With its urban sophistication, cultural proximity and plentiful Wi-Fi, Europe’s status as a first-choice study abroad location is hardly astonishing.
Of the regions that hosted Penn study-abroad students for the 2013-2014 academic year, Europe overwhelmingly led the pack, netting a whopping 59 percent of all participants. But at the same time every year, a number of intrepid souls toss Euro glam and routine creature comforts to the wind, opting for study-abroad programs slightly more off the beaten path.
“In many cases,” Director of Penn Abroad Barbara Gorka said, such students are “self-selecting” and “might want to be doing something different.”
They may choose a specialized program with comparatively few applicants or even petition the study abroad office to have a new program approved.
Sometimes, if students are studying an uncommon language, Gorka continued, they are all but required to go to a country that receives less Penn traffic. Often, she added, it’s “a little bit of both” — an “academic rationale” combined with a thirst for the unfamiliar — that propels students to relatively untrodden corners of the globe.
Here, a trio of Penn juniors who opted for atypical destinations — two still abroad and one freshly returned — discuss their study-abroad experiences, and the frustrations and enchantments of being immersed in an entirely new culture. They touch upon everything from dazzling day trips to the surprising quirks of internet deprivation. Their narratives are tinged with the marvelousness of the road less traveled.
University of Iringa, Tanzania
About two weekends ago, Hannah Watene nearly made an enemy of a lion.
“We went on safari to Ruaha National Park,” Watene said, “and one of the lions we saw was just lying in the grass next to where we pulled up ... if any one of us had stepped out of the car, we would’ve stepped on it!”
Her group succeeded in making an elephant irate the same day. “She threw a huge piece of tree bark at us. We thought she was going to charge the car,” Watene laughed. “ ... we had to have a Maasai guard with a gun escort us everywhere at night because of our proximity to the animals.”
Such weekend excursions are nothing out of the ordinary in Iringa, Tanzania, where Watene is currently studying with the Council on International Educational Exchange.
A College junior and double-major in International Relations and African Studies, Watene had sought out a study-abroad program that would allow her to gain experience in Swahili, the language she is taking at Penn.
She attends class with local students at the University of Iringa on weekdays and is currently enrolled in “Kiswahili,” “Field Research Seminar,” and “Managing Community Development Programs.” The last of the three involves a field trip every Tuesday to a community venue, most recently to a center for domestic violence victims. And in April, Watene will be traveling to the Mufindi region to conduct field research on the empowerment of local women through microfinance.
Until then, she’ll have a broad array of activities to keep her occupied in Iringa. “After classes we have free time to go into town ... it’s about a 15-minute bus ride and there’s a couple restaurants and a coffee shop that we hang out at. Mostly it’s to get to the Wi-Fi,” she laughed.
There’s “rugby on Wednesday with a group of expats, and volleyball on Saturdays at a dairy farm,” she added. “We do so many hikes and outdoor things because we’re in a mountainous region.”
She said the weather “is literally perfect in Iringa.” The temperature hovers between 75 and 80 degrees each day, she said, and “we’re in the rainy season too, so anytime it gets past 80, it usually rains and cools things down to a nice 70s.”
She described the cultural vibe as group-oriented and open-hearted — if occasionally somewhat cramped. “Things are a lot less focused on individual autonomy,” she explained. “If you’re on a bus, there’s no such thing as personal space. People will be packed in, halfway sitting on your lap, asking you to hold their child.”
However, “people are very polite and extremely curious,” she continued, and “always tripping over themselves to accommodate the guests in any way.”
“It’s very much a community culture,” she said. “[When] you are eating food ... it is customary to invite anyone near you to take some” – even if he’s a stranger on that same bus.
The food, she said, is quite similar to Indian cuisine. “There’s a naan-bread type of bread called chapatti, and there’s a lot of rice and meat stew and beans ... there’s a specialty on campus called chipsi mayai which is basically a french-fry omelette,” she said.“We were skeptical at first, but it’s actually really good.”
Her favorite experience thus far, however, was one that felt a little closer to home.
Her program director decided to host a Super Bowl party, streaming the game off the internet. “He grilled for us, we made guacamole, his cook made tortillas and we had a nice assortment of Swahili and imported American foods.” The game was to begin at 2:30 a.m. local time; classes were scheduled to start only a few hours after that.
“We napped and woke up in the middle of the night in time for the game,” Watene said.
One quick power nap later, Watene was ready to join her 8 a.m. class as a new day broke over Tanzania.
When asked to highlight a particularly memorable experience from her time thus far in Ecuador, Sam Friedlander hesitated. “I rode a pregnant horse bareback up a mountain with my host family,” she said finally with nonchalance.
Friedlander, a College junior studying linguistics, is in Ecuador with the Development, Politics and Languages program offered by SIT. The program is a relatively unstructured one, and Friedlander had to go petition Penn Abroad to have it approved.
It wasn’t exactly a breeze. “The hardest thing I did ever in my life,” she laughed, wasn’t getting into Penn, but having to write a 20-page petition on why the SIT program was a better fit than anything offered by Penn Abroad.
