Skip to main content

UW-Madison students reflect on study abroad experience

July 31, 2017 By Emily Hamer

While many UW–Madison students spend their summers taking classes in Madison or staying at home with family, others choose to do something a little more out of the ordinary: study abroad.

This summer, there are approximately 622 UW–Madison students studying abroad through International Academic Programs, up more than 19 percent compared to 2016. The students are scattered across the world, in 48 different countries.

Dan Gold, director of International Academic Programs, said studying abroad provides students with the opportunity to gain independence, learn a language, experience a new culture and expand their perspective of the world.

“Students … might not truly understand how societies and cultures could shape how people think,” Gold said. “With the interconnectedness of the world today and globalization, experiencing that first hand is an invaluable skill for both life and for professional work.”

One of the main goals of IAP is for students to be a part of a program that helps their professional development and earns them credit relevant to their degree. Academics are the core of the study abroad experience, Gold said.

From the Dominican Republic to Thailand, here’s where five UW–Madison students spent their summers abroad and what they learned because of it.

Understanding Mexican agriculture

For her study abroad experience, recent graduate Sydney Endres, who is originally from Lodi, Wisconsin, went to Mexico for two weeks through an Agriculture and Life Sciences program called “Mexico Food Systems and Society.”

Recent graduate Sydney Endres in Mexico Courtesy of Sydney Endres

On the program there were five UW students, one UW professor and four students from different universities in Mexico. The group traveled throughout central Mexico, visiting a variety of farms. Professors from universities in Mexico also joined them to teach about various aspects of Mexican agriculture.

A dairy science and life sciences communication major, Endres wants to work on a farm in the U.S. some day, and the visit gave her a deeper understanding of the agriculture industry.

“The language and culture already interested me,” Endres said. “Being able to take that classroom experience to actually go into the country and practice the language and see firsthand what we’ve learned was really appealing to me.”

She saw firsthand the challenges faced by Mexican farmers, such as difficulty in adopting new farming technologies, Endres said. In some cases, the farmers need help from the government to get new farming equipment, but many Mexican farmers that Endres talked to didn’t trust their government. This makes getting new technologies a risk.

Endres came away with a better understanding of trade relations between the U.S. and Mexico, but also a broader perspective about the world in general.

Beyond learning more about agriculture, Endres said she loved experiencing a new culture. She said everyone was welcoming everywhere she went. Most people had a “slower pace” of life, Endres said, but not in a bad way.

“The thing that I enjoyed most was the people and just getting to understand a different culture,” Endres said.

Getting out of the glossy textbook in Greece

On the other side of the world, Grant Haxton, a junior double majoring in geography and history, said he enjoyed experiencing a new country and culture instead of reading about it in a “glossy textbook.”

Junior Grant Haxton sits atop Mount Lycabettus, a prominent hill in central Athens. The vista offers panoramic views of the Athens metropolitan area, including the parliament building and the iconic Parthenon. Courtesy of Grant Haxton

Haxton, who is originally from La Canada Flintridge, California, went to Greece through the UW Classics program that lasted three weeks. He visited different cities and the countryside, as well as archeological sites and museums.

Some of the ancient sites didn’t “live up to the hype,” but others were “astounding,” Haxton said. Either way, seeing them in person was a completely different experience.

“Going to a place can really help instill a knowledge that you wouldn’t garner from reading a textbook or going to a class,” Haxton said.

Since Haxton’s program focused on ancient western culture, he said it was very pertinent to his history major. His program also involved a lot of travel throughout the islands and peninsula of Greece, something that helped Haxton learn more about the geography of the area.

In addition to learning, Haxton said he also made friends. There were 22 students in total in the program, all from UW–Madison. Haxton said it was fun to be around people his age and experience an alien culture with them.

Now back in Madison, they still spend time together, whether that be hanging out at the Terrace or getting dinner at the Nitty Gritty.

“Even though we’re resuming our ordinary lives … we still make time to hang out,” Haxton said.

Hands-on health care in Thailand

Fifth-year senior Elizabeth Hansen with a patient in Thailand. Photo used with patient permission. Courtesy of Elizabeth Hansen

Elizabeth Hansen, a fifth-year senior studying nursing who is originally fromCottage Grove, Wisconsin, spent three weeks of her summer experiencing what the health care system was like in Thailand.

