Last spring, the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, Montana, sent three students to study abroad for the first time. They went to Italy, Ireland and India, and this year, one program is in Barcelona, Spain.  

Sonja Bickford, director of continuing education who recently took over the new program, expects an increasing interest among the university’s 900 students.  

“We hope to get them excited about traveling and to realize not just what the experience can do for their careers, but how it can enable them to grow as individuals as well,” she said.  

The study-abroad program at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., founded in 1995, has 26 bilateral international partnerships and about 130 destinations through the International Student Exchange Program, the world’s largest consortium. Gabriele Bosley, director of international programs, told Our Sunday Visitor that at least 35 percent of their students have international experience through a combined variety of programs and service projects.  

“If we accept accelerated professional programs in our numbers, it goes up to 50 percent,” she said. “The national average is under 2 percent.” 

The University of Great Falls was founded by the Sisters of Providence and Bellarmine was established under the Archdiocese of Louisville. Their respective new and long-term programs fill the growing interest among students at Catholic colleges and universities to study abroad.

Breaking down barriers 

“Going abroad gives them personal appreciation of different cultures, of different ways of life,” Bickford said. “I also think that they give examples of what an American student is like today, and that may break down some of the barriers that people might have from past experiences or history.” 

People in other countries, she added, don’t always see the whole of the United States. 

“So students from Montana can take the lifestyle that we have here, and people [in other countries] can see that we are not all from New York or Texas, or some other preconceived notion,” she said.  

Bellarmine’s program is on the cutting edge of international studies in several ways. They are the only institute of higher learning, she added, that tests all freshmen and seniors for international competency with the Intercultural Development Inventory that’s used by many nonprofit, educational, private and government organizations.  

Bellarmine also uses an “interventional experience” approach that’s gaining national and international attention and is being adopted by other colleges. Bosley developed a teaching course for the concept along with faculty from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and with consultations with the U.S. Naval and U.S. Air Force academies. It’s also based on a 2002 study at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school in Washington, D.C. 

“Students don’t learn from international experiences the way we used to think they did — just by having the experience,” said Bosley, who grew up in Germany, went to high school in France and college in England. “When they are forced to write about their experiences and to reflect on them — that’s when they grow in international competence.” 

Bosley published Bellarmine’s course and gives lectures on it, and it’s being integrated into curricula of other universities and international providers.  

Bellarmine students go to popular European destinations, and to Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and more exotic sites like Fiji, Tanzania, Kenya and Morocco. One student was in Ecuador when the military tried to topple the president. This summer, the university will inaugurate a bilateral partnership with Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa.  

Many destinations put students in completely unfamiliar situations, and that’s the point. 

“A student has to be made to feel uncomfortable in order to grow,” Bosley said. “That involves developing a different way of thinking that opens up new approaches and new vistas of thought that will benefit them for a lifetime.”

Representing America

The benefits are mutual when American students change foreigners’ misconceptions about the United States.  

“When I studied abroad in Venezuela, and then taught in Japan and Korea, I found that a lot of people had the perception that Americans have blonde hair and blue eyes,” said Alanna Taylor, who is Hispanic. “Many people don’t realize that America is made up of many cultures. They also think that everyone from Texas rides horses. I didn’t ride one until I was 20.” 

Taylor is the study-abroad coordinator for the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. The program started in the late 1980s, and now about 100 of the 7,000 students go abroad annually. Most choose Europe, and John Cabot University, an American school in Rome, is one of the most popular destinations. Students also are in Asia and South America, and one is at a new site, Macau, an island off Hong Kong.  

“We are becoming more global and the world is becoming a smaller place with technology, so it’s important for students to have that experience,” Taylor said. “It makes them more marketable in the workforce, and on a personal level it really makes you grow and to see yourself in our own culture once you have experienced other cultures. It is education that you cannot get in the classrooms.” 

The study-abroad program started 10 years ago at St. Martin’s University, a small (1,200 students) Benedictine school in Lacey, Wash. About 10 students spend a semester overseas annually, and another 50 participate in shorter faculty-led programs.  

“Our students take pride and friendliness and a sense of representing Washington state and the United States,” program coordinator Brenda Burns said. “It’s important for other people to understand that Americans are giving, thoughtful and kind, and our students embody all that. They also bring a small Northwest and small-town perspective to those different areas. A lot of students come from bigger universities and bigger cities, and having someone from a smaller place and smaller population brings a different perspective. ” 

Global awareness 

Study-abroad students return with global awareness and more confidence that grows from having time for self-reflection and self-awareness, she added, and some have a greater sense of community and belonging when they return.  

“They bring back a lot to St. Martin’s and broaden our horizons here, too,” Burns said. 

St. Martin’s University is planning to make a stronger connection between its mission statement and the study abroad program. 

