Undergraduate Research of Global Proportion

Friday, November 30, 2012

Many students may characterize “traditional” study abroad as involving some kind of academic coursework, combined with participation in cultural activities—often including extracurricular activities, excursions, and sometimes home stays. But for some Vanderbilt undergraduates, study abroad meant something more: opportunities for doing research, international activities generally saved for graduate students and faculty.

Alexandra Zarecky, a recent graduate of the College of Arts and Science, developed a passion for researching economic growth in developing countries while studying development economics at the London School of Economics.

“Researching Scotland’s approach as a devolved government to international development allowed me to pursue something I am extremely interested in,” said Zarecky. “I hope in the future to work in either public policy or consulting focused on international development.”

Zarecky had the opportunity to share her research at the first Interdisciplinary Conference on Global Research and Study Abroad, hosted by the Global Education Office (GEO). GEO’s primary mission is to prepare students for study abroad through pre-advising and planning and to be a resource for students while they are overseas.

The organizer of the conference, Michelle Lilly, a study abroad advisor at GEO, said the purpose for the conference was twofold: to create an ongoing connection for returning study abroad students and to provide returning students an opportunity to present their research papers to a broader audience and share their experience abroad with other students interested in global research.

“Historically, Vanderbilt has a lot of resources for students before they go abroad, but we don’t have much in the way of follow-up once the students have returned,” she said. The conference provides a time for reflection. GEO hopes this “follow up” approach helps them learn more about how study abroad impacts students long term.

“Students come back saying ‘It was life changing!’… But was does that really mean?” asked Lilly. “Does it mean your career goals have changed? Or does it mean you now have a new perspective on your host/home country? More importantly, we want to know how students can capitalize on this new knowledge in their future career or research work.”

Lilly believes students that incorporate global research rather than the traditional study abroad experience have a more defined vision of life post-Vanderbilt and choose experiences that build skills and exposure to their future field.

“For these students, global research allows them the chance to break out of the stereotypical experience and gives students a chance to immerse themselves into something they are really interested in, while giving them a broader perspective on the subject,” said Lilly.

Alexandra Zarecky’s research in the Scottish Parliament, for example, was directly related to her future career goals in international development.

“Studying abroad itself is a great way to understand more about a foreign country. But being able to intern with the Scottish Parliament allowed me to gain a unique perspective about Scottish culture as well as a better understanding of Scotland as a whole. From my own research, I learned how Scotland’s political system compares with U.S.A.’s, and how their approach to international development is focused more on person-to-person links instead of foreign aid,” she said.

Terral Boisfontain, a recent graduate of Peabody College, pursued an independent research project while taking classes abroad in Florence, Italy. Her hope was that her research in post-study abroad reintegration would be yet another distinction for her as she pursues a future career in international education.

“This experience has certainly called my attention to some new and exciting opportunities. One of my professors mentioned to me that I might enjoy a career with a service provider for global mobility and talent management. Largely, I’ve been looking at intercultural training and relocation services for families that are relocated in another country. I’m just beginning to consider this as a possibility, but I have looked into a few related internships for this summer.”

Of course, research was only one part of the experience. Peabody’s Elizabeth Taylor also presented various challenges she faced when traveling alone in France.

“In addition to my research,” said Taylor, “I received a 15 euro bus fine, was offered a job as a Moroccan server, paid for a library card, befriended a survivor of the Vichy regime, and learned the art of navigating cobblestones in heels.”

While most of the presenters were undergraduates, Sara Foss, a master’s student in Latin American studies, shared her research on “Panamanian identity.” Danielle Kurin, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, presented her research on violent trends in ancient Peru, and included pictures of Peruvian skulls with holes in them to identify ethnic violence.

According to Lilly, the forum supports a general interest from academic departments to see students engaged in more academic-related research when they go abroad.

“The Global Education office currently has four or more study abroad programs focusing on research, in addition to our VISAGE programs” said Lilly. These programs include parliamentary internships in Edinburgh, Scotland; public health research and service in the Dominican Republic; public health research and service in Australia; and a year-long program (at Vanderbilt and abroad) on research and service in Capetown, South Africa.

As a result of the conference, GEO plans to compile all the presenters’ research papers and make them available on the GEO website at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/geo.

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