By Brett Tomlinson ’99
When Linda Kang ’10 scanned the dilapidated homes of a South African shantytown, she saw graffiti, corrugated metal and tenuous wooden walls. But after a few days working with some of the people who lived in the township, she came to understand that the houses represented a larger reality: “Miles and miles of people with no employment, and really no chance of employment.”
Kang traveled to South Africa as part of Semester at Sea, a study-abroad voyage sponsored and one of the many programs open to Bucknell students, which took her to 10 countries in 108 days. The program offered variety and immediacy. One day, Kang would sit in her cabin and read about the Zen temples of Japan. The next, she would explore the temples firsthand.
But the trip promised much more than sightseeing. Though Kang was already a seasoned and eager traveler when she arrived at Bucknell, she had spent little time in the developing world. Semester at Sea stops in places like Namibia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam would allow her to interact with people from different cultural and economic backgrounds — an exciting prospect for Kang, a double-major in religion and psychology.
Kang chose a schedule packed with service projects and home visits, opportunities to get to know more about the people she encountered. When she spent a day with an Indian family, she wanted to talk about Hinduism, but the discussion turned to everyday life. She was impressed by how the people she met “put love first,” valuing compassion and friendship over material things. In Malaysia, Kang made an emotional visit to a home for adults with physical and mental disabilities, where a young woman confined to a wheelchair confessed her profound loneliness and her prayers to one day walk again.
But no person affected Kang more than the man she called “Playa,” a South African worker she met while building new homes in Cape Town. (He’d mentioned that his name meant “to play” in Xhosa, his native language, giving birth to Kang’s affectionate nickname.) Together, they stacked concrete blocks, hauled bags of sand and mixed cement. Playa, like Kang, was a volunteer, mostly because there were no paying jobs to be found. He arrived hungry each day, left with a bit of bread and slept nearby in the shantytown. But he had adhered to the routine for six months. Working on homes provided some sense of promise, he told Kang — a hope that the next generation would not have to sleep beneath leaky roofs or fear that an errant flame would reduce their house to ash.
The day after Kang met Playa and heard his story, she returned to the construction site with a backpack stuffed with coloring books, pens, snacks and candy for the children nearby — the best she could come up with on short notice — along with a fresh loaf of bread for her new co-worker. In her blog, she wrote that she “never expected to want to give a loaf of bread to someone so badly.”
That night, Kang made a vow to herself: Each day, she would send an e-mail plea to South Africa’s Habitat for Humanity office, which ran the construction site. She would lobby, donate, raise funds — whatever it took — to get Playa, and other hard-working people like him, on the payroll.
During that trip, Kang was learning what many who have studied abroad know well: The experience can change your life, in ways great and small. It can nudge you toward a new career path, reshape what you value and expand your mind in directions that would never occur to you when you first sit in front of that white screen to pose for a passport photo.
About 45 percent of today’s Bucknell students engage with the world by spending a semester abroad. If you include the students who study abroad during the summer, the figure climbs to half of all undergraduates, according to Robert Midkiff, the assistant provost who oversees the University’s office of international education.
Study abroad has been a key part of Bucknell’s effort to build bridges to the world beyond the campus. The University offers four “Bucknell in” programs during the regular academic year — Bucknell in London, Bucknell en France, Bucknell en España and Bucknell in Barbados — as well as several three- to six-week collaborations in the summer months. The international education office also approves dozens of programs sponsored by other institutions, allowing undergraduates to pursue studies in more than 50 countries.
Participation in study abroad has grown significantly in the last 10 years, but travel programs have long been a part of Bucknell’s offerings. Lee Schwartz ’76, the geographer of the United States and director of the state department’s Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, recalls spending a few memorable weeks abroad with geography professor Richard Peterec in Egypt in 1975 and in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the following year.
The trips were built around cultural exchange, not course assignments or field studies, but there was no mistaking the educational value that Peterec instilled. Schwartz, then a young geography major with a budding sense of wanderlust, says that he learned to travel “because of intellectual curiosity, as much as adventure.”
To pay for the trip to Egypt, Schwartz cashed in savings bonds from his Bar Mitzvah, to the dismay of his grandmother. (Egypt had been at war with Israel just two years earlier.) In Egypt, Schwartz says he was embraced by the people he met, a sign of the country’s welcoming Arab culture. “That was very much of an eye-opener,” he says, and it was the sort of nuance that Peterec hoped to share with his students.
“He wanted students to understand different cultures, try to get away from an Anglo-centric perspective, understand different political systems, [and] try to travel as simply as possible,” Schwartz says. “He was always concerned about doing anything that would offend local sensibilities.”
Using that approach served Schwartz well in his academic career, when his travels included a year as a Fulbright scholar in Russia, and it continues to help him today in his work as the government’s top geographer. The state department often calls Schwartz’s office into action abroad during times of crisis — for instance, to assist with aid efforts following a natural disaster or provide expertise during a border conflict. Schwartz also meets with international leaders for diplomatic and scientific exchanges. Wherever he goes, he says, the cultural awareness that Peterec taught travels with him.
