According to Harmony DeFazio, interim assistant director for the University of Arizona’s Study Abroad and Student Exchange programs, it’s impossible to nail down why people are drawn to having an international study experience.
“The one consistent thing that we hear all the time,” she says, “is that it’s life changing. You can’t see the world from the same perspective after going outside of your own comfort zone.”
The University of Arizona sends about 1,200 students on study abroad programs every year, and those students choose from more than 60 different programs, taking them to countries that span the globe.
Creative writing major Sally McCallum wanted to see what field science was really like. She could have learned about field ecology in the lush Sonoran Desert that surround the University of Arizona.
“I knew that I’m not the kind of person that would ever do that,” she says. “I would just sit and write my thoughts about things. And I wanted to know what that rigor was like so that I could communicate that to other people like me.”
So she went to Namibia instead, along with eight other students and four professors. While there MacCallum studied desert ecology and conservation biology.
“The cool thing was that, as it was open to all majors, for our final research project we weren’t required to do something in ecology,” she remembers. “I did mine on the personal adornment of the Himba people. It was really quite an experience.”
The opportunities for study abroad were a complete surprise to Tolan Thornton, a senior majoring in French, finance, East Asian studies and entrepreneurship.
“One thing I didn’t realize about the University of Arizona is that it would be so easy to study abroad,” he says, “that I could go wherever I wanted, almost whenever I wanted and study in whatever language I wanted.”
When DeFazio first met Thornton, he had been studying French, but had just discovered his love for Chinese. She remembers him saying, “I don’t know how to do this. How do I pick?”
She told him, “Tolan, you don’t have to pick. You can go to both places!” His eyes lit up.
For Thornton, studying abroad was a dream come true. “I was living in Paris, next to my café, eating baguettes and fromage every day,” he reminisces, “and it was glorious.”
But he didn’t stop there. While France, he taught himself Mandarin and proceeded to study at a university in Hangzhou, China the following semester.
“I lived in a dorm that was specifically for international students,” he says, “but I was paired with a Chinese roommate, so that was probably the most rewarding part of the program--living with someone who is Chinese and can teach me things outside of the classroom that I’d never know otherwise. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
Thornton plans to return to China after graduation to study Mandarin for another 12 to 18 months, and then pursue a job in mainland China.
“Study abroad really broadens your horizons,” he says. “It broadens how you look at yourself and how you look at the world, and when you come back, you’re not going to be the same person that you were before.”