“We are trying to promote that more, to make that Catholic connection and to definitely make our students aware that studying abroad can be a spiritual experience,” Burns said.  

Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., has a variety of study-abroad options for its 9,000 students, including semesters abroad (Thailand, Switzerland, Romania and more), and shorter programs in business and nursing. The 28-day China Study Abroad Program is led by Pawena Sirimangkala, who came from Thailand to Iowa as a study-abroad student and stayed.  

The program she leads is popular with students from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, education, sports management and particularly business. They all can apply what they learned to their own studies, she said, and one education major plans to use his experience in Asia in his multicultural classrooms in Washington, D.C. 

“Our students didn’t expect to see the modernizations and western influences even in the small towns,” she said. “And the Chinese were very curious about Westerners and very hungry to learn about Western things.” 

Last summer, she added, the students returned with a higher appreciation for things that they take for granted, like democracy and freedom of expression.  

“But no matter where a student goes, study abroad will change their outlook and the relationship they have with the rest of the world,” Sirimangkala said. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Worldly Campuses (sidebar)

85.1% - University of Dallas 

65.7% - University of San Diego 

58.9% - University of St. Thomas (Minn)  

57.4% - University of Notre Dame 

55.2% - Saint Mary’s College of California 

53% - Georgetown University 

Source: Institute of International Education. (2010) 

Bellarmine University

Name: Jacob Allan Stanton Murphy, senior 

Study destination: South Africa 

Major: Sociology and criminal justice 

Jacob Allan Stanton Murphy thought it would be “drastically different” to study at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, in 2009, and in some ways, it was. People drive on the opposite side of the road, don’t have a particular side to walk on going down hallways, and tend to hold conversations standing in doorways. The pace of life is also much slower and people weren’t so mindful of the time. 

In other ways, it wasn’t so different. The music and movies were very similar, the campus and classes were the same, and there were a lot of references to American things.  

But he was surprised with how, despite the repeal of apartheid, black and white people kept separate, even on campus, and that in Grahamstown, there were shacks built next to mansions.  

“Some houses are four cement block walls and a dirt floor, and some of the areas don’t have electricity,” he said.  

He was surprised, too, that when he traveled to Zimbabwe and Botswana, the airports were guarded by soldiers with machine guns. 

“There were even little kids, like toddlers, carrying machine guns and running around and people treated it like it was no big deal,” he said. 

Murphy, 22, also didn’t realize how closely South Africans follow American politics, and how critical they are of the United States.  

“What’s interesting is that it’s ingrained in us that America is the best country on earth and that we should be thankful,” he said. “Over there, you get a different view. They don’t see it that way.” 

There are 800 tribal languages in South Africa, some of them using clicking sounds.  

“I would go to Mass with a Catholic friend, and some of the songs were in that language,” he said. “It was impressive to hear a choir clicking together and even though you don’t know the words, you know there is a similar meaning behind them.”  

Murphy enjoyed experiencing things that he would not have otherwise done, and in feeling a new independence. 

“I’m changed,” he said. “You learn a lot about yourself when you study abroad.”

Mercyhurst College

Students of Mercyhurst College, Erie, Pa., (enrollment 3,226) who want to study abroad face the challenge of coordinating their trimester calendar with colleges and universities that have spring and fall semesters.  

But they have always found ways to overcome that potential conflict. Since the International Education department was founded 15 years ago, they have studied in more than 30 countries, including Jordan, Ghana and Kenya.  

Last spring, the department came up with another idea. They took the college back to its roots in Ireland, home of the Sisters of Mercy who founded the college in 1929, and created a program called Mercyhurst in Ireland.  

“We take our Irish heritage very seriously,” department dean Heidi Hosey said. “And we feel very strongly about wanting to connect faculty and students in shared learning.”  

The way was partially paved five or six years ago, when officials of Erie created a sister city relationship with Dungarvan, where the Irish campus is located. 

“The cities are alike in many ways,” Hosey said. “We are water cities, we are both seaports and we are small. There is a kind of intimacy where people know each other fairly well, are friendly and are very committed to social programs and to helping the community. They share our values in many ways.”  

Mercyhurst created a temporary satellite in leased classroom space and lodging and sent six faculty members and 26 students for the first 10-week spring term.  

Elizabeth Contrella, 21, now a senior biology major from Harrison City, Pa., was one of them.  

“It was a great chance to grow and learn together in a different setting, and to really understand more where Mercyhurst came from, and to fully understand its mission,” she said.  

The students and professors immersed themselves in the culture. 

“They take their classes, and add to that a lot of excursions, travel and things to get them as much experience in the culture as possible,” Hosey said. “Just like on [main] campus, there are service projects for the community, and students get involved in the life of the community. They are living as Mercyhurst students in Ireland.” 

