Posted on Nov 26, 2001

Think of Union and you think of upstate New York, right? But no need to limit yourself-you can also think of Rennes, Seville, Sao Paulo, Vienna, Nairobi, Osaka, Nanjing, and dozens of other places around the globe where the College is sending students to learn.

Today, if you're a Union student, the odds are in your favor that you'll participate in some international program. In 2000-01, 333 students did it; that translates into around seventy percent of Union's students studying abroad at some point in their years at the College.

Impressive, when twenty percent is considered high at most colleges.

Director of International Programs William Thomas says, “We're aware of how true it is today that international borders don't represent boundaries anymore, that we're living in an interconnected world, and need to learn about and from other cultures. And more and more companies want to hire graduates who have had experience in a foreign country. Everybody who studies abroad gains advantages that eventually pay off in their careers.”

Now well into its fourth decade, the international program at Union has become known for its breadth and diversity. Terms abroad, exchange programs, and mini-terms involve twenty-six countries across Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

“We're lucky,” says Thomas, “because we began the study abroad program on a fairly large scale at the right time-early on. Colleges that have started more recently have had to rely on outside programs, including some profit-making institutions abroad, making it more expensive.”

Do students get interested in Union College because of its involvement in study abroad? Or vice versa? The answer is “both.”
Says Thomas, “At Union, study abroad is in great demand, and in fact, it's become an important retention device. It's part of what makes us what we are. It's also a major selling point. We have waiting lists galore.”

The flexibility of ten-week terms allows many students to go abroad, at costs only slightly higher than a term on campus. Most programs emphasize the study of the native language and include a broad examination of the history, literature, art, politics, and culture of each nation.

Students can examine the role of women in a developing country by spending a fall term in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Or study the classics in Athens. Or travel to Osaka, Japan, and study at Kansai Gaidai. Or to Nanjing, China, at Nanjing Normal University.

There's a multidisciplinary marine studies term, where students can study with Professors Barbara Boyer (biology) and Ilene Kaplan (sociology) at marine biology research stations in Woods Hole, Bermuda, and Newfoundland.

There's a program to compare educational systems in Germany, Hungary, and Romania, moving from a highly developed educational system, to one that's in-between, to one that's in an earlier stage of development, in three countries where there's a significant immigrant population. And each summer there's the opportunity to study the national health systems in three
European countries.

The ways to go abroad are varied. The traditional Term Abroad involves a group of students (from ten to as many as thirty) accompanied by a Union faculty member. Thomas, for instance, has led students to Rennes, the capital of Brittany, on ten occasions, most recently in 1998. “I love it,” he says. “You get to know the students, and they get to know you in a way that wouldn't happen on campus.”

Exchange programs tend to be more major-specific. Engineers are involved in exchanges with the Czech Technical University in Prague, for example; preference is given to students in the humanities and social sciences for the exchange with the American University in Bulgaria; and engineering majors and sociology/anthropology majors have first choice in the reciprocal program with the University College of Swansea in Wales. The exchanges usually involve smaller groups, and no Union faculty are involved.

Mini-terms are open to any student, and they usually are held during the December break, after graduation, or in August. A standard mini-term is about three weeks, or one-third of a traditional term abroad; sometimes they go longer.

The four-week Australia water project mini-term last summer was led by Tom Jewell, professor of civil engineering, and Jim Kenney, professor of economics. The students were engineering majors and social science majors who were paired into teams to work on a project-a kind of double cross-cultural situation. Says Jewell, “There was a time when it was difficult for engineers to go on a term abroad, but now we have made our curriculum more flexible since we know how important it is for engineers to have a global perspective. The civil engineering class of 2001 met our goal of 100 percent travel abroad.”

Kenney, who has fallen in love with foreign travel, will lead a mini-term on electricity in New Zealand this winter.

There also are mini-terms with prerequisites, such as the one in which students go to Spain after a course in pilgrimages. With Louisa Matthew, associate professor of art history, and Victoria Martinez, associate professor of Spanish, they walk the historic pilgrims' path to Santiago de Compostela.

Comments Thomas wryly, “It's for those who like to walk fifteen miles a day under a hot sun.”

The Brazil Water Project to study water treatment was the pilot mini-term four years ago, and it has been going strong ever since. Social science majors and environmental studies majors team with engineering students to examine technological, social, political, cultural, economic, historical, environmental, and ethical facets of water resource issues in Sao Paulo, the fourth-largest city in the world. In preparation, students spend the fall term learning about language and customs-a short course gives them just enough Portuguese to get by. Each student team covers a topic, such as water treatment or industrial waste-the engineering student covers the technological aspect, and the social science student covers the social and economic aspects of, for example, power shortages.