Syracuse University Magazine

Toward a Global Imagination

Toward a Global Imagination

Through its diverse programs and offerings, SU Abroad seeks to help students immerse themselves in new cultures and expand their worldview

By Denise Owen Harrigan

Visitors to Istanbul wax poetic over its ancient architecture and modern urban energy. Brittany Peterson ’15 raves about its breakfasts. “At a restaurant in our neighborhood, they’d bring out a million little dishes—eggs, cheese, cucumbers, olives, warm bread, clotted cream, and honey,” says Peterson, a nutrition major who spent a semester in Istanbul in 2014. “Everything was so fresh, and the staff was so friendly. If you said something as simple as ‘thanks’ in Turkish, they’d say, ‘Wow. Your Turkish is very good.’ If we walked past the restaurant on our way to class, they’d come out and wave to us. It made us feel so welcome.”

Making herself at home in a megacity is one of many skills that Peterson acquired in Istanbul. Under the wing of SU Abroad, she learned to navigate the 450-square-mile city with 15 million people and—according to GPS data—the world’s worst traffic. “At first it came as a shock,” she says. “I’m a scheduled person, I leave early for everything. In Istanbul, I learned to deal with being off the rails.”

Peterson took an intensive seminar on Istanbul’s 2,500-year history and began to comprehend the region’s deep ethnic and religious rifts. During her internship at a culinary arts center, she helped translate Turkish recipes from the Ottoman Empire, and she made Muslim friends. “Now when I hear someone say derogatory things about Muslims, I think, ‘That’s not fair. You just don’t know them,’” she says. “It’s easy to believe horrible things about people you don’t know.”

By the time Peterson’s semester abroad ended, a passion for Istanbul and its culinary riches had been ignited. Back at Syracuse, she wrote her honors thesis on the impact of diet change on Turkish immigrants. She taught Turkish students on campus to recreate their favorite dishes with American ingredients. After graduation, she enrolled in a master’s program with a dietetic internship—and the first year’s courses were taught online. “It was a perfect excuse to spend another year in Istanbul and blog about Turkish cuisine,” Peterson says.

Peterson’s evolution—from apprehension to immersion to a deeper understanding of another nation’s social, cultural, and political systems—exemplifies the arc of a global imagination that Syracuse University seeks to nurture in its students today. Internationalizing student thinking is an important component of the academic strategic plan. “In nurturing a global imagination, we are teaching students to become cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word,” says Margaret Himley, who oversees SU Abroad as associate provost for international education and engagement. “We facilitate immersion in new cultures. We help students understand history and its relevance to contemporary issues. We urge them to develop an area of expertise and explore new places through that lens. We encourage students to learn new languages, engage in global discussions, and envision global solutions.”

In 1959, Syracuse University staked an early claim on the international study scene and opened its first center in Florence. Today, SU Abroad offers more than 100 programs in 60 countries and operates eight SU Abroad centers with full-time staff. According to the 2013-14 Open Doors data from the National Institute of International Education, 45 percent of Syracuse students studied abroad—the 19th highest participation rate nationwide.

In its early years, SU Abroad focused on language and culture studies. Today’s programs offer international experience in virtually every discipline—and the cultivation of a global imagination is common to all.


Istanbul: The Megacity Experience

Modern Istanbul is a democratic, secular city, but as the former capital of the Roman and Ottoman empires, it has many layers of history to explore. “Istanbul is a majestic place to immerse in history and a powerful vantage point for exploring key regional issues and conflicts,” says Erika Wilkens-Sozen G’10, who earned a doctorate at the Maxwell School and directs SU Abroad’s Istanbul Center. “What we’re offering students is a chance to become temporary residents of a big, complicated space to study abroad. It’s challenging, but not overwhelming—we give students enough skills to explore on their own.”

Students live in a vibrant neighborhood far from the tourist district and a short walk from Bahcesehir University, where they take courses. The Istanbul version of the Signature Seminar—an intensive historical and cultural orientation offered at many SU Abroad centers—introduces students to Istanbul’s 2,500-year history. “It’s like studying history in three dimensions, you’re surrounded by so many remnants of the past,” Peterson says. “In Istanbul, history is so relevant to today’s dynamic reality.”

Despite the city’s size and density, Ivan Zhivkov ’15 found its people family-centered and very friendly. “When you meet with a Turkish friend, the traditional greeting is to come together and touch cheeks,” he says. “Turkish culture is very open and embraces interaction between friends.”

