Every year, about 300 Vassar students scatter across the globe for a semester or two of study and extracurricular adventures. About half of the members of the junior class, as well as a few seniors, attend colleges and universities in more than 30 countries on six continents in sessions coordinated by the Office of International Programs.
Vassar sponsors or co-sponsors study-abroad programs in England, Ireland, Italy, France, Spain, Russia, Costa Rica, and India, but students are free to choose from among dozens of others if they secure approval from their academic advisors. Vassar also coordinates bilateral exchange programs with colleges in China, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Associate prof. of French Vinay Swamy, who oversees Vassar’s Study Abroad program in Paris, says studying in a foreign country has numerous benefits. “We strongly encourage our students to study abroad, and not just to brush up on their language skills,” Swamy says. “More importantly, a semester abroad gives them the opportunity to experience first-hand what it is like to live in a culture that approaches life differently from our own society. This is why Vassar-run programs are all immersion programs. Students pledge to speak in the target language, they are also housed with local host families, and all programmed courses and activities are carefully planned with a view to exposing our students to difference, and to challenging them to expand their intellectual horizons in the local cultural environment.”
We spoke to seven current seniors who took part in international studies last year. Here’s what they had to say about their experiences:
Madeline Pollis, a music and Italian double major from Cleveland, OH, attended a Vassar-sponsored program at the University of Bologna. She studied writing, music history, linguistics and art history. All of her classes were conducted in Italian.
“The structure of the classes was a lot different from what I was used to at Vassar; they were all big lectures with a final exam at the end. The Italian students are allowed to wait to take their exams when they feel they’re ready, but I was proud that I did well on every exam in just one semester. I sang in two choirs and took part in a large concert at the end of the semester. But the best part of the experience was my living arrangements: I had four roommates in an apartment in Bologna. Two were from Sicily one was from Albania and the other from Cameroon.
“One memory I will always keep with me was cooking with my Sicilian roommates. We made a ribbon pasta with olive oil and Sicilian broccoli – kind of a mix between cauliflower and broccoli that we brought back with us when we visited their families in Palermo. I also did some traveling alone; it was terrifying at times but also character-building. I can see myself living almost anywhere in Italy now.”
Christopher Brown is a political science and mathematics double major from Temecula, CA. He spent a semester at the University of Sussex in England, where he took two math courses and two political science courses, including a United States politics course.
“It was interesting to study American politics from a European perspective. I also took a course on modern international institutions, starting with the League of Nations and including the United Nations, NATO and the European Union. That was interesting because the Greek financial crisis was happening while I was there, and everyone else in my class was from a country in the European Union, so it had greater implications for them.
“I joined a choir while I was there, and we traveled to other colleges for concerts, and I did a week of backpacking in Scotland. But the experience I’ll always remember is climbing a hill behind my flat with a few other American students. There was a beautiful view Sussex far below us, and we just talked about our lives and our futures. It was cool to be the only student from Vassar in a place where no one knew me.”
Aliyah Harith-Bey, a political science major from Babylon, NY, studied European politics, journalism and Spanish art history at Carlos III University of Madrid in a program sponsored jointly by Vassar and Wesleyan College.
“I had previously taken Professor Leah Haus' class on the European Union at Vassar, but the one at Carlos gave me a fresh perspective. The class was taught from a very internal standpoint, as what happens in the EU has a much more impactful affect on Spain. In my art history course, we were able to visit some amazing museums and see some private galleries. I really developed an appreciation for Spanish art and hope to learn even more."
“One of my favorite moments was seeing the Alhambra, built by the Moorish kings, for the first time; it was absolutely breathtaking! We visited many chapels and cathedrals as well, built after the Catholic kings. It was so interesting to see the architectural blend of these two influences."
“On Valentine’s Day, I decided to spend the afternoon exploring my favorite area, Goya. I sat at a café, sipped some sangria, and watched passers-by; just experiencing being alive in a different culture. Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that have the most lasting impact.”
Zach Rippe, a media studies major from Park Ridge, NJ, spent a semester at a Vassar-sponsored program at Goldsmith’s College of the University of London. Rippe’s course work included a class on book making taught by Vassar English prof. Robert DeMaria that included trips to rare book shops and print shops in London.
