Table of Contents
Send a Letter
Magazine Staff
Back Issues:
UofC Magazine
Editors's Notes
Chicago Journal
Class News
Books by Alumni
For the Record
Center Stage
Alumni Gateway
UofC Homepage
The College has big plans to send more students packing. New study-abroad and foreign language programs aim to give every undergrad a chance to trek.
by Charlotte Snow

When she decided to spend her junior year abroad at the London School of Economics, Heather Lowe, AB’97, had every intention of applying her lessons stateside. But after studying the European Union, the Law, Letters, & Society major delayed her graduation to learn French—in France—so she could accept a Brussels, Belgium–based European Parliament internship. When the internship ended this past September, Lowe was asked to stay on as an assistant to British representative Robert Sturdy.

“Studying abroad has shaped everything I have done since I stepped off the plane at Heathrow,” says Lowe, via e-mail from her Brussels post. “Studying at an excellent institution with people from all over the globe, working in a London shop, living on a farm in a tiny village in France, meeting many of the dignitaries I had studied and the authors who wrote about them in Brussels—this is what education and life is all about, gaining everything you can from any experience.”

Lowe’s is exactly the spirit University administrators hope new study-abroad and foreign-language initiatives will foster among students in the College. In the past five years, the number of undergraduates studying abroad has grown from 46 to more than 180, and Dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, wants that number to keep growing. He has recently stepped up efforts to promote his twin goals of seeing every undergraduate spend at least one quarter abroad and at least a third of each graduating class attain fluency in a foreign language.

Given changes in the undergraduate curriculum that will allow students to take more electives, Boyer expressed confidence in his 1998 annual report to the College faculty that these goals can be reached. “Perhaps one of the most important innovations to come forth from the [curricular] review,” he noted, “was a refocusing and expansion of our efforts on second-language education and international education, and, indeed, the conviction that we should view both of these areas as closely and even inextricably linked. Cross-cultural and second-language education are intellectual and instructional domains where I personally believe we can properly and justifiably encourage our students to use some of their additional free elective space with considerable profit.”

Boyer has translated this belief into an expanding crop of international options for College students. Already on the map are programs in some 20 foreign cities. This academic year the College is launching more in Toledo, Spain; Rome; Athens, Greece; Dublin, Ireland; Cologne, Germany; and Tanzania, with plans to debut additional ones in Vienna, Austria, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Undergraduates are also heading to destinations as far afield as China, Siberia, Bosnia, and India via research fellowships or placements arranged by individual faculty members.

Back on campus, a $1.3-million grant from the Mellon Foundation will help support, over the next five years, the hiring of specialists in German, Russian, and either Chinese or Japanese; the renovation of the campus language laboratory; the creation of new language learning centers in residence halls; and the funding of new language curriculum grants. By the end of this winter quarter, the College expects to have completed a nationwide search for a new associate dean for international and second-language education, who will oversee all related initiatives on and off campus. And for six weeks this summer, the College will host an intensive, Middlebury-style residential language camp in French and Spanish.

“These initiatives will complement what’s being offered already,” says Nadine Di Vito, director of language programs in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. “We’re taking steps in the direction of showing students to what extent language and cultural identity are intimately connected and allowing them to take advantage of more programs that fit their life aspirations.”

Historically, the College has not been so enthusiastic in promoting an international flair among its students. Rather, says Lewis Fortner, associate dean of students in the College and director of undergraduate foreign & domestic studies, the College has considered its own soil the best seeding ground. While individual students have always found ways to travel, work, and study abroad, and have successfully petitioned for transfer credit upon their return, he says, it was not until the mid-1980s, under Donald Levine, AB’50, AM’54, PhD’57, as dean of the College, and Herman Sinaiko, AB’47, PhD’61, as dean of students, that a formalized approach developed. In the 1983–84 academic year, the College set up official study-abroad programs and made financial aid available to all participants. Since then, Fortner says, support for foreign study has gone “from lukewarm to moderate to energetic.”

Fortner attributes the invigorated efforts to several factors. He says the idea of going abroad is more acceptable to today’s faculty, many more of whom studied abroad as undergraduates themselves. Practically, a strong economy has helped students pay for travel overseas, while the business world’s increased emphasis on global transactions and communications makes the prospect of such study attractive to more students. For the foreseeable future, Fortner says, the College will remain intent on preparing students to live and work in a shrinking world.

“Foreign study is valuable on many levels,” Fortner explains. “It gives students a larger view of the world and of America’s place in the world. A serious work or study experience abroad represents a potent professional or academic credential down the road. At a deeper level, its benefits are more personal: a wider understanding of cultures and peoples and of oneself as a citizen of the world.”

