Illinois native Ben Everard, A.B. ’06, will never forget the image of 250,000 protesters lining the streets of Hong Kong last December, petitioning the Chinese government for democratic elections. Everard at the time was a third-year University of Miami student spending a semester at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“China was an eye-opening experience and one of the most memorable periods of my life,” says Everard, who has since been accepted to law school and is considering a career in politics. “In the near future China will be one of our biggest competitors, but it faces a number of political issues that can emerge as problems. My witnessing this dynamic firsthand will continue to benefit me tremendously.”

As a Foote Fellow, one of the University’s top student honors, Everard clearly excels in the classroom. But going abroad gave him a rich perspective on culture, politics, people, and protocol outside of the United States.

While student interest in the opportunity is growing at UM and nationwide, some academicians worry that the growth is still too sluggish. The U.S. Senate designated 2006 as the “Year of Study Abroad,” urging academic, business, and government entities to encourage opportunities for international exchange. Ultimately, the rewards of study abroad are best appreciated through the eyes of students whose lives have been inordinately impacted by the experience.

Through exchange agreements that it currently maintains with 75 partner institutions in 33 countries around the world, the University of Miami has sent more than 3,500 students abroad for semester, year, and summer programs in the past 22 years. About 1,000 of those students have been in the past two fiscal years alone. Additional UM students have traveled abroad on their own or through other non-UM programs.

Since 1923—when Professor Raymond W. Kirkbride made the highly unconventional move of sending eight of his University of Delaware students to Paris, France—study abroad has become an increasingly essential vehicle for improving foreign relations. Students act as de facto ambassadors, demonstrating hands-on diplomacy and building lasting relationships.

“Students gain not only a broader perspective about the world but also about their own country,” says Glenda Hayley, director of the Office of International and Exchange Programs (IEEP), which manages study abroad at the University. “We expect them to be good ambassadors for both the University and the United States.”

Creating much more globally aware citizens is urgent in this day and age, especially considering the results of the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Global Literacy Study: 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 cannot locate Israel on a map of the Middle East, 65 percent cannot find Great Britain on a world map, and 50 percent cannot identify New York on a U.S. map.

“Through my travels I have met many people in their 20s who have taken time off from school or work to travel, but most of them are not Americans,” says Nisha Broodie, a senior biology major who just returned to the United States from a semester at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “It makes me wonder if many students in our country focus too heavily on accomplishing things quickly and feel like they cannot sacrifice time or money to travel.”

Broodie, who aspires to go to medical school after graduating from the University of Miami, notes she is the only one among her friends who has studied abroad. “By studying abroad in my senior year I have put going to medical school on hold for another year. But I am so happy with my choice because I do not know when I will ever have the opportunity to live in a different culture and have the freedom to go to any country in Europe when I desire. It’s an amazing thing to land in a completely different city with just a tour book and a map, knowing that I have three days to see whatever it is I want to see. I have gained a lot of confidence in myself from my independent travel.”

Broodie’s observation that American students are curiously absent from the global classroom is backed by the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan Resolution 308, which names 2006 as “Year of Study Abroad.” It cites a 2002 American Council on Education poll in which “79 percent of people in the United States agree that students should have a study abroad experience some time during college, but only 1 percent of students from the United States currently study abroad each year.”

“I’m disappointed but not surprised that so few students study abroad,” says Thomas J. LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost of the University of Miami. “The experience takes time and money.”

LeBlanc should know. He was a high school junior from a small town in upstate New York when he boarded his first airplane and headed to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on an American Field Service exchange program. Born of French lineage and having studied French in high school, LeBlanc had expected to study in France. But the program assigned him to Brazil, where he learned Portuguese, took bus excursions throughout the raw countryside, and formed a connection with his host family that has endured to the present day. One of LeBlanc’s priorities at the University of Miami is to help enhance the undergraduate experience, and for him study abroad is a logical place to start.

“Why do we live in such an international community and attract such a diverse population, and yet students go abroad at much lower rates than our peer institutions? It seems to me they should go abroad at a higher rate. Part of the reason is financial, so if we want that to be a critical part of their experience, we need to understand the financial role, and we may need to bring resources to bear.”

While all scholarships students receive at the University apply toward tuition during their time abroad, there is a need for more scholarships to offset expenses for living, currency exchange, food, and other costs students might not encounter here in Miami. One donor, Edward Pascoe, provides students who are Miami-Dade County residents with travel stipends that cover the added expenses of studying overseas. Pascoe, who spent a year in Rome while he was a student at Notre Dame University, considers his support as a way to enhance the internationalization of Miami-Dade County. Pascoe is like so many students who go abroad and return from the experience with a new perspective that forever shapes their personalities and affects their actions.

“I came back a changed person,” says Provost LeBlanc. “One of the things it taught me was patience with people who have difficulty communicating in English. Speaking a new language is exhausting, frustrating, and hard work, and our international students and visitors are putting all that effort out. If we put just 5 percent of that effort back in, I think it would make an amazing difference for them.”

As frustrating as it can be, immersion in a foreign language is a benefit of study abroad that LeBlanc weighs heavily. “Far too many students study abroad in England or Australia because they don’t feel comfortable with a foreign language. I’ve got nothing against England or Australia, but the combination of learning a language and culture and food and music and geography—putting all of that together—is an incredible experience.”

