Cal Poly student Madeline Fox, a 21-year-old social science major, left for Spain last year to study abroad.
She returned this fall to San Luis Obispo with what she feels is a much broader view of the world and new sensitivity to foreign perceptions of America, and as a skilled speaker of Spanish.
Cal Poly students such as Fox have been taking advantage of study abroad programs in record numbers in recent years.
A recent national study ranked Cal Poly third among comparable universities in sending students to study abroad programs.
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“There is a realization that our students need to have an understanding of the world around them,” said John Battenburg, who directs the university’s International Education and Programs Department. “The U.S. is not the center of the world. We need to know how other people see Americans.”
The Open Doors 2009 Report on International Education Exchange found that Cal Poly sent 877 students to study abroad during the 2007-08 academic year. That number jumped from about 560 in 2004-05.
Because of a slowed economy and the cost to operate exchange programs, the number of Cal Poly students going abroad this year is about 650, officials say, but programs remain popular.
Fox said she went through the emotional struggles and thrills of making friends among foreigners and adjusting to a new culture and society, while not knowing anyone in her program before she went.
She took classes in Spanish and met people from around the world at her college in Granada, Spain, a city known for its Moorish architecture and gypsy music.
She admits she found herself defending America at times, with French friends in particular.
“People would say to me, ‘I hate how your country did this,’ and I’d answer questions like ‘Does everybody own guns?’ and sometimes I’d find myself defending the U.S. and saying, ‘Well, there’s more to it than that,’ ” Fox recalled.
Fox said that she and an American friend hitchhiked in Italy — an adventure she said she’d never forget.
Cal Poly officials also said that in the study abroad program, students can sometimes get the classes they need to graduate — particularly in foreign languages — that are filled in San Luis Obispo.
Battenburg said that Spain, Italy and Australia are the most popular countries that students visit — and Cal Poly typically sends between 80 and 100 students each year to those countries.
The university coordinates its own study abroad programs, as well as joins in other CSU-run programs, and partners with other universities to send students overseas.
Cal Poly architecture major Scott Leinweber studied in Peru in the summer of 2008 to help improve his Spanish-language skills for his future employment in the construction-based industry and to gain life experience.
In Peru, Leinweber improved his Spanish and helped to build the foundation of a home and a wood-burning stove for poor people. He will study architecture in Denmark next year.
“Especially with the economy the way it is in a more globalized world, people are looking for you to adapt and to be fluent in different languages and know about different cultures,” Leinweber said. “Study abroad truly is a ‘learn by doing’ experience.”