Study Abroad: A Journey of Self-Discovery

June 30, 2011
GHC students in London

GHC students in London

They had barely returned their academic regalia following graduation when Becky Sims, assistant professor of political science, and Alexandra MacMurdo, lecturer in communications, boarded an overnight flight with 19 students and one parent and landed heavy-lidded and sleep-deprived at Heathrow Airport in London. They were on a 10-day trip to England, the Netherlands and Belgium as part of the global initiative at Georgia Highlands. The goal of the program is to create world citizens who can compete and succeed in a contemporary global marketplace and economy.

For most students, the trip was the first time they had traveled outside their home state of Georgia. It was certainly the first time most had visited another country. And while students were earning course credits, the most valuable aha moments – at least from faculty members’ perspectives – came when students confronted and accepted the vast difference in culture, background and national character of citizens from other countries. “They saw that no matter how great those differences, the commonalities were even greater,” said Sims.

This revelation, though simple, impacts students dramatically. Suddenly they see a smaller world, one where we all strive to reach similar goals despite differences in culture, language and governments. The perspective such knowledge brings broadens their outlook about themselves as they fit into the human family. It reduces everyone to a few common denominators, which makes difference easier to process and accept.

During their tour, students visited the international criminal court in The Hague, established in 2002 after the genocides in Rwanda. The court is not part of the United Nations, but is supported by many countries. After World War II the international community agreed upon definitions of genocide and war crimes and conducted a series of criminal trials against the Nazis at Nuremberg, Germany. Since then, the international community has seen the need for such a legal fixture to try such cases. The international court in The Hague finally establishes a permanent court to do so. Students were fascinated to listen in on the trial of a Congolese man accused of genocide. Even more fascinating was the belief of a group of Africans also watching. They thought that only Africans were being tried, and they believed bigotry was the underlying cause. What they didn’t know was that the Congo requested the trial. That fact impressed students by demonstrating forcefully how jumping to conclusions without gathering all the facts can lead to erroneous opinions. An invaluable lesson.

As the group traveled from place to place, everyone sampled local food, visited historic sites and learned about the culture of each locale. MacMurdo covered culture and communication, while Sims taught students about each country’s political system. MacMurdo required students to keep a journal and make a presentation at the end of the journey. Sims had them write a paper about an important development in the European country during the last 50 years.

Elisheva Ray, one of the students who traveled with the group, said she experienced a double dose of culture shock. As an African-American she’s used to feeling different here at home. But in Europe, she felt different in an entirely new way. She said, “I usually feel like I’m perceived differently because of the color of my skin. In Europe I felt different because of where I am from. But oddly, that helped me understand how people get their attitudes. Europeans generally have a negative attitude about Americans because of what they’ve heard in their media or from a few Americans they’ve encountered in their homeland. They see us as arrogant and brash. I realized that my impression of other countries is derived from media accounts and my own limited experiences. That was illuminating.”

Each trip abroad brings new perspectives to both students and faculty. Students see the world differently; professors see their students so. Whatever the differences in their personal interpretations of their travel experience, everyone agrees that getting to know something about other societies enriches their lives and leaves an indelible influence on them.

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