IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 3
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Chicago abroad
Since Chicago’s first tentative foray into study abroad—during the 1983–84 academic year, when seven third-years participated in the year-long, piggyback programs run in Paris by Sarah Lawrence College and in Bologna, Italy, by Brown University—Lewis Fortner has been the person for wanderlusting students to see.

Back then, study abroad required only a small portion of his time as an academic adviser. Now asso- ciate dean of students in the College and academic director of the Study Abroad Programs—23 run by Chicago and nine by two consortia of schools—this year Fortner, along with associate dean and assistant director Francisco Santamarina and associate dean of international & second-language education Stephanie Latkovski, will oversee the global comings and goings of about 360 students.

The rapid growth in study abroad corresponds with the deanship of John Boyer, for whom a priority is enabling College students to be global citizens. With students traveling the world through the programs or with Foreign Language Acquisition Grants for summertime study, Fortner estimates that fully one-third of current graduating classes has some significant international study or work experience.

Are some programs harder to get into than others? If so, why?
Some are difficult to get into and others much easier. It’s a function of the ratio between demand and available slots. All of the eight civilization programs are popular; some are exceedingly popular. An example of the latter is the program in Barcelona [Spain], where there are two or three applications for every slot. It’s clear why Barcelona would be popular: students don’t need any Spanish beforehand, and it’s Barcelona in winter quarter. There are palm trees. But there are only 25 slots. Our Paris and Rome civilization programs [which also don’t require language knowledge] are equally high in demand.

By contrast there’s a program like the one in Toledo, Spain: a wonderful, intensive language program at the intermediate level. You must have a year of Spanish. That already eliminates most of the College. Yet this program can expand exponentially; there isn’t a limited number of slots. So if you’ve done the background work in Spanish and you’re eager to learn and improve upon it, you can go to Toledo, no problem.

And then there are the academic-year programs. I just was in Berlin visiting the ten students there, a record-breaking number for us in Berlin. The students are studying their subjects—literature, political science, anthropology, what have you—at the Freie Universität alongside German students. They must have at least two years of German, and they must have a backbone. Far and away most of the College is eliminated from this opportunity. But those students are happy as clams.

Where are the most far-flung programs?
The civilization programs in Cape Town, South Africa, and Pune, India, are the most out of the way. Last year the India program was introduced and was held in Mumbai [Bombay]; 14 students participated. That’s a low number for a civilization program, but to study in India will always be a specialized interest. Cape Town was introduced two years ago; 24 students participated last year.

What is the faculty’s role in the civilization programs?
The faculty play absolutely an essential role: they create the courses. They decide what to teach; create a syllabus, which is different each year because the faculty members change; and then they teach the course. More than one returning faculty member has said this is the most intense teaching experience of their careers. These are compressed courses, in which faculty meet pretty much daily with the students and to which are attached excursions that they lead. They also become part of the student-support system in a way that wouldn’t happen on campus. They get to know the students very well. They get rained on together.

What will be the Paris Center’s impact on study abroad?
The Paris Center represents a crossing of a new line: actually owning real estate abroad. It’s a bold move. Already there are five separate programs in Paris, the academic-year program and then one for each quarter. The new program being offered next autumn—a civilization sequence taught entirely in French—will make six. Already we’re sending more students to Paris than anywhere else, and the hope is that this becomes not just a center for Chicago students studying in Paris but a cultural center in Paris with Chicago’s stamp on it.

Does the cost of study abroad skew it out of the reach of low-income students?
I like to think back to the pre-1983 days, when the only way a Chicago student could go abroad was to take a leave of absence and go on another university’s program or, more rarely, apply directly to a foreign university. Students did that. Students have been going abroad for years and years. But the students who were able to do it were those who weren’t tethered to big financial-aid packages. Financial independence gave them independence of movement. If a Chicago student got a fair bit of financial aid, leaving to do a program abroad with another school meant leaving financial aid. This is a school where a lot of students get financial aid, so for most it was impossible.

One idea behind our study-abroad programs was to make financial aid available to participants. Now, everybody pays tuition, and everybody retains their financial-aid eligibility. If you’re getting no financial aid, you will continue to get none. If you’re getting a ton of financial aid—and some students are—you continue to get it. We send students to some very expensive places—Paris, Berlin, London. These students would have no hope of studying in these cities before portable financial aid became available. That we have our own programs and make financial aid available have democratized this experience dramatically.

At the same time there are extra expenses that you would not have if you stayed put: round-trip airfare and the study-abroad administrative fee, which will be $500 next year. Financial aid is willing to increase the amount of recommended loan to help students pay for that; in some cases that’s possible, in others students are already receiving the maximum loan.

For the child of a poor family, study abroad will always be a stretch, but at the same time it will always be possible. There is a large element of self-fulfillment in a student’s attitude. A student who comes and says, “I will do it, I will go abroad,” will do it. They’ll find a way. A student who comes saying, “Absolutely no way can I afford this” is already defeated. We have the greatest respect for these students who pull this off. And when they return to us, this person with this larger view of the world and of themselves, we feel great.

The single biggest difference between the College as it is now and the College as it was 20 years ago is that there are more possibilities. Study abroad is certainly a part of that.



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