Campus Without Boundaries
More College students than ever are spending part of their academic
careers studying abroad, and are doing so in more varied locales
By Tami Luhby ’92
Getting around Ho Chi Minh City with her limited Vietnamese proved
no problem for Molly Hartman-O’Connell ’04. But when
she arrived in the Mekong Delta to do field work during her study
abroad program, she found herself at a loss for words.
An anthropology major with a concentration in Asian-American studies,
Hartman-O’Connell was unable to communicate with her host
family and to participate in their cooking rituals when she arrived
in March 2003. But the family proved so friendly and patient that
Hartman-O’Connell soon was harvesting rice, feeding the fish
and making rice wine with the two daughters. By June, she was helping
to cut lettuce leaves and arrange the breads in front of the altar
for one family’s ancestral celebration and feast.
“In the beginning, I was unable to do anything, but by the
end I was totally part of what they were doing,” says the
As the first College student to study in Vietnam in an approved
program, Hartman-O’Connell joins the growing ranks of undergraduates
traveling to far-flung reaches of the globe.
Students increasingly are venturing to Africa, Latin America, Eastern
Europe and the Middle East, among other places, says Associate Dean
of Academic Affairs Kathleen McDermott, who heads the College’s
Study Abroad program. This trend of going to developing countries
has helped fuel the overall growth of the Study Abroad program.
The College sends more than 300 undergraduates per year overseas,
more than double the number of a decade ago.
The growth in popularity of study abroad
programs has created a campus without boundaries for many
College students. The photo at top left of Molly Hartman-O'Connell
'04 preparing a dessert called banh-it with her host family
in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam was one of the winners
in 2003-04 Cross-Cultural Connections Contest. The other
winning photo, at bottom left, was taken by Gideon Fink
Shapiro '04 in Njili, Cameroon. Above, a student cleans
sand from a painted wall at an excavation site in Amheida,
Egypt, on an expedition led by professor of classics and
history Roger Bagnall. The remaining three photos show E3B
students at their beach classroom in the Dominican Republic
and doing research in the Caribbean Sea.
PHOTOS: CAMEROON, GIDEON FINK SHAPIRO '04; DOMINICAN REPUBLIC,
SETH ROSENFELD '06; EGYPT, ROGER BAGNALL AND BETHLEHEM DEJENE;
VIETNAM, MOLLY HARTMAN-O'CONNELL '04
Columbia students’ increased interest in studying abroad
mirrors a national trend. The number of college students studying
abroad soared to 160,920 in 2001–02, up from 71,154 a decade
earlier, according to statistics published by the Institute of International
Education. The number of students studying in places other than
Western Europe also has grown dramatically, with China, Japan, Thailand,
South Africa and Brazil registering some of the largest increases.
“The issues [students] are looking at are global issues
that cross borders, so they need to know more about parts of the
world that are not necessarily part of the Western Civilization
curriculum,” says Peggy Blumenthal, vice president for educational
services at the IIE, which administers the Fulbright and other study
abroad programs. “They are realizing that their careers will
be global, and they need cross-cultural, language and confidence
To be sure, many Columbia students still choose traditional programs
in Western Europe. About two-thirds of participants pick that region,
opting to study at places such as Reid Hall, Columbia’s long-standing
program in Paris, or the Berlin Consortium for German Studies. England
and Spain also are popular.
But it’s not simply a European vacation for these students,
McDermott says. Gone are the days when studying abroad meant lounging
on the beaches of France or clubbing all night in Spain. The number
of approved programs shrunk after the faculty Committee on Study
Abroad made sure each one immersed students into the culture and
instituted rigorous academic requirements.
These changes were part of a larger revamping of the program, which
occurred about five years ago, in order to encourage more students
to take advantage of the opportunity. The faculty became more involved,
which helped prompt more undergraduates to apply, says Dean of Academic
Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis. And the administration streamlined the
application process so students knew to go to McDermott with questions
Years ago, students inquiring about studying abroad were told about
the overwhelming bureaucracy involved and the difficulty in transferring
credits. Now, they can attend a daylong fair during the fall semester,
where they can learn about different overseas opportunities and
find out how to take advantage of them. Study abroad veterans are
on hand to talk about their experiences and show off their photo
albums. Students also can go to the Study Abroad program’s website to get
answers to frequently asked questions.
Faculty say experiencing foreign countries and cultures first-hand
is important. In addition to immersing students in a different culture,
it can broaden their views on other countries as well as their own.
“Studying abroad can be integral to their majors and help
them with their studies,” said Karen Van Dyck, professor of
modern Greek literature. “You see not only other cultures
from inside, but you see your own culture [differently].”
“In the beginning, I was unable to do anything,
but by the end I was totally part of what they were doing.”
When Gideon Fink Shapiro ’04 decided to study abroad in the
fall of his junior year, he looked for a program that would get
him out of the classroom and into the culture. The Cincinnati native
chose to go to Cameroon through the School for International Training
Study Abroad program, attracted by its theme, “Culture and
Development” and its month-long independent study opportunity.
