What was “Not For Me”: Reflections on Study Abroad Programs and the Changing Face of International Study

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William Arce

Yes, I was hesitant. As a tenure-track assistant professor, I need my summer time. My summer is spent writing and researching, developing syllabi for the fall semester, and scheduling “me-time” in order to ameliorate the frenetic pace of the school year. Summer time is the tonic to my work-related stress. So when the President of my home institution, California State University, Fresno (FresnoState), invited me to participate in two different summer programs, I was tempted to say, “Thank you, but I’ve already committed my summer to writing and researching.” (I’ve learned to politely decline invitations to participate in school-based activities by claiming that I have committed to other school-based activities). Participating in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI’s) program “ELEVATE,” and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE’s) program “International Faculty Development Seminar” (IFDS) seemed like too much; even the names of these programs sounded overwhelming.

Still, the expressed objective driving the partnership between CMSI and CIEE was important to me; it addressed a problematic sentiment I held during my undergraduate years at UC Berkeley regarding study abroad programs. The online literature discussing the partnership stated that they wanted to change the face of study abroad for students of color. Marybeth Gasman, the Director of CMSI, is quoted on CMSI’s homepage as stating, “Together, we are working to break down the barriers of cost, curriculum, and culture that prevent far too many students of color from experiencing international study. This significant financial support will have a direct impact on some of our country’s brightest students.” Her words struck a chord with me.

During my undergraduate years, I thought of study abroad programs as “not-for-me,” but rather as programs designed for, and targeted to, white Americans. In those days, advertisement for study abroad programs usually displayed images of young white students in European countries next to famous landmarks, or in “exotic” locations photographed next to dark-skinned native people who looked like me. My parents are both immigrants from Costa Rica, and I grew up in the poverty-stricken barrios of South Central, Los Angeles, during the region’s violent years of the 1980s. Worse yet, I believed countries hosting study abroad programs expected white Americans, not displaced natives from developing countries such as myself, to visit their country. I remember wanting to go, but would make excuses for not participating, such as affordability and graduation schedule. In reality, it was the “not-for-me” sentiment that barred me from pursuing what I secretly imagined would be a wildly exciting adventure. In retrospect, I understand my belief was inaccurate, that hype and hate had overwhelmed hope, and I had become my own obstacle. I successfully completed my education (including a post-doctoral degree) without setting foot in foreign libraries .

I am now an assistant professor conducting research specific to Latino literature in the mainland U.S. and the Caribbean (Puerto Rico). My research, much like my identity, has greatly benefited from exposure to different peoples, to diverse ways of processing knowledge. I consider myself an Estadunidense (Spanish word for “from the U.S.”), but aspire to become a global citizen. I sincerely believe in the experiential knowledge that travel provides, and consequently, I accepted the invitation to participate in both programs hoping to find in CMSI and CIEE the pedagogical tools necessary to convey to my students the intellectual maturity that accompanies cross-cultural exchanges. As an undergraduate, I had not participated in study abroad programs, but perhaps, as a professor I could still commune with its zeitgeist.

My experience at CMSI’s ELEVATE was phenomenal. It was only three days long, but intensely informative. Marybeth Gasman, one of the nation’s leading scholars on Minority Serving Institutions, led the program from start to finish. She was generous with her time and exuded an old-fashioned can-do attitude. In collaboration with the Director, CMSI’s staff helped transform the Center into a lean and efficient organization collectively working toward a single goal: to help ELEVATE participants achieve tenure. Yearly tenure reviews, publication schedules, grant writing, mentorship, pedagogy, even life balance issues were discussed in timely, well-organized sessions. I was grateful to have access to CMSI’s resources while on-site, and for the delicious food they provided throughout the day. Due to my participation in ELEVATE, I forged new professional relationships that have already yielded publication opportunities.

Weeks later, I was fortunate to reconnect with various participants of ELEVATE during the CIEE’s International Faculty Development Seminar (IFLS) in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. CIEE is a non-profit service provider for faculty-led study abroad programs. The program is designed to train faculty participants to lead study abroad programs for their respective home institutions. From the beginning, it was clear CIEE’s staff members were students of the local environment: they held a deep knowledge of Dominican culture, history and its important geographical landmarks. The entire staff was dynamo, which made the experience both informative and outright fun. I had previously visited Santo Domingo as a tourist and did the “touristy” things– museums, historical landmarks and its world-famous beaches. However, CIEE allowed me to experience Santo Domingo through an entirely new perspective: with them, I was a student of culture exploring the vitality of the Dominican people. In the afternoons, IFLS’s participants would debrief, discussing emotional reactions to specific site visits and the methods/logistics necessary to organize similar experiences for students. CIEE is to study abroad programs, what a chisel is to a sculptor: it helps transform an idea into reality, but you have to do the work. I am many years removed from my undergraduate education, yet CIEE’s program allowed me to feel the beauty of being a student once more while intellectually engaging me as an academic. It was the best of both worlds.

I am excited to develop a faculty-led, study abroad course at FresnoState. I am currently working on the theme of the course and deciding what nation to visit with students. I learned from my experiences at CIEE and CMSI that one can commit to projects that retain personal importance while remaining vigilant of one’s time. Yes, it is only one small class, but I take comfort in knowing that it contributes to the larger efforts by CMSI and CIEE to change the face of study abroad programs across the United States.

William Arce is an Assistant Professor at CSU Fresno (FresnoState). He received his Bachelors degree from the University of California at Berkeley, his PhD from the University of Southern California and completed a Post Doctoral Fellowship at Bowdoin College. Dr. Arce’s scholarship and teaching covers two fields: 20th Century American war literature and US Latino/a literary histories. His book project titled, Soldado Raso: Nation and Masculinity in US Latino Literature of the Vietnam War, places US Latino writings about the Vietnam War in conversation with current discussions regarding masculinity and national belonging.

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