko Patricelli, who took a semester off from school to volunteer in Honduras in a non-Whitman affiliated program, had similar appreciations upon returning home.

“I came back being like, the U.S. is the best country ever,” said Patricelli. “The poverty there [in Honduras] is so connected to so many different factors that it just seemed so hopeless.”

Unfortunately, while first-hand experience with poverty makes students realize their good fortune, another common feeling is one of hopelessness. Patricelli worked in a severely understaffed daycare center and after-school program for children of single mothers, and consistently felt that, although she was helping, it was not enough.

“The kids I was working with, about half of them, would never go to a day of school,” said Patricelli.

Whitman Students Abroad“They didn’t have fathers, their mothers maybe worked, and some of them were homeless, and it’s not as if Honduras has a ton of programs set up for homeless people. If they could make it off the streets that was essentially going to be the biggest accomplishment of their lives.”

When studying abroad, many Whitman students like Patricelli are forced to confront the sad realities of poverty, which in turn spurs some of them to action.   Stearns, while in India, was impressed by the attitudes of the women living in depressing conditions, and felt called to try and change it.

“I saw so much poverty and so much suffering I couldn’t do anything about on a large scale that I’m a lot more interested in finding ways to create change and implementing them,” said Stearns. Studying abroad opens the eyes of Whitman students to their incredibly fortunate personal situations, and while the observed poverty can be depressing, it is an inspiring sight.

Director of International Programs Susan Brick studied abroad herself multiple times and can attest to the power of the experience.

“I would say that many, many students come back saying it did change their perspective in that they were able to empathize with another people from another culture and a society, and sometimes for the first time see that things can really be done differently,” said Brick.

Sending students abroad opens their eyes to the great and terrible world in which we live.

“Going abroad gives you the idea that there are thing happening in other parts of the world that are bigger than yourself,” said Schneider.