For recent graduate Jessica Scott ’08, cultural immersion was a top priority when she chose to spend the spring of 2007 in Tanzania. The animal behavior major enrolled in a program that centered on field studies. She learned Swahili and spent weeks in the country’s national parks, surrounded by lions, giraffes, elephants, baboons and just about every other African animal one can imagine. But the most memorable experiences for Scott were her interactions with the people of Tanzania.
She lived for four days with families from the indigenous Maasai community. The Maasai engage in the controversial practice of female circumcision, and dynamics within the group, like the power relationships between men and women, were very different from what Scott and the other Western students had known at home.
Among the Maasai, Scott says, men strove for wealth — more cattle, more wives — but also observed an overarching sense of community. All seemed to realize that one person or one family could not survive without the help of the larger group. The students became eager observers, not quick to judge what they’d seen. “The only way to learn, and the only way to help people, if that is your thing, is to understand their culture,” Scott says.
During her semester in Tanzania, Scott endured two serious medical problems: a case of appendicitis that sent her to a Nairobi hospital for two weeks, and a brief but frightening bout with malaria. Still, she remembers the trip fondly — so fondly, in fact that she plans to travel to Africa again in the coming year, as part of a year-long trip from Japan to Kenya by land.
Along the way, Scott plans to work with organic farmers to earn room and board. Her itinerary is uncertain and her language skills are limited, but because of the lessons learned in Tanzania, she is not sweating the details. “I’m comfortable with the thought of being uncomfortable,” she says.
Not all of the students who choose to study abroad are avid travelers like Scott and Schwartz. For Meghan O’Reilly ’10, a double-major in French and English, the prospect of a semester away from campus was a bit intimidating. She chose to spend the fall of 2008 studying in Bucknell en France, the University’s collaboration with the Université François Rabelais in Tours, because it offered a few reminders of home, including Bucknell faculty and a handful of American students.
At the same time, O’Reilly says she enjoyed the everyday challenges of being immersed in a language that she had studied since middle school. Living with a French host family, speaking French went from a two-hour-a-day commitment to a round-the-clock reality. O’Reilly gained confidence over the course of the semester and began taking opportunities to be more inquisitive and travel outside of Tours. She’d chosen the Bucknell program for the support it promised, but “by the time I left,” she says, “I felt like I didn’t need that support.”
Adjusting to French culture was not without aggravations. O’Reilly laughs when she recalls one of her last days in Tours. She had decided to bake cookies with her host sisters, in an effort to share an American experience. Unable to find the right ingredients in her kitchen, she left for the local market. But on the street, she was caught behind a protest march (“People are always striking in France,” she says), and by the time she passed the protesters, all of the stores were closed for the two-hour luncheon break. The string of minor inconveniences illustrated a contrast with life in Lewisburg, where the errand might have taken 20 minutes.
But when O’Reilly came back to Bucknell, a strange thing happened. She began to miss the slower pace of life in France. She started being more frugal and conscious of conserving resources — traits that rubbed off from her host mother. And she found herself lingering in the cafeteria for the type of long lunches that had originally irritated her on that day when her grocery run was sidetracked. “I definitely came back a lot more open-minded,” O’Reilly says. “I’d changed more than I thought I had.”
The night that Linda Kang made her promise to help Playa, she kept to herself, shedding tears as she processed competing emotions. She was angry at her own ignorance, wondering how she had lived with such a limited understanding of Apartheid and its legacy in South Africa’s shantytowns. She was overcome by the seemingly hopeless situation she’d witnessed, the thought of thousands of children sleeping beneath leaking roofs of weathered sheet metal.
Still, there was something inspiring about the determination that Playa and his friends showed. Other Semester at Sea students departed on safari tours or sightseeing trips, but Kang returned to the construction site. Her third day was to be her last.
Kang arrived in the morning, and when she saw Playa, she immediately knew something wonderful had happened. “He had this light in his eyes,” she says. He smiled and told her that after months volunteering fro Habitat, the supervisor had finally decided to reward his hard work and commitment with a paying job.
Kang wondered if her message had reached someone, if it had made a difference. She never would receive a reply, and later, she began to think it was just coincidence. But it didn’t matter. The experience lifted the spirits of a man badly in need of a lift, and it changed Kang’s outlook as well.
Months after returning to Bucknell, Kang thought about those three days in South Africa and what they meant to her. Building houses would not be her way to change the world — she’d found little aptitude for masonry — but maybe teaching would be. Since then, she has started exploring ways to teach English abroad, possibly in rural areas of South Korea, after she graduates.
As a student, Kang says that she feels less stress and appreciates her own situation more than she did before her semester abroad.
“I value what I have and everything that Bucknell is,” she says. “When I wake up, I realize how comfortable I feel and how warm I am. There are no holes in my ceiling. I’m thankful.”
Brett Tomlinson ’99 is an assistant editor at the Princeton Alumni Weekly. He and his wife, Amy Hart Tomlinson ’99, welcomed their first child, Luke, in February.
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