Contrella found the Irish people to be welcoming. “They made me feel like I was part of their town and their country, even though I’m not Irish,” she said. “I have never met a more genuinely caring people.”  

Students visited the tiny home of Sister Katherine McAuley in Dublin, one of the Sisters of Mercy founders, and attended a Gaelic Mass on St. Patrick’s Day.  

“Even though we didn’t understand it, I still felt the presence,” Contrella said.  

She and the other students, she added, felt “very welcomed” by the Irish people who were as eager to get to know the Americans as the students were to know them. There also was a common bond that Mercyhurst is a Catholic college founded by Irish nuns. 

“It was interesting to talk to the people of the community about different school experiences and how we have grown differently,” Contrella said. “We talked about what being Catholic means to them, and what being Catholic means to us.” 

The experience strengthened her faith, she said, and allowed her to return home with a new way of thinking about her Catholic faith.  

“I recommended Mercyhurst in Ireland to a few classmates and they are over there now,” she said. “They are enjoying it, and they love it.”

Chaminade University

Evette Cruz’s travel abroad experience in France wasn’t anything like she expected. She had envisioned cafes and crepes everyday, and immersing herself in everything French. Instead, she discovered a love for cooking, spoke English with almost everybody and expanded her travels to 12 other countries, much of it by backpacking. 

It was the answer to her personal challenge to grow, and a way, she said, to culminate her studies in international relations.  

Cruz, 23, of Maui, is a fifth-year student at Chaminade University in Honolulu, the only Catholic college in Hawaii. She returned from her semester abroad in March with a new perspective on the world, and on herself. 

“I found a new appreciation for home and my new passion for traveling has encouraged me to work hard and to focus on my career goals as an educator,” she said. “I feel more confident to go into the field of education and dedicate myself to helping students have this same opportunity.” 

She also wants to continue to see the world. 

Chaminade University, founded by Marianists in 1955, has 1,100 undergraduate students. The study abroad program was started in 2004 with a consortium with the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and expanded with bilateral agreements with Catholic institutions in France and Belgium. Another is planned in the United Kingdom. So far, 22 students have participated.  

“As a small institution, we have to be mindful of what we can realistically accomplish with our study abroad agreements,” study abroad advisor Merilee Tyau-Wong said. “The bilateral agreements are particularly interesting because it brings students from other countries here, which adds to the diversity of the student body for those semesters.” 

Cruz’s decision to go abroad was influenced by two French students.  

“They talked about the food and the people,” she said. “They even described the change of seasons, which I’ve never witnessed because of Hawaii’s one season climate.” 

In France, she saw a slower pace of life with businesses closed on Sundays, and families spending time together.  

“You see families in the park, walking down the main pedestrian street which curiously has no shops open for them to shop in,” she said. “They simply enjoy time with each other with no commercial catalysts. Some French people I spoke to say it is also a remnant of France’s Catholic roots.” 

She was impressed by how easy it is to travel in Europe, and she was touched by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, one of her most memorable experiences. 

“The exhibit focused on individuals and families affected by the Holocaust, not just pointing out the vast number of people,” Cruz said. “I got to see letters written moments before someone’s death and see family photos before the war. It reminded me that these were people with families, business degrees, hopes and dreams.” 

It was a reminder, she said, to remember “history we wished never happened” and hope to prevent it from happening again. It was a reminder that “no form of discrimination should ever be tolerated.” 

Cruz found people to be genuinely interested in getting to know her and to learn about her home and her culture, and how diverse the United States is. 

Stereotypes dropped as she made friends — the ones she had of Europeans, and the ones that she dispelled about being an American.  

“I believe that through friendship, stereotypes and misconceptions are disproved,” she said. “By befriending someone, you get to see characteristics and qualities that make other traits seem unimportant.” 

Because of the language barrier, Cruz went to Mass less than she did at home because she didn’t understand the homilies. She didn’t realize the impact that had on her until Lent began and she missed sharing her faith with friends and family back home. It was then that she realized the importance of a church community.  

“For that reason, I grew spiritually,” she said. 

A semester at sea gave Chaminade senior Chandra Ledgesog, 22, the opportunities to study, do service projects and to see parts of the world that she never thought she’d see, including Japan, Vietnam, India and Mauritius. She helped build houses in Ghana, and in Cape Town, South Africa, she met a cab driver whose family had been slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide. They were making conversation on their way to Table Mountain when she asked where he was from, and then she asked about the conflicts in his country.  

“He began telling us about the genocide of his family, his journey to Cape Town and his hardships as a refugee,” she said. “It happened over 10 years ago and their recovery [in Rwanda] is still in progress. This man suffered so much but continued to strive for a better life.” 

