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Why we feel changed

​By Pete Reinwald
SPS publication editor
why we feel

We who’ve had a Study Abroad experience speak of a common phenomenon.

We find ourselves changed.

“I’ve heard many students say that,” said Prof. Ron Fernandes, an India native who
chairs the Study Abroad Committee at DePaul University’s School of Public Service. “It’s interesting, too. For me to go back to India, it’s like, I’m just going home and taking some visitors with me.”

For many others, it’s like we’re finally opening our eyes.

My 2006 trip to Chiapas, Mexico, as a student in the School of Public Service, featured a walk across an unruly jungle river, a visit to an impoverished community of indigenous people and an optional trip to the mysterious Mayan ruins of Palenque.

We met with state government officials and representatives of local non-government
organizations, and we learned about the effects of the North American Free Trade
Agreement on Mexico’s indigenous communities.

We visited a fair-trade coffee cooperative. We listened to the perspective of
revolutionary Zapatista leaders. We ate, slept and heard stories from Mexico’s poorest and most oppressed.

You don’t see or do any of those things in Hudson, Fla., where I grew up. And I think
that’s the value of Study Abroad.

When we experience a different culture, language and setting and engage in sincere
and focused conversation with our hosts, I think, we come to reject our assumptions,
biases and prejudices about other people and places. We explore beyond the “what is” that we see in newspapers and videos, and we embark on the why and the how.

Why do these communities lack sufficient water, food, health care and education? Why do more women than men experience extreme poverty? Why are so many children exposed to the horrors of sex trafficking and other violence? Why are farms failing? Why are coastlines eroding?

How do we as public servants help fix those and related problems throughout the

We talk with engaged volunteers, public servants, government officials — and the
residents themselves — about what gave rise to these problems and why the problems persist. We hear stories of human struggle, of human loss and of mighty individual and collective efforts to make life better.

I think we thereby enter the doorway to empathy.

Maybe that’s why so many of us find ourselves changed.

“I think it’s a combination of two things,” said Fernandes, assistant director of SPS.
“You’re not going to this country as a tourist, to take in the sights or enjoy the food. While doing that, you also have a much more focused study not as somebody just visiting the country but as somebody focusing on a specific issue in the country. You’re learning especially about development management, policy and leadership, around the context of climate change, gender issues, children, etc. Students select an area of study that’s of interest to them. Now you’re getting a chance to study in the field. That leads you to examine and even question accepted ideas or the conventional wisdom. That changes the way you think.”

It sure does.

“The second thing is that it’s learning at an emotional level as well,” Fernandes said.
“In each country, it depends more or less on the extent of the differences there to America. Sometimes it can be the sights and sounds of the country and the friendliness and openness of the people. Sometimes it’s just being out of your comfort zone. It really makes you aware of yourself in terms of how patient you are or
focused as well as your flexibility in dealing with cultural differences.”

Consider this passage from student Sara Lepro in a previous School of Public Service publication about her Study Abroad experience in India, which included an initially unsure and unsteady ride on an elephant:

“Once I took my seat, the elephant lumbered down the dusty road with the four
of us on its back, our squeals of laughter trailing behind us. The elephant ride is just
a snapshot of my time in India, but it is analogous to my entire experience in that
vibrant, amazing country, when I was forced to step outside my comfort zone, and now am better off for doing so.”

I thoroughly get her drift. In southern Mexico, our elephant came in the form of transportation on high, narrow and harrowing roads that inspired a connection to

We had time to explore on our own and briefly become tourists. But we otherwise
focused on the problems and the people through a careful and methodical itinerary
that made Mexico’s poorest state our classroom for a week — 10 days including
our optional side trip.

The School of Public Service adopted its Study Abroad model about 15 years ago. SPS
created its seven-day programs to provide access and encouragement to students who lacked the time or money to take trips that lasted, say, two or three months.

“It was definitely unique when it was first conceptualized by Dr. J. Patrick Murphy​,
the former SPS Director,” Fernandes said. “And remains so in terms of its sustainability and faculty/student interest. Now other U.S. programs are adopting our model.”

SPS discontinued the Chiapas program several years ago. But it maintains similar
Study Abroad opportunities in Belgium, Brazil, Tanzania, India, Panama, Northern
Ireland and occasionally in the Philippines.

Students take a 4-credit course that corresponds with their Study Abroad setting and focus. For example, students on the trip to Brussels with Prof. Joe Schwieterman take “MPS 575: Seminar in Administration/ Brussels.” That trip focuses on NATO and the EU. Those on the trip to Tanzania with Prof. Raphael Ogom take “MPS 543: Policy
Implementation” or “MPS 604: Graduate Studies in Public Service, Non-profits and
Sustainable Development.”

If they already have taken the course associated with the program, students on any Study Abroad program can opt for an Independent Study or a Special Topics course. They would then carve out an area of interest to them related to the program in collaboration with the program director.

“One thing that we emphasize in designing our programs is flexibility,” Fernandes said.

Those who show need also can receive financial support, he said.

Fernandes emphasized SPS’s partnerships in the countries of study. That often comes
through faculty members who’ve established lasting relationships there — a key to
effective teaching, learning and sustainability, he said. “We focus on the mission, solid
learning opportunities and program facilities that meet budgetary constraints.”

He also emphasized the Vincentian mission of Study Abroad and the aim to keep students’ expenses within a reasonable budget. That often comes through use of a
host institution’s lodging facilities.

“We partner with people, with institutions that share our values and beliefs,” Fernandes said. “We focus on the mission and that facilities for the students are not too expensive.”

Students could find themselves changed, just as some did in a December trip to

“At the debriefing on the last day, students spoke about the kindness of the people, their love and respect for their original culture, their solidarity, their dedication for helping those in need, and the pride (passion) they have for caring for one another and their communities,” Prof. Barbara Kraemer wrote in an email response to questions about the trip to Panama. “They also mentioned the cultural interconnections between the U.S. and Panama. These were some of the ‘lifechanging’ experiences.”