Hansen’s program was an interdisciplinary field research program for medical, nursing and pharmacy students. Twenty-one students were on the program in total. She said it was helpful to be there with undergraduates and graduates from the other medical field disciplines so they could learn how to work as a team.

The medical and pharmacy students stayed for two weeks and the nursing students stayed an extra week to do a nursing clinical — an important part of nursing school where students spend time shadowing professionals and treating patients as if they were a nurse.

Nursing students have to do three clinicals before they graduate, and the one Hansen did in Thailand was her first one. With one patient, Hansen learned how to do a prenatal assessment — listening to fetal heart tones, checking the positioning of the fetus and making sure everything was going well with the pregnancy.

“It was really amazing because I haven’t had that opportunity yet in the United States,” Hansen said. “It was really exciting and it was just a great experience to be able to do that in a different country.”

Elizabeth Hansen in Thailand Courtesy of Elizabeth Hansen

Hansen, who had never been outside of the United States before, said her favorite part of the program was being able to see what health care was like in a different culture.

In Thailand, Hansen said the health care system is more “patient-centered” than in the U.S. Practitioners use treatment that is built specifically for the patient, letting patients choose if they want to be treated with modern medicine, or more traditional methods like massage or acupuncture.

If other students have the opportunity to, Hansen said they should definitely participate in a study abroad program.

“It really is a life changing experience,” Hansen said.

Argentina and Uruguay’s variations in public health, culture

Fifth-year senior Jesús Galvan also participated in a public health program, but had different takeaways.

Galvan, who is from Belvidere, Illinois, spent three weeks in Argentina and three weeks in Uruguay visiting different government based agencies and health care departments in the two countries. He got to speak with different health professionals about a variety of topics, including mental health, drug usage, how to treat different populations, the money behind the health care system, and more.

Fifth-year senior Jesús Galvan stands in front of a mountain in Patagonia. Courtesy of Jesús Galvan

One thing Galvan thought was interesting was that in both countries health care is defined as a right, not a privilege.

“Everyone has access to basic health care in Argentina and Uruguay, even immigrants,” Galvan said.

Galvan is majoring in Kinesiology at UW and wants to get a masters in School Counseling after he gets his undergraduate degree. Ultimately, he wants to be a guidance counselor in a high school. Galvan said education and health care are connected in a lot of different ways, and he liked being able to see how they connect in the context of a different country.

He also said developing his Spanish will help him be a better guidance counselor because he’ll be able to better serve students who don’t have English as their first language.

While it was challenging being in a new country since Galvan is not fluent in Spanish, he said he liked experiencing the culture of both countries. Instead of shaking hands with people you meet, you give them a kiss on one or both cheeks, Galvan said.

“It’s very indicative of how welcoming the people are to strangers,” Galvan said.

To end conversations, Galvan said it’s standard to give “un abrazo” or “un besito” — a hug or a kiss.

History, baseball and culture in the Dominican Republic

As a part of a program that focused on Latin American history, sophomore Nathan Simon, who is from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, studied abroad for three weeks in the Dominican Republic this summer.

As a part of his trip in the Dominican Republic, sophomore Nathan Simon played baseball with local kids. Courtesy of Nathan Simon

Simon, who is majoring in history and psychology, said one of the most interesting parts of the program was learning about another country’s history from their perspective, rather than an American perspective. There were two to three hours of lecture in the morning, then they would do something else educational for the rest of the day.

One museum he visited as a part of the program talked about the dictatorship that the Dominican Republic was under from 1930-61.

“You can see how in modern day times that’s a very dark part of their history that they condemn,” Simon said. “It was interesting to see their take on that part of their own history.”

Another part of Simon’s program was learning about the history of baseball, a very popular sport in the Dominican Republic. In some of the towns they visited, Simon’s study abroad group even got to play baseball with kids.

As it was his first time out of the country, Simon said his time in the Dominican Republic was an “eye opening experience.” The culture shock that Simon experienced after seeing how the country lived broadened his perspective to other ways of life and other opinions.

“I would highly recommend studying abroad in college,” Simon said. “It was a really unique and cool opportunity that I don’t think you can’t always get from just doing a class.”