That encounter was only one incident that had an impact. The service projects also taught the environmental studies major that “we can’t change the world overnight,” but that it takes “little by little” to make a difference.  

“Growing up in Micronesia, I learned about the world through books and Hollywood movies,” she said. “It wasn’t until I stepped foot in these countries, met the people and saw their lives that I began to understand how small my worldview had been. After seeing poverty at its worst in one country and luxury at its finest in another, I began to see life past my own bubble. Studying abroad changed the way I see people and the way I live my life. Through my experience with Semester at Sea, I was able to visit countries I never dreamed I would see.”

Bellarmine University

Name: Katie Hicks, senior 

Study destination: Hong Kong 

Major: Nursing 

Going to Hong Kong was “an amazing life-changing experience” for Katie Hicks.  

“Studying abroad opens your eyes to so many new things and to truly see what’s important in life,” she said. “All the material things and the small things you think you need and can’t live without are not important. I realized that I completely craved change and challenge, and there is a huge change and a huge challenge in studying abroad. I dived in headfirst and had the experience of a life time.” 

She learned that Chinese people are friendly and family oriented and that relationships are important to them.  

“I liked the sense of unity that they have, because my family and I are like that,” she said.  

Hicks had courses that took her on site to see some of the health care services. At Shatin Hospital, a psychiatric facility, she found that nurses are overworked and that in public hospitals, there would be one nurse for 14 patients in one room. “Here, that would be considered unsafe,” she said.  

The beds were also all lined up against the walls with no privacy. Private hospitals, she was told, might have a door or curtains around a bed.  

Hicks took classes in tai chi, a meditation exercise, and on one weekend in mainland China, she had a chance to teach English to secondary students. “It was probably one of my favorite experiences over there,” she said.  

She returned in December with little clay warriors and a clay musical instrument from a market in Xi’an, a lot of good memories and promises to keep in touch with new friends.  

“Studying abroad might seem overwhelming, and I think that causes a lot of people to make excuses to not go,” she said. “I thought a semester might be too long and I had never been away from home, but [in retrospect] I would have extended it for a year. Just go for it. At least look into it and be open about the places you could go. I have grown tremendously from my experience.”

Saint Joseph College of Maine 

Name: Kristen Demers, senior 

Study destination: Seoul, South Korea 

Major: English 

Kristen Demers enjoyed her semester in South Korea so much that after graduation this spring, she’s considering going back to teach English. 

“I really loved it there,and it would be a great opportunity to return,” she said. 

Demers, 22, of Springvale, Maine, is a senior English major at Saint Joseph College of Maine in Standish and studied at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul in her sophomore year.  

Her enthusiasm is typical of students who have studied abroad.  

“Most come back a completely changed person,” academic coordinator Shanna Webster said. “They are a lot more mature from having to figure out being on their own in a foreign country, and in figuring out exactly what they are looking for.” 

Saint Joseph College, founded by the Sisters of Mercy, has 1,100 full-time students. Each year, at least two students study abroad, sometimes as many as six.  

“They are our top-notch students because they have to have a 3.0 GPA or higher to go, and they tend to be very involved with the campus community,” Webster said. “They are very enthusiastic and mature in taking on something like this.” 

Demers didn’t know what to expect in South Korea and “was nervous” about finding people who spoke English, and about making friends. She was pleasantly surprised to discover that everyone her age speaks English and that South Koreans are very friendly. The people she met were curious about the United States and had never heard of Maine. Demers, like many American students, realized that foreigners often think that everyone is from New York City. 

“I had an easy time making friends,” she said. “What I remember most about the South Koreans is that they are really nice to foreigners. They like to take care of you.” 

The university assigned Peace Buddies to help international students with everything school related, plus planning trips and going shopping.  

“It was a huge university and no matter what time it was, anywhere on campus there was something going on,” she said. “There were so many people, and the city is really oriented for people my age. There were tons of shopping and night life, all kinds of food, and a lot of museums and temples and things that are free for university students.” 

She also traveled to mainland China, which she found not as modern as South Korea, and to Taiwan, where she experienced the celebration of the Chinese New Year.  

Demers didn’t pay much attention to the news before studying abroad. When she returned, she was interested in not only news about South Korea, but also news from everywhere else.  

“Going abroad got me involved with the outside world,” she said. “I really liked learning about new cultures that are totally different. People like to go to Ireland or England, which are nice, but I suggest going somewhere where the culture is so different. You might end up really learning something from it.”

Additional articles from the Catholic colleges special section:

Overseas faith journeys

Languages teach students more than just words

Facts and figures on international studies

Promoting overseas study

College mission trip checklist

Benefits of study abroad indisputable, long-lasting