Stephanie Scotto, a native of Venezuela, loaded her roster with Italian classes before jetting off to L’Aquila, Italy, in the second semester of her sophomore year. After what she calls “the most incredible six months of my life,” she returned to the University of Miami and dove headfirst into Italian culture in the local community. She became a sales coordinator for the Italian Chamber of Commerce and a collaborator of the Italian Consulate in Miami. She then signed up to do her final undergraduate semester in Granada, Spain, where she was hired by HBO as a marketing associate. This led to an “Olympic” opportunity and a taste of what it will be like for her to achieve her goal of living and working in Italy.

“I was able to live the first steps of my dream by working as a sector manager with the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics, principally responsible for the Medals Plaza,” Scotto explains. “The minute I stepped onto the plane, I stepped into an actual dream of which I am living every step, every breath, every heartache, every smile, and every mile.”

This summer Rita Benitez was in Paris, continuing a path of personal introspection that she started during her semester there in the spring of 2005. Having majored in Spanish and French at the University of Miami, she went there to study library and information sciences at Ecole de Bibliothécaires et Documentalistes. “Having the opportunity to live amidst other cultures and different ideologies allowed me to reevaluate the kind of life I want for myself and the kind of opportunities to which I would like to be exposed. My stay in Paris consisted of a constant process of exploration and redefinition, and has thus initiated a new period in my life.”

Despite ringing endorsements from many study abroad students, the experience is not right for everyone.

“I think you really have to want to do it,” LeBlanc says. “My year abroad had some really difficult times, especially in the beginning when I was the only one in a room who didn’t speak Portuguese. Phone calls were expensive, so I didn’t talk to my U.S. family for a year. But I think the barriers are lower now. With the Internet, you can call home practically for free.”

Besides maneuvering amidst language barriers, inconveniences of foreign currencies and exchange rates, and strangeness of new foods, today’s abroad students have the added task of trying to assimilate in a foreign country during a time of fear and uncertainty in our own nation. Living in the post-9/11 era, Americans are hyperconscious of the dangers that lurk in countries that have been targets for terrorism.

“Everyone was afraid, but students still went out,” Hayley says of spring 2002, the semester immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “There was a drop, but not a significant drop, and it turned right around.”

Hayley explains that the University carefully monitors its abroad students, and in cases like last summer’s bombing in London, the entire IEEP office immediately moves into emergency status, contacting partners overseas to account for all of the students. The office then informs parents of students that their children are safe.

Challenges aside, life after going abroad proves markedly changed for many students, and Hayley has the unique ability to observe the before-and-after effects. She notes that many students begin to receive and seek out opportunities that reflect their global perspective. After studying in Madrid, Hayley herself was recruited by the CIA for exactly that reason.

“The CIA sold me by offering me the ticket to go back overseas,” she recalls. “At that time, they were looking for that profile of a student who had studied abroad.” Hayley, who is fluent in Spanish, served a tour of duty for the CIA in South America (where she also met her future husband). “I imagine that a lot of students will seek out a life pattern that includes an international perspective in their jobs.”

Paola Stefan, B.S.C. ’02, who studied in L’Aquila, Italy, and Paris, describes a similar experience. “Now out in ‘the real world,’ my experiences abroad have gotten my résumé to the top of the pile time and time again. Every time I mention my travels and studies abroad, not to mention the languages I learned, employers seem to lean forward toward me and become more attentive. It opened doors for me in broadcast journalism, and now in the field of education it has opened doors for me to teach in a variety of subject areas with little or no limitations.”

Billy Bludgus, B.S. ’05, a teacher and volunteer through Jesuit Volunteers International in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was intrigued by this two-year professional opportunity after spending a semester at the University of Vienna in Strobl, Austria, in 2004.

“Studying abroad is hands-on learning in its purest form. Taking what I learned from my time in Austria has helped me make the transition to life here in Tanzania,” says Bludgus, who teaches math, science, and values education in the poor outskirts of the city while also learning to speak Swahili and lead community service and retreat programs. His day-to-day hassles include dirt, bugs, electricity blackouts, intense heat, severe drought, monsoons, mudslides, and the need to boil water for drinking, if there’s any water available at all.

On one of the rare occasions when electricity is flowing, Bludgus sends out an e-mail recounting a particular memory in Austria that he says encompasses all the lessons he learned there:

“I decided to go to Vienna one weekend to meet up with a friend coming from Germany, but I didn’t want to miss classes on Friday, so I took a late train. My friend was not coming in until Saturday, but little did I know, it was impossible to find a hostel bed so late in the night without prior reservations. I headed back to the train station, which is well lit at night and relatively safe, and I met a group of very nice homeless people there. They offered me some of the bakery’s leftover pastries, which I gladly accepted. Even though I had money, there was nowhere to buy food and I was hungry. We spent some time sharing food and conversing in German before we called it a night, sharing a couple of shredded blankets. I woke up the next morning, bought them breakfast, and headed on my way to meet my friend. Talk about an education. Talk about humility.”

At the end of the e-mail, Bludgus tags this quote from Aristotle: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” The quote sums up what most study abroad students believe—that universities provide intellectual and academic development, but the culture and environment abroad provides a life-changing and timeless education of the heart.

Blythe Nobleman is a freelance writer and an instructor at the University of Miami.