Forty-six days in Russia is not the same as 46 days at home.
There’s no way to quantify, in real time, how profound the study abroad experience can be. Just ask Kansas University senior Godfrey Riddle.
“Some days it’s fast, some days you just want to go home,” Riddle said. “Going to Russia was particularly challenging because it’s Westernized ... but it also has its own distinct culture that is very different from most typically Westernized places.”
By far, KU’s Western Europe study abroad program draws more students than any other region. But the Russia study abroad program is not quite as popular, making the experience more unique. Riddle picked the place for two reasons: his minor is Russian and he has an affinity for architecture; Russia features what some consider many of the most beautiful structures and buildings in the world. And Riddle snapped more than 1,000 photos during his 46-day stay to capture proof of the country’s allure. An example of Russia’s charm: while Riddle was there, an excursion to a palace was a normal affair, a fact he’ll never forget.
But traveling to a place with a culture so vastly different from America’s has its drawbacks.
“Even having two years of Russian, going in I was still worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate,” Riddle said. “Sometimes just going to the store and completing daily tasks, if you don’t know where something is, knowing how to ask for it, that can be difficult. And on the street, getting directions, even in English, that’s a challenge for me, so in Russian that was hard.”
There are cultural differences, too. Women sometimes won’t shake a man’s hand. And living quarters are communal, so students share bathrooms, dining rooms and kitchens.
The shared living conditions result in a lack of privacy and a lower standard of cleanliness.
But Riddle said it was those differences that enriched his experience and helped him appreciate many of the things he once took for granted about life in America. It also urged him to look at his home country with a more critical eye.
Roads less traveled
Traveling to nontraditional places offers more advantages than exposure to a different culture. Since Western Europe draws in more students, scholarships are more coveted. Competition for scholarship slots to the less-traveled countries is less intense.
“That was one thing that really turned me off with the other programs,” Riddle said. “Going to Western Europe, there are scholarships but they are more competitive.”
For students interested in studying abroad but are looking for more offbeat countries, the KU study abroad office’s offerings run the gamut: Costa Rica, Egypt, Tanzania, Kazakhstan. You name it, KU has it. And if not, KU will start what’s called a student-initiated program, says Robert Lopez, outreach coordinator for KU’s study abroad program. For instance, KU didn’t have a partnership with a university in Fiji, but when a student expressed interest in traveling there, it launched one. And there are many unique programs already embedded in KU’s study abroad schedule.
“We always send a group to Tanzania every summer,” Lopez said. “And for some reason, Cyprus has really exploded recently.”
Senior Julia Guard got her first study abroad experience in South Africa.
“For starters, I wanted to go to Africa in general because during high school, I was heavily involved in (and the creator of) a student group called the Social Awareness Club where we worked to bridge American students with African children,” she said. “Second, I wanted to go somewhere unusual, and with a lot of history and culture.”
Guard, whose second trip was to Northern Ireland, says traveling abroad provides “the best education a student can receive.”
KU senior Rachel Bohn, a peer adviser, would agree. Bohn spent six months in Costa Rica, but her time was so enjoyable she could have easily stayed a year.
“Though Costa Rica is our longest running exchange program, it still does not draw nearly as many students as Western Europe,” Bohn said. “It’s our longest running exchange, and that appealed to me a lot. The other thing that was essential was that you stayed with host families.”
A Latin American studies major, Bohn was able to chip away many required classes in Costa Rica, accomplishing more abroad than she could have during a regular semester at KU. And according to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, that’s the case for most students who study abroad; 53 percent graduate in four years, while only 27 percent of students who study exclusively in their home country graduate as swiftly.
And Riddle was no different: he was able to complete two semesters of language learning in just six weeks.
“It was a great experience for personal enrichment,” he said, “and academically it was also very beneficial as I got to jump ahead a year.”