Each year, about a quarter of a million Americans study abroad. For many of them, a summer or a semester in a foreign country involves more than just sitting in classrooms and hanging out with other American students. Instead, they are encouraged, sometimes required to be involved in the local communities where they are studying.
On his first morning in Beijing, one American study-abroad student was dropped off in a distant part of the Chinese capital with $5 and instructions to find his way back home on his own. It took a while, but he made it.
That's one example of how American students are being pushed out of their ‘comfort zone' in order to fully experience another culture.
"It's absolutely crucial that they know something about how people in other parts of the world live and think and how they behave," says William Finlay, head of the sociology department at the University of Georgia. "Often those students go in large groups. They hang around each other. We felt that they really weren't getting to know the local inhabitants as well as they could."
In 2008, he co-founded a study abroad program with South Africa's Stellenbosch University. It combines traditional academic in-class learning with community involvement. The program partners with a local NGO which runs daycare centers for children of working parents and a library with computers available for patrons to use.
"Our students typically work either with the little kids in the day cares or they work in the library and teach basic computer skills to mostly young adults," says Finlay.
Having an impact
The three-week program proved to be a transformative experience for Hillary Kinsey.
"It was interesting to learn the history of the area and the recent development with democracy and that sort of thing," she says, "and then talk to these people and see what the social dynamics were, what the ethnic divisions were, how certain groups felt about other groups."