Luke Allen '14 (Iowa City, Iowa) had studied French and international development before studying abroad, but he tackled a new challenge when he began a class in Senegal that combined the two subjects: a microfinance class—in French. "There's technical vocabulary that's difficult to know [in another language] unless you really go out of your way to learn those words," says the political science and international studies double major. "Terms like 'financial exclusion' hadn't come up in my French courses. It was a difficult process but also very rewarding to have those conversations in another language."
Most Macalester students study off-campus in some form before they graduate, and three out of five students complete a full semester away. While there's no uniform experience—Mac students pursued 170 different programs in 55 countries last year—they're drawn to opportunities to challenge and immerse themselves.
They return with a broader perspective. "My experience abroad is really the lens through which I look at in a lot of my classes now," says Cady Patton '14 (Des Moines, Iowa), who studied post-genocide restoration and peace building in Rwanda.
Students' proficiency and cultural understanding is often shaped by living with a host family. In addition to classes and research during her semester in Bolivia, Jeanne Stuart '14 (Minneapolis) connected with her host family, who brought different political perspectives to their conversations than her own beliefs. Those talks challenged Stuart to think through her opinions in order to articulate them in Spanish. "It makes such a big difference to be talking with people every day, picking up on local lingo and also to situate yourself in terms of the political context and the viewpoint they can give you, in a way that a professor can't," she says.
Studying abroad also means the opportunity to hone research skills. Patton conducted research in Rwanda through her program on post-genocide restoration, and thanks to an anthropology department grant, was able to expand her research back in the United States. Stuart is incorporating research she did in Bolivia into her honors project and co-teaching a Latin-American politics class that draws on her experience abroad. "Bolivia is a very different place," Stuart says. "To be presented with such a different worldview and cultural understanding than the United States was really powerful."
Because of Allen's interest in experiential learning, an internship was on his wishlist as he researched study abroad options. He chose a program that combined coursework with an internship at an NGO focused on sustainable agriculture in Senegal. Working entirely in French, he developed cross-cultural communication skills. His proficiency also continued to improve. "I stopped thinking about the fact that I was speaking French and then it kind of just flowed," he says. "I'd been told about this moment when you wake up and it just comes naturally to you, when you've immersed yourself in a language long enough, but I didn't really believe that actually happened—until it happened to me."