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Back to life, back to reality

Joseph McMahon | Wednesday, August 26, 2009

After spending their last semester studying at the foothills of the Andes Mountains, haggling in Istanbul’s grand bazaar and hiking through pristine Alpine valleys, Notre Dame students return home to find campus relatively unchanged after experiencing an entirely new world.

“Culturally, it was different. I had been to Europe before, but actually living there is quite different than just visiting and doing the touristy thing 24/7,” senior Kathleen Zink, who spent her last semester in Athens, said. “Just seeing trash on the streets, because Notre Dame is such a pristine campus, [was different].”

Senior Colleen Fleshman, who was in Innsbruck, Austria, for a year, said that she experienced extra responsibilities abroad, such as having to cook for herself or even sometimes a large group of people, but added that these new responsibilities also led to her being treated as an adult and added to the overall experience.

“It was a surprise to be treated completely as an adult, which is a little different from how we are viewed at ND, but once you got used to that, and to the difficulty of even basic communication, it was fine,” she said.

Some students have a more difficult time while traveling abroad. Senior Nellie Gotebeski contracted a strand of E. Coli while studying in Santiago, Chile, which left her with kidney failure and bedridden in a hospital. Gotebeski said she was grateful for the health insurance that the University recommended, which she said helped save her an unfathomable sum of money.

“Luckily I purchased the insurance that Notre Dame had recommended. It actually covered everything. I was in the hospital for over a month,” she said.

Gotebeski said she was also thankful for the support the University gave her.

“Fr. [Tim] Scully, [former Executive Vice President of the University and current Director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives], was passing by and he did a Mass for me over there. Just the support from Notre Dame really opened my eyes having been sick,” she said.

Gotebesski said, however, that the illness did not completely ruin her experience.

“I ended up staying down there and as I was kind of recuperating I was able to travel a bit. It was a lot of fun,” she said.

While some students readjust to life in America quickly, others experience reverse culture shock. Zink was happy to be home at first, but she soon began to miss Greece.

“The abroad people on campus said we would have a culture shock coming back, but I didn’t experience that at all,” she said. “I was really happy to come back. But as the summer progressed I really started to miss Greece and things like walking outside of my apartment and seeing a stray dog.”

Fleshman echoes Zink’s sentiment. She added that she was quickly able to assimilate into life at home, though it did not stop her from missing Europe.

“At first, but it was less culture shock than just shock at how familiar everything was,” she said. “After a week or two it felt like I had never been away.”

Senior Nicholas Dan, who also participated in the Innsbruck program, said everyday things in America, such as driving, needed to be reintegrated into his everyday life after returning home. Dan, however, also said having the dining hall on campus and no longer having to cook every meal did make some things simpler.

“There’s definitely a culture shock, because you don’t drive when you’re abroad and you have to drive everywhere here,” he said. “Additionally, when you come back to campus you have the dining hall, which makes preparing food a lot easier.”

Students elect to study abroad for a variety of reasons, both academic and social. Gotebeski said that her program allowed her to experience a new culture while also learning a foreign language.

“We had intensive Spanish classes which really helped in developing our Spanish once we got to the University after the pre-program,” she said.

The Chile program, which is integrated with a missionary program, allows students to see not only the country’s major cities, but also its rural areas.

“It was a good chance culturally to see a part of the country that none of us were really used to,” Gotebeski said. “We had limited computer access, if any, and some of the houses didn’t have bathrooms, so we had to get used to stuff like that.”

Zink said that being in Athens also helped her make new friends from other schools, and that being in a foreign country helped her gain a better perspective.

“At Notre Dame we’re always kind of kept in a bubble. Our program specifically was not just Notre Dame students, but we had students from other universities,” she said. “It was quite different being with people who are not just into the Notre Dame scene.”

Zink said, however, that learning a new language often proved difficult, and communication with people who didn’t speak English was frustrating. Nonetheless, she said that it helped instill her with greater confidence.

“The language barrier was a lot,” she said. “We were required to take Greek, but just trying to shop for eggs was really difficult because you cannot communicate with the person that you’re trying to buy from. It was a really harrowing experience, but it was also good because now I don’t have any problems going off campus or asking someone for directions because I had to.”

Gotebeski said that going to Chile helped her find friends from Notre Dame that she never would have met on campus.

“You kind of force yourself as a freshman into a bubble, pretty much only being friends with the people in your dorm,” she said. “But I think going abroad exposes you to an entirely different group of people. I know our group laughed because if we were at Notre Dame none of us would really be friends because we just have such different interests.”

Notre Dame students also participated in summer programs, which involve spending five to six weeks in select cities around the world. Junior Zach Reuvers studied in Paris, and while he enjoyed his time there, said he wished the program had lasted longer.

“It was just enough time to see the sights and to get more than you would from just a normal vacation,” he said. “With five weeks you just begin to become immersed in the culture, and so more time would allow you to become a true resident rather than a visitor.”

Dan, who also studied in the Notre Dame Paris program in the summer of 2007 before going to Innsbruck, said that he recommended going abroad for a longer period of time.

“I have gone abroad twice now,” he said. “Going to Paris for five weeks was interesting and a good learning experience, but it is more of being a glorified tourist, whereas being in Innsbruck for the whole semester really got me into the culture of the area I was living in.”