Growing up fast
Study Abroad programs take hundreds of Chico State students out of their comfort zones
Lauren Alpert never expected to fall over sober in an Irish bar.
Alpert, who was a study-abroad student from Chico State University, was walking down a flight of stairs at a pub in the city of Cork when she began to stumble. Right before she hit the ground a watchful bartender leaped over the counter to catch her.
“I wasn’t even intoxicated,” Alpert said, still astonished by the incident.
After her embarrassing moment, she immediately became known in the pub as “the Yank who fell over.” She recovered quickly and, in the months to come, became “a legend at the bar.”
“I ended up going back all the time; it became my place to be. It instilled confidence to return and be comfortable in a place I ended up loving,” she said.
Without the option of studying abroad during college, Alpert never would have had the experience she did. Chico State’s study-abroad program has grown in popularity since 2001, as students find more ways to finance trips and discover the benefits of studying in a foreign country. In fact, Chico was recently ranked second in the country for participation and length of study undertaken by the Institute of International Education.
The Study Abroad Office places around 300 students annually, or about 10 percent of each graduating class. And overseas study is growing in popularity all across the country, said Tasha Dev, the Study Abroad coordinator—or at least it was.
There’s been a decrease in sign-ups for the 2009-10 academic year, Dev reports. She thinks this has to do with the decline of the economy, and specifically the dollar: “Because most students want to study abroad in [expensive] Western and Central Europe, it has become an issue.”
Although some students may think they can’t afford to study abroad, not all the programs are as costly as Western Europe. Studying in Thailand, Mexico or Ghana, for example, costs about what a residential student would pay to attend Chico State. “More-affluent families can usually send their students on the more-expensive programs, while there are students who are paying their way through college who choose programs more carefully,” Dev said.
These days, she is seeing more applications for Latin America, Asia and Africa, and said that in some ways choosing a less developed country will “yield more in personal growth.”
“I think those students are pushed a little bit further outside their comfort zone than students who study in Western Europe,” Dev said. “Personal growth is inevitable.”
For Chico State senior Joey Foy, studying in a developing country was exactly what he was looking for.
“I wanted to experience somewhere totally different than where I grew up and had been living my whole life,” he said. “You can’t really know that much about a place without living there.”
Foy, 23, is from Chico and will be graduating this May with a degree in international relations. He studied in Ghana during the 2006-07 school year and now appreciates the opportunity for an education that allowed him to do something special.
“I think it is a meaningful experience for anyone to go outside of their lifestyle … and appreciate a different culture,” he said.
He also found that he didn’t have to spend as much money as he would have in a different country—“significantly less,” as he put it.
No matter which country a student chooses, however, the experience is worthwhile. Chico State senior Brenley Zaiken said the year she spent in Spain was one of the best in her life.
Zaiken worked and saved to help finance her year. Although she lived with a host family, her lodging was more expensive than it had been in Chico. The biggest expenses, Zaiken said, “were rent and just traveling around. … Hostels, food and transportation add up.”
Zaiken has seen a change not only in her academic success, but also in her personal growth.
“I feel like I learned more about Spanish and myself in those nine months then I ever learned in a classroom,” she explained. “Studying abroad has helped me grow up and open my eyes to new opportunities outside of the United States. Finances can be dealt with.”
Many students pay for their year abroad with financial aid, loans, scholarships or grants. Dev said about 75 percent of students are supported by this kind of funding. Although Chico State does not offer scholarships, the University Studies Abroad Consortium gives scholarships to the university, which the program in turn can hand out.
The most popular majors for studying abroad are business, international relations, liberal studies, Spanish and recreation. About half the students go for a semester and about half for a year. It’s also possible to go for the summer.
Alpert cherishes the memory of the semester she spent in Ireland, but it did cost her. She had saved money since she was 8 years-old, cashed in bonds from her grandmother and won a USAC scholarship.
“My tuition was considerably higher,” by a factor of six or seven times, Alpert said. “Ireland is one of the most expensive programs, if not the most.” Also, “my rent here [in Chico] is about $200 less than it was in Ireland. I had a small apartment there, and I live in a house here and still pay less.”
Still, it was a good investment, and for Alpert, who graduated in December with a degree in English and is applying to graduate schools, it is starting to pay off.
“From possible employers, to my professors, to my peers, everyone is interested in my experience because they respect that I have taken a step out of my comfortable environment,” she explained. “All these things will help me with grad school interviews, work interviews and eventually teaching.
“I would not be as successful and ambitious as I am in my academic career had I not gained more confidence in myself as a citizen of the world through study abroad.”