“One of the shops we went to was a particularly snobbish place where some of the other patrons looked at us with the obvious message, ‘What are THEY doing here?’ We all enjoyed that.
“For my independent study project, I visited comedy clubs all over London and interviewed a lot of the comics. I saw a lot of good acts and some pretty atrocious ones. One comic, a 32-year-old man from Scotland, left everything behind and came to London to follow his dream.
“One of my most unforgettable experiences happened when I took a tourist bus to Stonehenge. While I was waiting in a pub for the bus to return to London, I met a 50-year-old man from South Africa. We spent the whole three hours in the bus back to London talking about our lives. It was amazing to meet someone from halfway around the world, who wasn’t my age, and make such a connection. It was an amazing day.”
Brianna Reed, a psychology and French double major from Chico, CA, attended a Vassar-sponsored program at the University of Paris. Her classes included modern European history and feminism, and she completed an independent study project on French literature and the French resistance movement during World War II.
“The class on feminism was very demanding. I had to make a two-hour oral presentation, without notes. The professor was very strict but if you went to her for help, she was very cooperative.
“I had a babysitting job in Paris to earn extra money, so I was able to take some trips. I went to Nice, Cannes and Marseilles, and we visited an island, Ile de Lerins St. Honostat, where monks live and make wine. I did a snowshoeing trip in the Alps, and near the top of the mountain I got a text on my phone that said, ‘You have just crossed into Switzerland.’
“My greatest joy was my host family. The dad would make coffee when I got up at 7 a.m. and we’d have long, philosophical discussions in the kitchen. I miss them, and I miss France. I’m definitely going back and hope to get a fellowship to teach or do research there next year.”
Alycia Beattie, a Russian studies major from Massena, NY, attended a Vassar-sponsored program in St. Petersburg, Russia. She took courses in Russian literature and art history and did independent study on collections in the Hermitage and the Russian Museum. Associate prof. of Russian Studies Nikolai Firtich acted as the Vassar students’ guide and advisor, taking them on field trips and excursions and answering any questions they had about their course work or social and cultural outings, Beattie says.
“The course I did at the Hermitage was taught by one of the curators, -- he let us feel some of the tapestries -- and we all got staff passes so we could go there for free any time we wanted. In my Russian literature course, I analyzed the work of the 19th century poet Alexander Blok. I had read some of his poems in English, but when I read them in Russian, I realized how much stronger the emotions were.
“I lived in the center of St. Petersburg with a host family. One day I came home and my host mom was upset because a large iPhone monument had been taken down from a university campus (after Russian authorities learned Apple CEO Tim Cook was gay). This led to a discussion with her about gay rights and feminism in Russia.
“One of my most emotional experiences was a walk I took by myself through a new park where the remains of many famous Russians, including Blok, are now buried. Trotsky and Gorky are there, as well as Dmitri Mendelev, who developed the periodic table. It’s a very gothic place, and the cemetery is tucked in behind some beautiful gardens. It made me feel very small and insignificant, being in a place with all that Russian time and space. It was an existential experience.”
Alberto Wilson, a history and Latin American and Latino/a studies double major from Denver, CO, didn’t take classes in a traditional classroom. He was enrolled in a program run by the Mexico Solidarity Network, enabling him to meet men and women involved in progressive movements in communities in various parts of Mexico. Wilson met Zapatista leaders in Chiapas, where the indigenous people have built their own schools and health clinics. In Tlaxcala, he met with members of the National Urban Peasant Council, an organization that engaged in organic farming methods and is organizing resistance against corporate agriculture. In Mexico City, he met leaders of Frente Popular Francisco Villa, a group that builds housing for the working poor on unused government land.
“I was somewhat familiar with the Zapatistas, but I knew almost nothing about these other movements, although I am a native of Mexico. After years of learning theory about social movements in class, I was inspired to see what is actually happening right now, learning about what has been accomplished. It really grounded me. I plan to get my PhD in history, but wherever I live I plan to be involved in working for change in my community, to address the problems that need to be fixed.
“At Vassar there are so many things to do and learn, but it’s also a bit of a bubble. There’s something to be said for getting out of your comfort zone at a time when you’re exploring and learning about yourself. It’s good to put yourself in some uncomfortable situations. No one should pass it up.”