The afternoon Spanish siestas were a refreshing treat, but the late evening suppers took some getting used to for the hungry American exchange student.
“Supper traditionally wasn’t served until 9 or 10 p.m., but by 5 o’clock I would be starving, so I would fix myself a sandwich, which offended my host family," says Ryan Warner, reminiscing about his days as a Study Abroad student in Castellan de la Plana, a city on the eastern coast of Spain. “They couldn’t understand why I was eating. After all, they would be serving a wonderful meal in just a few hours.”
Late mealtimes notwithstanding, today the coordinator of Study Abroad Programs has nothing but fond memories of his days as an international student. And now he’s helping scores of Marshall students experience the same rewarding study opportunities he had as an undergraduate at Shawnee State University, where he was studying International Relations.
“Studying abroad opens so many doors,” he says. “Getting out of your comfort zone and going out on your own in a whole new place for the first time can be scary, just as it was for me, but it’s a transforming experience. I’ve seen students come back so much more academically strong than they were, brimming with new ideas. They approach their degrees from a different viewpoint.”
There’s a whole range of options available to students, but by far the most popular one is the ISEP Exchange program—fully 75 percent of Marshall Study Abroad students participate in that one, he says. And Warner wants to drive home the point that through careful planning, international study can be surprisingly affordable. “I want to dispel the myth that these trips are super expensive. We’ve spent many hours structuring programs so that they are affordable and with the economy the way it is now, that’s a number one goal.”
The faculty-led ISEP program is a case in point, he notes. Marshall is an ISEP Exchange partner, with agreements with institutions in 200 countries all over the world. Students from 320 universities worldwide essentially trade places with one another, entering the host institution as regular students while simply continuing to pay fees to their home institution. These fees traditionally cover tuition, room and meals, and most scholarships, including the Promise Scholarship, will continue to be in effect. For each student who goes abroad, the home institution receives one in return.
That student exchange offers big benefits to Marshall as well, Warner believes. “It’s a great deal. We have a bilateral exchange. These students add so much to the university; they internationalize our campus.”
Gaining in popularity is a new program at Marshall, the Kentucky Institute for International Studies (KIIS). “KIIS is a faculty-led program where our students apply to go on four-week summer trips organized by Western Kentucky University. They’re led by professors from all over Kentucky and they cover a whole range of fields ... business, the arts, education. Now that we’ve joined, our faculty will have the opportunity to teach classes abroad next summer as well. This is our first summer and we have eight students signed up and eight faculty who have applied for the 2013 summer. Faculty build their own courses and they’ll join with other faculty from Kentucky. The program has been going for 36 years so everything is done and set up for them. So far we’ve had people apply to go to Italy, Austria, Quebec and Paris.”
Warner finds that his own international experiences can help allay some student anxieties. “Students come in who haven’t been outside this area, and going to a foreign country is a very big adventure and it can be scary. I can relate to that because I did that and I know how they feel.” Only a couple of months after his six-month stay in Spain, he was off for a three-week course in China, this time to study Buddhism, Confucius and Taoism. “We traveled extensively all over China, visiting temples, Confucius’ burial place and talking with monks. It was an eye-opening experience.” In the summer of 2010 he traveled to Nicaragua, this time on a personal rather than an academic journey. “I had done two Study Abroad (trips) and this time I wanted to do something to help others,” he explains. “I went with a group that was building infrastructure. It was a personal mission for me. This time I was able to do service rather than academic work. It was a different experience but a growing one. I felt like I was doing something that would make an impact, that would help others.” And then too, there have been visits to Germany, personal ones for his family, whose ancestors came from there.
And as for the stay in Spain that started it all, “it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I didn’t want to leave Spain,” he says simply. Going out on his own for the first time could have been daunting, but Warner had a fierce determination to succeed in his twin goals of continuing work on his degree in international relations and polishing up his Spanish. His immersion into the language was total and sudden. His host family spoke not a word of English. A complicating factor was that in Castellon de la Plana, the natives speak Catalonian.
“It was a struggle for simple communication, even for mundane everyday things,” he recalls. And all of his classes were in Spanish as well. But he managed and soon embraced with gusto the custom of a long afternoon siesta. “Everything stops from about 2 to 5 p.m. People really do go home, shut the windows and take a nap. It’s a societal thing where you want to relax but I’d say that 80 percent of the reason for the siesta is because it’s so hot. The summer heat can get intense and there’s little air conditioning. Then they go back to work refreshed and work well into the evening.” And, of course, the late dinner hour with the huge meals was a challenge for him. But the family embraced the young American and made him a member in every way and that included the traditional family fiesta each Saturday.
“Saturdays are really special. Whole families get together to have lunch and that includes parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, everyone ... and you don’t miss it,” he recalls. “I liked that so much I wanted to bring that tradition home with me. We don’t do that as much in the U.S., but I look at it as a good way to spend more time together as a family.”
Warner’s own experiences are especially helpful for the fledgling young travelers who are about to embark on their first trip abroad. “I can relate to them. I can tell them something about the culture they’ll be heading into and the fun things that can be done. But I don’t sugar-coat things, I’m honest with them. I explain that there will undoubtedly be some difficult times, some rocks in the road from time to time, obstacles either in the classroom or out of it. But I assure them they can overcome obstacles and have a great experience, which they invariably do.”
So far, the Study Abroad numbers are robust. As to the length of time students will be abroad, there are several options available. Depending on the program and the institution they select, they can study for a semester, a year or, as many choose, a shortened summer program. “Right now there are 19 students who are studying for a semester and four who are studying for a year. This spring there are 24 abroad and we anticipate about 50 going for the summer, which is traditionally our biggest semester,” says Warner. Numbers are increasing rapidly, which he attributes in great part to the International Business program on campus. “Built into the program is a requirement that students have to have an international experience, either as an internship here that deals with an international aspect or a Study Abroad. I would love to see more programs build that kind of experience into their curriculum.”
As a determined champion of his program, he would also love to see more faculty encourage Study Abroad in their classrooms. “The biggest fear people have is the expense. I want to stress that there are financial options available and that these trips can be affordable. Often students are surprised when they find that all they’re liable for are travel and everyday expenses. We’re here to work with them to make the trips both rewarding and affordable.”
And yes, Warner says in his off-hours he does like to travel. Mostly he and his wife Maggie enjoy traveling around the eastern U.S.—their particular favorite is the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area, but the two love playing sports, particularly baseball, spending time with their dog and mountain biking. Actually this summer both will be heading to Europe, Maggie to Germany for a family visit, while Ryan will travel to Madrid and France to check on ongoing and very successful programs in both those countries.
“Like me, students who go abroad invariably want to do it again. I’ve seen many get involved in international activities. Study Abroad is not just a way to see work. There are the personal aspects of the trip, of course, but the academic growth is really what’s important.”
Photo: Ryan Warner at the Great Wall of China.
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