Global Engagment: Studying Abroad at Pitzer College

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Pitzer College’s mission statement proudly proclaims that the College is committed to producing socially responsible citizens of the world through an academic curriculum emphasizing environmental sensitivity, social justice and intercultural understanding.


Given its mission, it is perhaps unsurprising that Pitzer students tend to study abroad. What is surprising is the sheer number of students who participate in overseas programs. Between 65% and 75% of Pitzer’s students study abroad during their collegiate careers, as opposed to the national average of 1%!

Overseeing the often complex study abroad process for Pitzer students is Dr. Michael Ballagh, who grew up in Ireland and spent many years living in France and then in Vietnam, working for the United Nations Development Programme. He now serves as Associate Vice President of Study Abroad & International Programs at the College.


“From an emotional perspective, there’s no question that a sojourn abroad in a different culture is a profound, life-changing experience for most of our students, irrespective of whether they study in Paris or the Himalayas,” says Dr. Ballagh, who has been a member of the Pitzer community for 15 years “When students go abroad, they often come back with a very healthy skepticism about their own culture, and are more inclined to grapple with or interrogate their own culture, identity and power dynamics.”

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Pitzer’s 65 study abroad programs are built around a strong commitment to cultural immersion and sustained engagement with local communities. Pitzer’s direct-run study abroad programs, which take students to Botswana, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Italy and Nepal, integrate classroom instruction with active learning experiences, experiences that include homestays, volunteer internships and independent research projects.


“Our programs have been in these communities for decades, and we have developed profound and very positive relationships with these host communities,” explains Dr. Ballagh “What is pivotal is acknowledging and empowering these communities to be aware that they are co-educators in this educational process.”


In addition to homestays, Pitzer students participate in fieldwork and study trips, and take core courses taught by the host university’s faculty and specialists from governmental and non-governmental organizations. Students are given the opportunity to analyze topics through cultural lenses other than their own, while exploring connections between the academic and experiential components of their program.

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While some study abroad programs insist on a basic familiarity with the host culture’s language, students in Pitzer’s direct-run programs participate in intensive language study while living in the host country. This is often the first time participants have encountered the host culture’s language, which creates a unique learning experience, according to Dr. Ballagh.


“An increase in language competency invariably leads to an increased understanding of and empathy for the host culture,” explains Dr. Ballagh “That’s certainly one of the goals of our direct-run programs – developing communicative language skills quickly so that students can engage with the community. “


According to Dr. Ballagh, students participating in Pitzer’s study abroad programs are encouraged to integrate and engage with the local community as much as possible in order to take a more nuanced and ethno-relative approach to their learning.

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“One of the main goals of our study abroad programs is for students move away from ethnocentrism to a more ethno-relativist position,” explains Dr. Ballagh “In other words, we want them to empathize with other cultures, and see actions, decisions and laws through the eyes of that host culture rather than through their own American prism.”


As Dr. Ballagh points out, students are sometimes offended by the cultural practices in the host countries. While students are not expected to suspend their distaste for inequities like gender and racial discrimination simply because they are abroad, they are asked to learn more about the cultural context in which the injustices occur. One of the central assignments of the students’ core course curriculum is to relate a “critical incident” they observed or experienced and describe it without making judgment. Students are subsequently asked to analyze the incident and understand it through the lens of the host culture.


This kind od ethno-relative skill set is perhaps the most powerful asset anyone can retain when entering the global employment marketplace.


While engaging with the host culture is not always easy, Dr. Ballagh stresses the need for students to challenge themselves and to be comfortable with the idea of making mistakes.

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“It does take a lot more effort and willingness to take risks with the language and make mistakes,” acknowledges Dr. Ballagh “But one can’t learn the language without making mistakes. In terms of cultural issues, yeah, students, and indeed all of us, makes faux pas all the time, but these are all learning moments.”


Dr. Ballagh’s sentiment is echoed by Pitzer senior Andrew Buitron ’14, who spend the spring semester of his junior year in Parma, Italy through the Pitzer in Italy program.


“A lot of us were afraid to make mistakes with the language, even just in conversation,” remembers Buitron “But you’ve got to continue challenging yourself knowing that you’re going to make mistakes. You learn best when you’re in an uncomfortable situation. There’s an obsession with being correct all the time, but no one expects you to be fluent in the host country’s language during your first three weeks.”


Pitzer students often find their study abroad experiences to be stepping stones in their ongoing education. Students often experience a profound shift in terms of their academic and professional goals, a shift that, according to Dr. Ballagh, will serve students well in their future careers.


“There is no question that extensive experience abroad makes students more attractive to employers, graduate schools, medical schools etc. because they have multiple perspectives and, in this globalized world, develop the ability to go beyond their own cultural reference point,” says Dr. Ballagh


Dr. Ballagh also points out that while many Pitzer students have already spent time abroad, previous overseas experience does not guarantee a smoother transition to the host country’s culture.


“Students often assume that travel is equivalent to studying abroad, and in most cases it’s definitely not,” says Dr. Ballagh “There’s a level of autonomy, personal responsibility and profound engagement with the host culture that is different from being a tourist. I don’t necessarily view students who have been on a world tour as better prepared to go abroad, because they’re in for a shock when they realize that study abroad programs have very different goals.”


The ultimate goal of any study abroad program is to develop an understanding and appreciation for the host country and its culture. According to Dr. Ballagh, Pitzer students acknowledge that their job is to learn, and apply those lessons throughout their life experiences.


“Students need to understand that while service learning and internships are extraordinary opportunities to engage with different aspects of the community, they remain learners in these situations,” explains Dr. Ballagh “As with any community engagement, whether locally or globally, it is critical that students acknowledge that they are rarely, if ever, in a position to come in and transform an organization; their goals are far less dramatic but equally important ones of identifying resources in that community and ways in which they may develop symbiotic relationships.”


When traveling abroad, Pitzer students stay in a wide variety of communities, ranging from large urban centers in Quito to Himalayan hill villages in Nepal. Their host families might be businesspeople or subsistence farmers, which adds to their power as co-educators.


“It’s very important for us to ensure that students see and realize that their host families, and these local communities, are co-educators,” explains Dr. Ballagh “It’s embedded in what we do. I do think that we often forget how much we owe to these communities, as educators.”

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Dr. Ballagh further explains, “In recent years, study abroad experts have openly questioned the value of host families as a critical component of the educational model. I would agree if the role of the host family is simply to provide a bed, but when host families are deliberately oriented toward being co-educators by study abroad programs, their role is often profound.


Connections between Pitzer and the host communities run deep. The Pitzer in Nepal program just celebrated its 40th birthday, and remains one of the College’s most popular study abroad programs. According to Dr. Ballagh, the connection between students and their host communities is palpable and deep. “In many cases, if you ask a student 15 years later what they remember most about their study abroad program, it probably won’t be the lecture they had from a visiting professor. They will remember far more deeply the relationships they had with their host families.”


Dr. Ballagh fondly remembers visiting a Himalayan hill village after Nepal’s civil war, and telling the villagers that the Pitzer in Nepal program would be re-opened. At the time, the program was being run out of Darjeeling, India.


“That was an amazing moment, the look of great delight that Pitzer was returning to their community,” remembers Dr. Ballagh “The party continued through the night. It is perhaps ironic that this day coincided with my national holiday on March 17, undoubtedly the best St. Patrick’s Day party of my life!”


Click here to learn more about study abroad opportunities at Pitzer!