Chicago undergraduates can earn a ticket to this understanding in several ways. They can cross borders to fulfill their civilization-studies requirements, work toward a special language certificate, apply a language-study grant awarded by the College, immerse themselves in a different culture, or work for an international organization. Regardless of the route chosen, students typically remain registered in the College, pay regular College tuition plus a small administrative fee, retain their eligibility for financial aid, and receive full credit for their work. All programs—even those requiring competency in a foreign language—are open to all students in all majors, though those lasting a year are geared to third- and fourth-years. They may be organized and staffed by Chicago alone or through partnerships with foreign universities or with the two higher-education consortiums to which Chicago belongs—the Associated Colleges of the Midwest and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

Undergraduates who have already ventured out of Hyde Park suggest that foreign-study opportunities should receive greater publicity on campus and note that not all University departments make it easy for students to complete their major requirements if they study overseas. They also urge alumni living abroad to provide a support network for students. Lowe’s internship in Brussels, for example, was organized by Stephanie Rada-Zocco, AB’88, a former assistant at the European Parliament. But overall, most participants seem to agree that the experience can be life-changing.
“The benefits you receive cannot possibly be outweighed by considerations like fulfilling requirements or becoming out of touch with the U of C environment,” says third-year art-history concentrator Claire Orenduff, now in Paris for the year. “It does take more work to let everyone know that you’re still out there, and to organize things at Chicago from across the ocean, but you can stay in touch if you make the effort. I have grown in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to conceptualize before coming here.”

Perhaps the College’s most innovative approach to grooming cosmopolitan students has been its creation of a civilization-studies sequence compressed into one quarter that allows undergraduates to fulfill their Common Core requirements and at the same time experience a foreign culture. The courses are taught abroad by Chicago faculty and are open only to Chicago students.

Philippe Desan, master of the humanities collegiate division, says he came up with the idea as a way of teaching the civilization sequences in context. He began in winter quarter 1997 by exporting Chicago faculty members and about 25 undergraduates to Barcelona, Spain. Desan then organized a similar course in Tours, France, which first accepted students in spring 1998. This past autumn saw the addition of Rome; an Athens venture will begin this spring. In the 1999–2000 academic year, students will have the option of Vienna and Buenos Aires, and, in later years, Africa, the Middle East, and other South American sites. Though the courses share a great deal with those taught back in Chicago, Desan explains, “we also try to use the culture at hand.” For example, in Tours the Renaissance is emphasized because the city is located at the heart of a rich artistic and cultural tradition that peaked during the 16th century.

“The greatest challenge is to ensure the programs’ academic rigor,” says Desan. “We certainly want the students to experience a different culture, but we also want to keep the same intellectual standards. The courses taught are real U of C courses, and my job has been to make certain we do not water down the academic side.”

Chicago faculty have found the experience of teaching their life’s work in its birthplace intense. Charles Cohen, professor of art history and chair of the Committee on Visual Arts, taught in Rome this past autumn. “It was almost sublime for me to be able to view the works of art, walk the streets, and experience the piazzas laid out in the Renaissance and Baroque with Chicago students,” Cohen says. He recalls how he and his students spent a day in the classroom discussing the rise of St. Peter’s Cathedral over 300 years, and then spent the next day on site experiencing its space and interpreting its papal tombs.

“This is as complete a way as I can imagine to be introduced to these central monuments of the Western tradition, though the experience can be difficult and messy as well,” Cohen says. “Churches can be cold and dark, works of art are not always placed for ideal viewing, and half of Rome seemed to be under scaffolding. But all this, along with aching feet and grumbling stomachs, is often part of the experience, and I was perfectly happy to have our students understand the difference between casual tourism and really digging into the real stuff.”

Emily C. Chang, a third-year English concentrator, participated in the Rome quarter and would definitely recommend the experience. She enjoyed weekend trips to the island of Capri, Florence, Switzerland, Venice, and Milan, and found the workload “just about the same as a U of C class, maybe a little less.” Learning this way, she says, “you realize that there’s so much more to life than studying at the Reg.”

Other faculty and students will be packing soon for the spring quarter in Athens. Christopher Faraone, chair of the Department of Classical Languages and Literatures, will teach a course on the history and material culture of Athens from Mycenaean to Byzantine times. Faraone says his own experiences as an undergraduate traveling in Egypt, Israel, and Greece “helped create in me a lifelong interest in ancient history and archaeology.” He plans to arrange field trips to archaeological sites or museums at least three times a week and to require students to give on-site presentations on sculptures, vase paintings, and monuments. He also hopes to set up a Web site where students can post photos and notes so that family and friends can follow their progress.

