Travel, no matter the distance, is an integral part of being a lifelong learner. As one professor explains, it’s the journey that makes all the difference in opening our minds to the possibilities of the world.
by Bryan Ganaway
In the spring of 1989, when I was 17, two of my uncles took me to China. I had never left the country and had spent most of my time in a small industrial town in southeastern Wisconsin. The trip changed my life.
We flew from Chicago to Tokyo to Hong Kong, and then on to Beijing. Once in the Chinese capital, we were able to see the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Ming tombs and Beijing University. We went on to Shanghai and then made a day trip to Suzhou. We then traveled back to Hong Kong for two days before going home.
Engaging China and its thousands of years of history was awe inspiring. Westerners were still a novelty in the late 1980s, and we had the opportunity to meet many people who were invariably kind to us. Every meal was a culinary adventure, a sensuous experience that lasted for hours. The food was already sliced in bite-sized increments that were easily accessible via chopsticks.
I did not need to go to China to discover how much I loved food (I already knew that), but I did learn that cooking was a statement of love for your fellow man and that a communal meal was an important social experience.
However, none of those things constitute my central memory of that trip so many years ago. On the day we came back from the Great Wall in April 1989, we had to pull to the side of the road and wait for a student demonstration to go by. They were commemorating the death of reformer Hu Yaobang. Within days this small demonstration had grown into a movement with thousands of students occupying Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. By the time we made it back to Shanghai, the protest was an international story, and I remember thinking that I was witnessing something very important taking place.
I, of course, went back to Wisconsin to live with my family, but my town seemed small to me. Going to China and seeing those students revealed to me that I was part of an interconnected planet. Travel changed my view of the world. This is why study abroad is such an important part of an undergraduate education. At the College, we wish we could make it available to all of the undergraduates. Going to another country helps you to see the old world you inhabit in new ways.
We have tried to apply these insights to the new International Scholars Program. A collaborative venture between the Honors College and the School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs, this program seeks to identify nationally competitive undergraduates and bring them to the College. All of the fellows are double majors (international studies and another discipline of their choosing). During their freshmen year, they share a living-learning community and take Introduction to International Studies as a group. As sophomores, they enroll with me in Honors Western Civilization, a team-taught interdisciplinary course that focuses on “big ideas,” such as religion, democracy, technology, warfare, gender and race. The students receive invaluable professional mentoring from the advisory board at the SLCWA, but if you ask them, the study-abroad opportunities are the real pull in the program.
As part of these opportunities, each freshman cohort receives a paid “MayAway” with two faculty members. The first group went to Cuba in 2013, the second group to Paris. The third group will go to India in 2015, and the fourth is scheduled for Estonia. And I just received confirmation that I will get to return to China with the fifth group in 2017.
I was also fortunate enough to be a part of that first MayAway to Cuba. The 11 students, Professor Doug Friedman (intercultural and international studies) and I spent one week in Havana and then took a trip to the southern part of the island, which includes Cienfuegos, Santa Clara and Trinidad. I remember the students telling me that they were struck by how similar Cubans were to Americans, despite the political chasms that divide our governments. Like U.S. citizens, Cubans believe in the dream of self-improvement, that hard work should be rewarded and private initiative encouraged.
Another striking realization for the students was made during our visit to the Latin American School of Medicine, which does not charge tuition and which appeared bare bones by American standards. What cannot be denied, however, is that life expectancy in Cuba is the same as in the U.S., even though they spend only a tiny fraction of their income (adjusted for population) on health care. The key to their success has been a focus on preventative care. For the students, the trip allowed them to view concerns that they have about their own country (such as health care) in new ways.
Every group of students comes back with new perspectives. For those students who went to France last May, it was a different view of war that they gained. This is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the “Ur-Katastrophe” of the 20th century, and the group took a trip to the Somme battlefield in Picardy, where so many of the hopes and illusions of the 19th century drowned in the turned-up earth and mud of a battlefield 20 miles long and 10 miles deep. As many as 20,000 British and Empire soldiers died in the first six or seven hours, and twice as many were wounded. To put this into perspective, this is the equivalent of wiping out two-thirds of the U.S. Army’s infantry component in less than half a day. Today the Somme is sublime, dotted with cemeteries whose beauty is made more unbearable by knowledge of what they commemorate. Walking there, the students learned why Europeans look at war so very differently than Americans. They came back with a much more sophisticated understanding of the similarities and differences in the world views of our two continents.
I would be satisfied if the students came back from these trips with new perspectives on old ideas. But study abroad does even more for them. The job market in the 21st century will be increasingly globalized. This can create painful problems as good positions move across boundaries. But the networked globe also creates new opportunities for those individuals who combine strong professional, linguistic and cultural skills and an adventurous mentality. Such people will be able to find their calling and create fulfilling lifestyles for themselves and their families. That is why, at the College of Charleston, we are working hard to make sure that our students have the tools they need to thrive as responsible, democratic citizens in an increasingly interconnected world.
We are working to change their lives.
– Bryan Ganaway is a faculty fellow in the Honors College.
Illustration by Seth Corts