“Most of Penn’s programs have you studying in a university,” she explained, “and I didn’t really want that.” She added that more conventional programs would feel like “doing Penn, but somewhere else.”
With SIT, “we have a lot more freedom,” she said, as the program setup is a highly mobile one, and program participants are not tied to a particular university.
Classes take place in informal, improvised settings; at one point, Friedlander said, a class of hers was taught for two weeks in a rented room in a preschool. Another was taught “while we were hiking in the cloud forest” — a mountain forest with a persistent cloud cover due to Ecuador’s elevation.
Friedlander has been learning about the area’s most prominent indigenous language, Quechua, and about the power dynamic between Quechua speakers and Spanish speakers. The program’s most recent phase has brought her to Quito, the capital, where she has been for only a few days.
Her routine involves classes in the mornings, returning to her host family for a copious lunch — the central meal in Ecuador — and exploring the city.
For the final month of the program, she said, classes are to be replaced by work on an independent research project. Friedlander admitted she was a bit concerned about the curt instructions: find somewhere to live in the city, determine a topic and write a paper on it. She said she plans to get ahold of and partner with an organization when the time comes.
As for the horse episode, “my host family had a hacienda [a ranch],” Friedlander explained, and she had accompanied them there one day on a visit. No saddles were available, so she was given the smoothest ride — a pregnant mare.
Outings in the city are lower-key and somewhat less equine. When asked about her plans for a given evening, Friedlander shrugged. She may just go see a movie with her host family, she said.
“You never know what you’re going to do when studying abroad, I’ve learned,” she laughed.
Universidad de la Habana, Cuba
Megan Bridges is on a self-professed mission to demolish misconceptions about Cuba.
The island nation hadn’t even been on her radar as a study-abroad option; originally, Bridges had wanted to go to Spain.
Then she learned about Cuba’s exceptional healthcare system in a Spanish class at Penn — one it has achieved “with far fewer financial and material resources” than the United States, she said.
“Cuba is one of the few countries in the world to cover all the costs of sexual reassignment surgery, hormonal therapy” — something “so progressive for a country the U.S. basically shits on,” she added with a laugh.
Deciding to investigate further, Bridges got on a plane from Miami in the fall of 2014 with a Penn Abroad-sponsored program bound for Universidad de la Habana.
Cuba’s cultural peculiarities made themselves evident before she had a chance to leave the ground. At Miami International Airport, she said, “all the way at the end of the terminal was a section just for people going to Cuba,” and a line had formed with “carts full of TVs and other technology ... just because they’re so hard to get in Cuba.”
Once she arrived, she was plunged into a sometimes-surreal environment shaped by decades of cultural incubation. Instead of the advertisements plastering every surface in U.S. cities, she said, she was met by potent propagandistic messages. “You’re always reminded of the revolution, about Castro, Che Guevara,” she said. The Communist revolutionaries are very much alive in the language of the locals, and it is easy to find patriotically-themed products at Havana’s markets, she said.
To get around town, there are maquinas – meticulously maintained cars from the 40’s and 50’s that travel on fixed routes around Havana. “Cuban mechanics are among the best in the world because they can’t get new parts,” Bridges explained. For the sum of 40 cents, a Havanan can pack into one of these duct-tape-festooned rides and go anywhere in the city.
Bridges’ own quarters were conveniently placed. She lived at a group house full of American students in the Vedado neighborhood, a stone’s throw from downtown and 15 minutes from the beach and from the university.
However, Havana living presented some unique challenges.
“High-speed internet is illegal in homes,” Bridges explained. The only way to access the internet was to obtain a special card from a hotel, she said, but these were limited in number and expensive. Telephone calls were also difficult to make — Bridges wound up calling her mother twice during her stay.
However, “being so isolated — not having internet, feeling disconnected,” she said, made the housemates “a lot more committed to each other.”
The Americans — a jumble of around 30 students from Penn, Tulane, Harvard and assorted other schools — bonded over breakfast and dinner, which they took together at banquet-style tables, and during blackouts, another local signature.
Despite the group house’s backup generator, “there were blackouts all the time,” Bridges said, frequently resulting in hours-long rum-sipping sessions on the porch.
The Vedado house was not free of its drama; “there were times when people were sick of other people in the house,” she admitted, laughingly.
The students at Universidad de la Habana were not the most receptive to foreigners, Bridges went on, so the Americans for the most part kept each other company.
But Bridges was nonetheless able to witness what she had come to see — one of the world’s best public health systems at work. Each block, she said, had a medical unit, with all services provided free of charge. Cuban doctors do not enjoy the exceptionally high salaries they do in the U.S. and are driven more by a sense of public service than anything else, she said.
Though life in Cuba is far from invariably rosy, she concluded, the foul rap the country has earned in the U.S. is a decidedly undeserved one. And though Bridges acknowledged she was in a “relatively privileged position,” she did not once feel, she said, that the government prevented her from seeing “the real Cuba.”Comments powered by Disqus
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