There, he studied workers’ struggles and labor unions in
a developing country and learned how to do culturally sensitive
interviews and archival research. He spent a month each in three
cities, each with a “radically different culture.” For
example, Dschang was a small university town with only two paved
roads, while Yaoundé was a cosmopolitan capital with skyscrapers
and more than a million residents. And through his host families
and his “brother,” who took him to dance clubs, town
markets and soccer games, he participated in everyday life and learned
about rituals, such as the importance of greetings.
The experience gave him a new view on Africa and made him realize
how much more there was to the continent than the stereotypical
images of war, famine and the jungle. And it changed his view on
his homeland, as well. “It was totally different to build
relationships and see how people carry on daily lives in a rich
culture and struggle to improve their lives. I was a participant
in a foreign culture, as well as an observer and researcher,”
says Shapiro, an urban studies major. “It made me look at
my own culture differently. I had to appreciate certain things differently
because lots of Cameroonian people expressed real envy at my being
able to jump on a plane and go to the U.S. I went feeling critical
of the U.S. but I had to face the fact that though American politics
and culture have faults, they also have characteristics that make
them appealing to others. I came to appreciate the dichotomy of
Detailing their trips abroad on film earned Shapiro and Hartman-O’Connell
photography honors in the 2003–04 Cross-Cultural Connections
Contest, which allows students to tell of their experiences creatively.
Shapiro’s picture is from the village of Njili, Cameroon,
while Hartman-O’Connell’s is of a Mekong Delta family
preparing food. Erica Wolff ’04 won for her essay on her time
in Prague. [Editor’s note: Both winning photos accompany
this article. To read Wolff’s winning essay, go to www.college.columbia.edu/aboutcc/news/cross_cultural_wolff.php.]
Columbia’s excavation at Amheida
offers students the opportunity for a semester in Egypt
that combines fieldwork with classroom study and visits
to other archeological sites and museums. The excavation
is part of the Dakhleh Oasis Project, an international venture
studying the interaction between human settlement and the
environment over the long span from the earliest human presence
in the oasis to modern times.
PHOTOS: ROGER BAGNALL AND BETHLEHEM DEJENE
One reason that more undergraduates are flocking to far-off lands
is the growth of new ethnic majors and programs at the University,
McDermott says. The Institute for Research in African-American Studies
was founded in 1993 and Latino and Asian-American programs were
created in the mid-1990s after students pushed for the creation
of more studies relating to the American experience of people of
Environmental studies also has risen in prominence on campus in
recent years, with the establishment of the department of ecology,
evolution and environmental biology (E3B) in 2001.
Learning about these subjects in class fuels students’ interest
to see and experience these parts of the world first-hand. Thus,
more venture to Asia, Africa and South America, or to places such
as Brazil and the Dominican Republic to study the tropical forests
or marine ecosystems. “As new majors and new areas of endeavor
are created, these programs follow,” McDermott noted.
The E3B program helped prompt the launch of the Summer Ecosystem
Experience for Undergraduates, which took students to the Dominican
Republic in 2003. Created by Don Melnick, who holds the Distinguished
Professorship in Conservation Biology and is the executive director
of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, the five-week
summer session allows students to study marine and inner tidal ecosystems.
(A similar course in Brazil, which studies the tropical forest,
is in its fifth year.)
While many students take the class to fulfill two semesters of
Columbia’s science requirement, program director James Danoff-Burg
admits, there are budding scientists in the mix. Several participants
have switched their majors to environmental biology or have become
more active in environmental groups.
Faculty can be critical to the expansion of study
abroad programs at the College.
Seth Rosenfeld ’06, a political science major who signed
up for the program last summer, considered environmental science
as a concentration and took a climate systems class as a freshman.
He wanted the chance to do field research and to see what impact
development has on biodiversity.
Rosenfeld’s classes included studying beach erosion by looking
at water levels and coastal plant growth and biodiversity in the
country’s interior rain forests. His independent research
project was on the effect of tidal patterns on sea urchins.
A Bloomfield Hills, Mich., native, Rosenfeld learned that while
a resort or a development may be labeled sustainable or eco-friendly,
it often doesn’t adhere to the principles of minimal impact
on local biodiversity. “It’s a lot easier for us in
wealthier countries to talk about protecting the environment,”
Rosenfeld said. “It’s a lot harder in developing counties,
where the only resources of the developing economy are drawn from
Faculty can be critical to the expansion of study abroad programs
at the College. Classics and history professor Roger Bagnall took
three students to Egypt last spring to participate in the excavations
at Amheida. He described it as the only program of its kind that
includes excavation experience.
This opportunity appealed to Julia Abbott ’05, a classics
major from Boulder, Colo. Though she’s spent many years abroad,
she had never been to an Arab country or to Africa. She reveled
in the discussions and visits to sites at Luxor and Kharga Oasis,
where she gazed upon the ruins not as a tourist, but as a scholar
looking at their role in history.
“The Amheida program was an ideal opportunity to see how I
could use my classics training to [gain] a much wider experience
than studying only in a classroom,” Abbott said in an e-mail
from Egypt. “Since I was little, I’ve been fascinated
by ancient Egypt and Greece, but it only recently began to dawn
on me that I could incorporate those interests into a serious academic
College or SEAS undergraduates seeking study abroad information
should visit www.studentaffairs.columbia.edu/studyabroad
and contact their class dean.
Tami Luhby ’92 covers personal finance