By Thomas J. Botzman
President, Misericordia University
With each advance in technology, our world gets a little smaller. Whether it is Twitter, Skype or the latest gadget, people are drawn closer together by the simple click of a mouse or by postings on websites and blogs. To complete that loop, it is important that our next generation of nonprofit leaders, health care practitioners, teachers, and business professionals experience the world around them. I am not talking about taking a drive into the big city, but rather to overextend yourself a bit and leave that comfort zone of campus and study in Australia, Italy or elsewhere.
It is difficult not to be informed nowadays. You can remain up to date on your favorite sports teams, reality television stars, current events and every topic in between. Glancing at the latest headlines from afar, though, does not truly educate the heart and mind on real-world issues.
There is no better way to expand upon classroom lectures and lessons than by taking your studies abroad. You want to learn more about the economic problems dragging down the euro and the countries that form the European Union, go study in one of the 28 member states. As a government, law and national security major, for example, there is no better way to learn more about Russia and the former Soviet states than to spend a semester studying in Lithuania or Kazakhstan.
The same can be said about so many other academic disciplines. This approach of adding life experiences to educate yourself more fully brings traditional class instruction into context, while simultaneously developing an understanding and appreciation of different cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, politics and more.
Our recent commencement ceremony culminated study for more than 350 new graduates, many of whom wore on their gown a variety of items ranging from honorary society pins to bedazzled messages. The most eye-catching, however, were the stoles that displayed the national colors of the places they had studied or served outside of the United States.
Next academic year, Misericordia University will have students studying for a full semester in Australia, England, Ireland and Italy. These opportunities are critically important as research studies consistently point to longer-term study abroad – those lasting more than six consecutive weeks – as having the biggest impact in providing students with intercultural understanding.
Additionally, Misericordia students are traveling to Italy, Guyana, and Jamaica this summer to learn to succeed in a foreign environment. As a former study abroad director and expatriate resident of Luxembourg, I am thrilled to see an increasing number of our students take the opportunity to apply their classroom learning in a far-away, real-world environment.
A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development noted that Luzerne and Lackawanna counties (Pennsylvania) continue to attract migration from other nations, including over 700 new residents from Bhutan and 400 from Russia, in addition to our growing in-migration of Latino residents. Clearly, our new neighbors present business, cultural and educational opportunities, and the opening to further develop our region for future growth in a number of dimensions. We must engage in education that seeks to understand various cultures, languages and beliefs that arrive with each new resident to our area.
In my opinion, the benefits of study abroad are numerous and vital to our collective well-being. There’s no doubt that the personal growth for a student is accelerated, with maturity and confidence increasing rapidly. Further, the student is now able to view issues and challenges with a lens that is separate from previous perspectives. They can, it seems, walk into the same room a second time and see things in a very different way. The ability to take alternative views is a core skill related to effective problem solving, resolving and dissolving. Intercultural misunderstandings, in particular, can through mutual experiences be dissolved without any threat or change to either the host culture or the newly-arrived resident culture. One of the great joys of northeast Pennsylvania life is our delightful mixing and blending of the cultures that arrived in the early years. We celebrate in so many ways.
It is also exciting to note that Misericordia’s expansion of study abroad opportunities is consistent with our mission of service. Our occupational therapy students, for example, are visiting Jamaica with a vision to permanently improve the physical lives of residents. Their work to provide wheelchairs will transform lives that were trapped into an inability to do the routine things we take for granted, such as shopping and meeting others in a park or restaurant.
The real-world clinical experience of our students, adapting to solve and serve under unique circumstances, is a key part of how they will transform their academic programs and majors into a career of serving others. Higher education has long used internships, student teaching and clinical experiences as a means to focus the entire academic program. International practicums have the added value of creating understanding of differences in cultural and personal values.