Students Share Diverse Study Abroad Experiences

Juna Drougas (’16) on the streets of Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Juna Drougas

Juna Drougas (’16) on the streets of Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Juna Drougas

TO STUDY ABROAD is to dive into the unknown, to dare to step outside of our safe little campus and expose oneself the wonders of the world. Lucky for us, SLC offers some of the most exciting and uncommon study abroad programs. However, speaking with seniors who have gone abroad, one will realize that the transition into a new environment can be as trying as it is exhilarating. 

One of Sarah Lawrence’s most popular study abroad options is the Cuba program, and it was one of the main reasons Juna Drougas (’16) decided to enroll at SLC. The most common challenge Sarah Lawrence students are faced with abroad is getting accustomed to academic formats that are radically different from the one they’re used to. Having spent her freshman and sophomore years in seminar style classes on campus, it was a tough adjustment to suddenly have the comfort of a round table a thousand miles away. 

“Cubans learn in a very lecture-based environment,” Juna said. “A lot of it is people talking at you for an hour and then you’re expected to come up with a lot of questions, and if you don’t have any they assume you weren’t listening, when in fact you were just trying to take in all the information. It can be overwhelming.”

Despite some academic difficulties, the opportunity to participate in one of the Latin America’s best film programs at the University of Havana (where Gabriel Garcia Marquez once taught) and the rich culture of a country once totally closed off to Americans made the trip worth it. 

Juna’s most memorable moment in Cuba happened after listening to a lecture by the wife of one of the members of a group of political prisoners known as the Cuban 5. While exiting the lecture hall, still processing the lecture which encapsulated the history of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, Juna and the other American students were met by two workers carting boxes of textbooks into the science building, whom they readily began to help. Juna summed up the experience: “It was a special moment after that really heavy talk to see Cubans and Americans happily working together.”

The language barrier for students going abroad will vary depending on the destination and preparedness of the individual student. For Juna, a native speaker, the transition was seamless. For Abby Brecher (’16), who spent a semester abroad in Barcelona, her thick American accent proved to be no problem at all. 

“[The language barrier] didn’t bother me,” Abby said. “Everybody in Barcelona is super excited for you to practice your Spanish with them; they want to help you and help you get better, so I never had to be shy about it. It honestly felt amazing to be able to immerse myself fully in the language, that’s what I really wanted from my abroad experience.” 

Being the only Sarah Lawrence student in the program, she found that living in the University of Barcelona’s dorms alongside native students helped her improve her Spanish significantly. Others, like Ben Sherak (’16), who spent a semester in Stockholm, found there was little need to actually become proficient in the native language: “They appreciate if you make the effort but you didn’t really have to. They would actually get more annoyed if you spoke bad swedish, they’d rather you speak english.”

Before students embark upon their journeys, the International Programs staff usually show them a small graph with dramatic peaks and dips, charting the general patterns of culture shock. According to many students who have gone abroad, the process is less erratic and intense than they often make it out to be. 

Abby was initially slightly discouraged by her inability to relate to her new peers, until she opened up and embraced their differences: “I experienced just a touch of homesickness in the beginning. Most of the people in my program were from big schools and they came from a completely different environment than me. And at first I was a little deterred by that but I realized, its four months, you can wallow in this or you can get over the differences and enjoy the people for who they are. And when I did, it was a great experience.” 

Abby Brecher (’16) looking over the city of barcelona. Photo credit: Abby Brecher

Abby Brecher (’16) looking over the city of barcelona. Photo credit: Abby Brecher

Ben found that Sweden could often be eerily familiar in terms of its cultural norms, saying, “It was almost disappointing how easy it was to adapt...The cultural barrier is not that far, they’re really into American culture. The people think of themselves as very cold, similar to the way Sarah Lawrence kids think everyone here is mean when that’s not really the case. They’re not as festive and fun and welcoming as some other cultures are maybe, but they’re not bad.”

Ben described his experience in Sweden as being almost like grad-school–he lived a 45-minute train ride away from school, far from most other students, and the focus of his experience was academic rather than cultural. He advises students considering the program to be sure of their objectives before taking it on, warning, “If people wanna go essentially live alone in Stockholm as an adult going to university, go on this program. If you’re looking for ‘college in another country’ in a campus environment, this is absolutely not for you.” 

Though he remained concentrated on schoolwork, he had the opportunity to travel extensively through Europe. The highlight of his semester was an awe-inspiring trip to the arctic circle. “We went literally to the top of the world,” Ben recounts. “They took us on an 18 hour train ride north so we could appreciate the size and shape of Sweden. So they took us to the arctic ring where the northern lights happens, [and] it was amazing, it looked like a second horizon.”

For those more set on a radical change of environment, Sarah Lawrence now holds a program in Sub-Saharan Africa, centered around fieldwork and directed by SLC psychology professor, Kim Ferguson. 

Robyn Ralli (’16) spoke on the kind of work she and the other five Sarah Lawrence students did while they stayed in a house for volunteers in northern Tanzania, run by the Janada Batchelor Foundation for Children: “The fieldwork was a huge part of the experience. We were doing 14-15 hours per week, helping out at schools. Really they just needed people to step in and give teachers a break sometimes and teach a little course or help with research.” 

Though the climate and general lack of resources proved difficult to adapt to, Robyn said that it was an altogether extremely enriching experience that made her more aware of the things she takes for granted back home: “We were in a rural area so it wasn’t like you could just go to the grocery store to get food,” she said. “Being around all the women and children we worked with and hearing their stories made me be more conscious of how spoiled we are here.” 

She does give fair warning to others looking to take the program, that it may be more difficult to settle in an environment with few luxuries. She advises those committed enough to go to remain focused on the work and lean on their main guide for support, saying, “I honestly don’t think it’s for everybody. Its so different from other study abroad options just because of the area it’s in. My advice if you’re planning on going would be to stick with Kim Ferguson, she’s a genius, and she’ll get you through it.”

It seems that all those who have taken on a study abroad program share one resounding message–the challenges are worth it, they’re part of the experience. No place on earth is perfect, but there’s something to learn everywhere you go. 

Abby Brecher sums up this positive affirmation with her final piece of advice: “Keep an open mind. You’re going to be around people who are so different and who come from environments so different from Sarah Lawrence, but soon you learn everyone has their own story. Just travel and enjoy the culture while you have the chance–because you’ll miss it when you come back.” 

Martin Blondet '16

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.