Student Travels

Swatting Flies and Saving the World

Joe Maddens chose Niger for his studies abroad, putting up with sweltering heat and social unrest in exchange for a closer look at how poor people live. (Photo: courtesy of Joe Maddens)

Boston University student Joe Maddens could have spent his spring semester studying Italian in Padua or culture in Grenoble — but he chose Niger instead. There always seemed to be social unrest nearby. Checking e-mail meant walking several miles in sweltering temperatures. And he was mugged. But he found living amid people who lacked food, shelter and electricity strangely instructive.

“Nobody cares about the poorest places on earth, and I feel we should start to,” Maddens said, in an interview from Niamey, Niger’s capital. “Niger made me see that United States and Europe are like a bubble of comfort.”

More U.S. students are looking beyond the traditional study abroad destinations of Western Europe and Australia. The number of students spending a semester in Africa, Asia or the Middle East spiked by more than 50 percent to nearly 30,000 in 2005, from 19,700 in 2004, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). Now about 15 percent of students abroad choose those regions. Sixty percent still go to Europe, but that’s down from 67 percent ten years ago, an IIE report found.

Some students want to step out of their comfort zones. Others are trying to look impressive or exotic for future employers, investigating their heritage or responding to job demand and the news. Arabic and Middle Eastern studies are especially popular now.

“Students want to experience the places they read about in the newspapers,” said Daniel Obst, the IIE’s director of higher educational services. That might be why China, Brazil and India have emerged as some of the hottest new study-abroad destinations, he suggested. And globalization –better transport, communication and cross-cultural links — is making far-flung study easier.

New York University journalism and political science major Mary Pilon experimented with foreign reporting, at the university’s journalism program in Rostov, Russia. Right away, she discovered that Russian rules were different.

“Russians think Americans are really invasive, so they never trusted us,” she said. “We would have to go out for vodka with them before getting any information.”

But she formed a few impressions.

“There is a lot of poverty, and yet there are women who dress like it is “Sex and the City.” They spend all their money on one Prada or Gucci dress, instead buying several of a lesser-known brand,” said Pilon.

Next Pilon is headed to Shanghai, where she’ll study journalism, Chinese film and diplomacy at East China University. She plans to submit articles to New York newspapers.

Developing and “newsworthy” countries pose special challenges. But Maddens took the poverty and inconveniences in stride.

“There are strikes and some violent riots once in a while, but the overall large-scale security situation seems relatively stable compared to many African countries,” he said.

After the London bombings in 2005, though, “people realize that there is risk in every region of the world,” pointed out Cindy Chalou, Michigan State University’s assistant director of study abroad.

Developing countries also tend to offer more opportunities for work in grassroots organizations.

“It’s a great learning curve,” said Sheila Collins, of the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center. One Minnesota Ph.D. candidate in international education helped establish girls’ clubs in Asamankese, a small town in Ghana. Working for the Ghana Education Service, she wrote professional reports and developed a plan. She ended up shifting her research interest to classroom integration.

Ian Bateson was studying German and Eastern Europe at Columbia University when he decided to go to Kazakhstan. There, he lived with a local family and met the astonishingly generous people he had heard about from high school friends. Though his hosts’ hospitality meant he was forced to eat and drink more that he wanted, he was touched.

“Basically, the tradition is to treat every guest like Mohammed, himself,” said Bateson, now a Fulbright scholar at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. Foreigners were easily accepted in a country used to ethnic diversity; Kazakhs were in fact in the minority in their country after the fall of Communism, Bateson said.

Maddens, who also works with an NGO, doing metalwork and practicing the dying craft of wax process, didn’t love his life in Niamey. But he liked being out of his comfort zone — enough to return as an assistant for the same program the following year.

Anuradha Kher is a graduate student in journalism at New York University. She grew up in India, where she worked for The Times of India and for Global Services. This article was first published on NYU Livewire, a biweekly service supplying newspapers and magazines with feature stories about and for young people in college and their twenties.