“I think the students will come away with a tremendous understanding of how accidental features of topography, natural resources, and climate intersect with history in very important ways,” he predicts, noting that Athens’ small size allowed its citizens to invent and practice direct democracy.

Gretchen Moeser, a third-year geophysical sciences major, has signed on for the trip. Though nervous that she cannot speak “a word of Greek,” she looks forward to experiencing a different lifestyle and environment: “I’ve read pieces by Plato and Socrates and about ancient Greece, but it will be interesting to learn more about modern Greece and how Greece is still affected by its history.”

Besides civilization studies, the gift of gab has provided many students with a passport overseas. The foreign language proficiency certificate, adopted in 1996, helps spur students to talk their way abroad. The certificate requires at least two years of study and was awarded to 47 undergraduates for the first time last year. The certificates—noted on College transcripts—recognize those students who have not concentrated in a foreign language but yet have attained proficiency. The first group of recipients studied French, German, Italian, or Spanish. They took advanced courses and had to pass oral and written examinations each quarter, including a formal competency exam adapted from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Each also studied for at least one quarter abroad, living with host families while enrolled in an intensive language class.

As another incentive, last summer the College began a new foreign language acquisition grant program, which sent 25 undergraduates to language institutes all over the world, where they studied Breton, Chinese, Czech, French, Gaelic, German, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, or Spanish. The College plans to award 50 FLAG grants this summer, 100 in 2000, and at least 200 beginning in 2001. Additional overseas language learning takes place in affiliation with foreign universities—including the University of Paris, the University of Bologna, Freie Universität in Berlin, and the University of Seville—where undergraduates can pursue intermediate and advanced studies.

For Orenduff, one of her best memories in Paris so far is of being invited by a friend’s neighbors to tea and managing to converse with them in French. “Anytime I am forced to communicate in French and am able to get my point across eventually, it feels great,” she says. “There are actually times I find myself at a loss to express an idea or concept in English that I have recently learned to incorporate into my French vocabulary. You’re forced to take a more severe, critical look at expression through words.”

But students don’t have to study civilizations or be bilingual to see the world. They can enroll in classes at affiliated British and Irish universities. Third-year chemistry concentrator Douglas Higgins is now at the University of Edinburgh, where he has taken up Scottish country dancing and “talked about and debated topics ranging from politics to uses of sodium bicarbonate and its differences from baking powder.” Still other options emphasize fieldwork and research. This past fall, anthropology professor Russell Tuttle directed the ACM’s semester-long Tanzania program. Five College students, along with about 10 others, divided their time between classroom work at the University of Dar es Salaam and fieldwork in the northern region of Tanzania. They studied Swahili, human evolution, and the ecology of the Serengeti Plain; explored independent research topics; and lived in tent camps.

For students who want off the beaten paths, the College can arrange more individually tailored experiences. In 1994, the College awarded its first international traveling research fellowships to students who used the money to study in China and Siberia. Last summer, 11 students worked for national and international human-rights organizations through the Chicago Initiative on Human Rights. They included Elizabeth M. Evenson, a fourth-year dual concentrator in public policy and political science, who helped Physicians for Human Rights identify war dead in Tuzla, Bosnia. After completing a two-year Marshall scholarship studying international human rights law at the University of Nottingham, she plans to attend law school.

“My time in Bosnia was incredibly eye-opening and will permanently color my world view,” she says. “Having never seen war before, when I now hear news accounts about conflict in any part of the world, images of destroyed buildings and massive cemeteries in Sarajevo, with grave markers clustered so thick you can’t tell where one ends and the next begins, flood my mind. I don’t think that I can ever again be indifferent to allegations of human-rights violations and abuses in any part of the world now that I have faces, names, and so many personal stories to go along with the headlines.”

The human-rights initiative also placed third-year philosophy concentrator John Rory Eastburg in Bombay with VOICE, a grassroots organization that teaches reading, math, and job skills to children who work on the city’s train platforms. Eastburg, the president of Chicago’s chapter of Amnesty International, was impressed by how the efforts of just 20 staffers could benefit the lives of as many as 400 children. The experience further convinced him that economic and social rights “are absolutely necessary to the concept of humanity, and that they are necessary for the real fulfillment of more traditional civil and political rights.”
Spoken like a true citizen of the world.

Table of Contents | Send a Letter | Staff | Back to the UofC Magazine