The Lifelong Impact of Study Away

by Bethany Wagner

Advancements in technology and modern travel have made the world increasingly accessible and interconnected to more people than ever before. As students prepare to live and work in this evolving, somewhat borderless, international community, the study-away concept plays an important role in enhancing their knowledge and global awareness, not only as they complete their degrees, but also as they graduate and enter the world as compassionate, culturally aware doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, business people, artists, pastors, missionaries, scientists, parents—individuals prepared to engage the culture and change the world for Christ.

Last year, more than 650 APU students left campus to traverse the globe, making their homes in South African villages, the cultural center of Ecuador, bustling Chinese cities, Yosemite National Park, downtown Los Angeles, and the historic city of Oxford, England. As they do, they follow the lead of APU’s founders, who established the Training School for Christian Workers in 1899 with a primary focus on sending missionaries to a hurting world. While their predecessors focused mainly on China, today’s students participate in study-away programs and journey to a growing number of countries, cities, and regions, including South Africa, Ecuador, Norway, China, Spain, Uganda, the High Sierras, and Los Angeles. In each place, they study and grow, learning and serving amid a diverse array of cultures and perspectives.

At APU, students can embark on eight different semester-long programs, a variety of short-term trips, and still more study-away opportunities through partner organizations. Each program is uniquely tailored to the local culture, with every component of the program closely tied to the location. Students traveling to Quito, Ecuador, a World Heritage site, take Spanish and Latin American literature courses and study biology during excursions to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon Rainforest. During the Los Angeles Term, students live with host families in the heart of Los Angeles, taking courses in community and cultural development not by listening in a classroom, but by engaging and dialoguing with professors and community leaders at local internship sites, churches, mosques, homeless shelters, and major businesses.

In the Norway Nursing Semester, students take international healthcare courses and serve in clinicals addressing homelessness, elderly care, and community health needs. Conversely, students participating in the China Nursing Semester work in one of the nation’s largest hospitals and take courses at a Chinese university, studying health care in the world’s most populous nation. “Our students explore their major paths in radically different contexts and apply those lessons to the rest of their courses back in Azusa and, in fact, to their entire careers,” said Erin Thorp, assistant director of student development and operations in the Center for Global Learning and Engagement.

Every winter and summer, many APU students forego academic breaks, instead taking part in one of APU’s faculty-led short-term programs. Past locations include England, France, India, Ireland, Kenya, Lithuania, Mexico, Thailand, and many more. Through these experiences, students studied art among the great masterpieces in Rome, archaeology on current archaeological digs in Israel, and business alongside some of the world’s leading business giants in China.

Students who study away must overcome challenges from culture shock to loneliness to language barriers. “Studying away moves individuals out of comfort zones,” said Matt Browning, Ed.D., associate vice president for internationalization. “Students must set aside their own assumptions and keep an open mind, always asking, ‘What can I learn from this?’” But each time another cohort of students returns to campus from abroad, they report fundamental changes in their perspectives, opinions, and approaches to the world. “I see students come back to us with a new appreciation for other cultures and an incredible boost in self-confidence,” said Carrie Ullmer, director of the Center for Global Learning and Engagement. “They lived in another country—now they know they can attend graduate school, go on mission trips, move to new cities, and take other opportunities that once seemed intimidating.”

Returning home, many students find the transition back to campus life challenging. They experience a measure of reverse culture shock, feelings of guilt after living in a poverty-stricken area, or difficulty integrating their recent experiences with their current classes and on-campus community. “During the reentry process, students need to find meaning in their study-away experience, discovering how to responsibly express and put into action what they have learned,” said Browning.

To address this need, last year the Center for Global Learning and Engagement implemented a reentry curriculum, requiring students to take a course during their first semester back on campus called “Integration and Formation” that walks them through reflecting on their experiences, expressing the stories they have to tell, and integrating the lessons learned abroad with their lives on campus. “We designed this new curriculum so returning students can come back to campus and evaluate both local and global contexts, impact their local communities, and work better with people different from themselves,” said Ullmer.

Employers rank study away as invaluable when hiring recent graduates. Cross-cultural study, work, and service equips employees with necessary skills as many businesses expand globally and seek to engage increasingly diverse demographics. “International experience signals to employers that a candidate can recognize and analyze multiple perspectives and engage a variety of people and unfamiliar situations with sensitivity and competence,” said Browning. “Cross-cultural exchanges foster humility and empathy, and signify a well-rounded, globally aware candidate.”

Brooke Pearson ’07 was one of those candidates. As public policy manager for social good at Facebook, she enjoys a thriving career involving cross-cultural relations that traces back to studying away during her undergraduate years at APU. For Facebook, she manages social media initiatives that seek to connect people across communities and cultures. On a recent project, Pearson launched a series of events to help people across the world celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation, investigating how social media allows users to break down cultural walls and redefine how they experience culture.

In her interview for this job, Pearson described her time studying away in Oxford and Macau. “Those instances immediately differentiated me from other applicants,” said Pearson. “We naturally live in comfortable contexts constructed by our college, church, nation, culture. It wasn’t until I studied in Oxford that I began to understand my place in the world and how much I had to learn from others.”

Returning to campus, Pearson was hungry for more international travel, so she joined a summer trip through APU to Thailand. There, she taught English to Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burmese border, eventually going on to teach English in Macau as a Fulbright English teacher after graduation. “Especially in places of extreme poverty, teaching English empowers people, giving them a voice and opportunities for successful futures. They can better communicate and demand their rights.”

APU’s study-away programs offer another benefit beyond student engagement with people perhaps very different from themselves, the academic dimensions, and the advantage in job interviews—they present an opportunity to obey God’s call to serve. As a university seeking to transform the world for Christ, study away is an invaluable opportunity to serve globally. “We follow a Savior who served and calls us to serve,” said Browning. “Study away invites students to stop talking and start acting.” Most semester programs include a service component, enabling students to directly apply what they learn in building cross-cultural relationships.

This year, APU’s South Africa Semester program celebrated 10 years of students learning, studying, and engaging with people and cultures in meaningful ways. After students finish their courses, the program ends with a six-week internship, during which they live the principles of community development by tutoring local children, running after-school programs, and helping meet other community needs. In the program’s nursing track, nursing students live with local families while working alongside community-based organizations and conducting projects to address health disparities, health problems, and barriers to health promotion. “We partner with local organizations to see how our students can best give back to the community they’re learning from,” said Browning. “By working closely with local healthcare clinics in Norway, with service organizations in Ecuador and South Africa, and so on, students learn and serve in ways rooted in the local cultures, their unique values, and their needs.”

“Studying away is a means for people to share themselves with part of the world they wouldn’t connect with otherwise, and gain from it in invaluable ways,” said Pearson. “Especially now, the world often views Americans as disconnected and disengaged. It’s more important than ever that good ambassadors of our country and of God’s grace live, study, and work in other countries, because we have a responsibility to be light and salt to the world.”

Bethany Wagner ’14 is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, Washington. bethanykwagner@gmail.com

Originally published in the Fall '17 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.