- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

Rutgers University graduate Kate Moran studied Spanish steadily from the time she was 13 years old, but the language lessons just wouldn’t stick. A six-month stint in Spain changed that.

Although the District is the destination of choice for many students traveling within the United States, traveling overseas can open up a world of knowledge otherwise unavailable to them.

For Miss Moran, it meant mastering a second language. For others, an overseas trip can expand perspectives on one’s own country and set up a learning template that opens one’s mind to new information.

Ms. Moran, who graduated last year and calls New Brunswick, N.J., home, lived in a dormitory with all Spanish students as part of her self-imposed immersion.

Her trip didn’t begin that way.

She initially clung to a small group of American pals and even watched American films with subtitles. Soon, she realized she was limiting her chances of absorbing the culture around her.

“It was something I had to break myself out of. My Spanish wasn’t getting any better. You can’t be afraid,” the 22-year-old says.

She recommends teaming up with an equally adventurous buddy with similar goals for moral support and companionship, then finding a group of accepting foreign students to help get plugged into the society and culture.

The biggest mistake Ms. Moran made overseas, she says, was not packing enough cash.

“Do not let money deter you,” she says. “No matter how many loans you take out, it’s going to be worth it.”

Betty J. Aikens, the study-abroad director at Howard University, says students don’t realize the wealth of economic options available to them should they want to study overseas.

Howard often helps connect students with outside scholarship resources and federal aid programs, and various university departments offer honors programs to help lighten the load, Ms. Aikens says.

“Initially, they think it’s a financial problem. It’s more that they’re the first one in their family to come this far,” Ms. Aikens says. Once the travel ice is shattered, “the parents come over to visit,” she says.

A common refrain from students, she says, is “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”

Ms. Aikens says black students generally travel much less than their peers. Less than 10 percent of all college students take advantage of overseas travel, she says, and the number for black students is less than 1 percent.

The international students at Howard, she adds, embrace travel more readily than their American-based peers.

Overall, the number of students flexing their passports is on the rise, according to the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors Report 2004.

The report says the number of U.S. college students receiving credit for study abroad increased by 8.5 percent in the first academic year after the September 11 attacks, for a total of 174,629.

The group expects to find still higher numbers when the 2003-04 academic year figures come in, despite a diminishing dollar.

Stephen Ferst, director of the study-abroad program at New Jersey’s Rutgers, says England has been the most popular overseas destination for years, in part because of the shared language.

That trend, Mr. Ferst says, is fading slowly.

“Students are looking for things that are more out of the ordinary,” he says. Destinations receiving a surge of student interest include Australia, West Africa, the Caribbean and India.

Australia experienced a 13 percent increase in international student enrollment in 2004, according to an Open Doors study.

Mike Palmer, executive director of the Student & Youth Travel Association of North America (SYTA), says young people today have traveled a lot more than those of any generation before.

“They’ve been exposed to everything visually through cable TV and the Internet. It’s a matter of going there and experiencing it,” says Mr. Palmer, whose Michigan-based trade group represents the North American student travel industry.

SYTA, a nonprofit trade association representing tour operators, attractions, convention and visitor bureaus, and hostels, among other groups, conducted a survey of its members recently that revealed that students want to experience the cultures they visit.

“They expect something more than the homogenized trip of their parents. Going around on a motor-coach tour and looking out the window doesn’t cut it today,” he says.

Mr. Ferst says that kind of experiential learning can come in such guises as researching banana plantations in Costa Rica or, as some Rutgers students do, studying Shakespeare at London’s Globe Theatre.

Many seek to live lives indistinguishable from those of their peer group in the host country rather than stick out as curious tourists.

Mr. Ferst says students often pick a destination for the wrong reasons, such as zeroing in on the prettiest vistas or most fascinating cultures. Students should concentrate on what they want to get out of the experience, he says.

“Do I want to see a new culture, any new culture, or learn about my own history? Do I want to learn what’s a democracy or why the world works the way it does?” he says.

Mr. Ferst recommends that students get as far from their “comfort zone” as possible.

“Go as exotic as you think you can stand,” he advises. “You don’t get to question yourself as much by doing the things you already know.”

Ms. Moran says the greatest lesson she learned in Spain was never to rule out the options placed before her.

“One night, I was at dinner, and a friend said, ‘You want to go the Canary Islands tomorrow?’ ‘Why not?’ I said. The next day, we were on a plane. That’s a lesson I keep to myself. Why not?”

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