In Istanbul, Zhivkov carried a Turkish dictionary at all times to help him connect with the people around him. “I don’t remember everything I learned in my Istanbul courses, but I remember my Turkish friends and how passionately they felt about issues,” says Zhivkov, who is earning a master’s degree in international relations at Maxwell.

dsc01810.jpgIn Turkey, Maxwell graduate student Ivan Zhivkov ’15 enjoyed meeting people and the openness of Turkish culture.

DSC_0285.jpgA semester in Istanbul sparked the culinary interests of Brittany Peterson ’15, who returned there to live for a year and blogs about the country’s cuisine.

chile-alto-naranjo.jpgAmanda Quinn ’14 at the top of Alto del Naranjo, in the Andes near Santiago.

Santiago: Fluency in a Young Democracy

In SU Abroad’s Santiago program, “our goal is to have students speak Spanish around the clock,” says center director Mauricio Paredes, a Chilean historian. “One reason for choosing this location—aside from the political stability—is that only 4 percent of the Chilean population speaks English.”  

Students live with host families and take all classes in Spanish, either at the center or local universities. Amanda Quinn ’14 assumed she’d easily adjust to immersion in Santiago. She’d grown up in Colombia, Australia, Japan, and the Netherlands. “But Santiago was the first time I had to navigate a foreign country as an adult. The language was a challenge, especially the colloquialisms. But the people were great,” says Quinn, noting she was a walk-on for her university’s volleyball team. “It was total immersion.”

During the program’s Signature Seminar, students toured Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. The three countries had recently achieved democracy, but were still healing from oppressive dictatorships. Quinn, a Spanish and cultural anthropology major with a minor in biology, took a keen interest in Chile’s struggle to identify and return the remains of the desaparecidos—citizens who had disappeared under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Remains had been recovered for fewer than half of the 3,200 who had disappeared. Quinn wrote her honors thesis on the role of forensic anthropology in providing evidence of political crimes and bringing closure to families.

At the end of their Santiago semester, Quinn and her classmates discovered that Paredes was one of the thousands imprisoned and tortured under Pinochet. “After we returned to Syracuse, our group of 15 students would reunite over empanadas and talk about life in the United States, where little things no longer bothered us as much,” Quinn says. “In Chile, we had been exposed to a ‘higher truth.’ We had a new perspective on the world.”


London: Gateway to a Global Mindset

Each semester, more than 200 students flock to SU Abroad’s London Center, which has a faculty of 70 and staff of 20. “English is the native tongue, and we come from a common culture, yet students in London face constant cultural adjustments,” says Troy Gordon, center director. “Their notion of British life is often based on Downton Abbey, 007, or Harry Potter. Those stereotypes fade within 24 hours. In today’s London, the soundscape is so diverse that it’s a challenge to find a proper British accent.”

In acclimating to London, students detect what’s different and adapt accordingly. “They notice, for example, that it’s a really polite culture, but not on the tube [subway],” Gordon says. “They acquire cultural intelligence, not just knowledge of British culture. They develop the transferable skills of recognizing their own cultural framework and adapting to any new cultural environment.”

In London, faculty-guided field trips are designed within a global context and invite students to consider their responsibilities as global citizens. London, Paris, and Berlin, for example, are explored through a lens of architecture, creative industries, or sustainability. Instead of a field trip to the Georgian spa town of Bath—“rich, romantic, and very Jane Austen,” according to Gordon—students are introduced to nearby Bristol, a thriving port town and one of Europe’s most exciting eco-cities.

However, in the short-term SU Abroad program, Jane Austen in Context, a visit to Bath is mandatory. Austen spent several years in Bath and set two of her novels there. “When we visit the sites featured in Austen’s books,” English professor Michael Goode says, “we find them almost as she describes, because the local tourism industry is so invested in preserving the myth. But part of our curriculum is understanding that Bath was also touristy in Austen’s era. We use this insight to study the artifices of the Bath tourism industry, past and present. When we lift the veil and deromanticize Austen in this way, some students find it a bit disappointing. But my point in teaching literature is to help students become critical readers—to notice, for example, that Austen criticizes the artificiality of the aristocracy and embraces feminist issues yet largely overlooks labor issues. During our travels, we ask students to engage that same critical eye: to separate the myth from reality.”

JOSE-SU-LONDON.jpgFor Jose Moreno Jr. ’14, London was an awakening—to a passion for travel.


Central Europe: Helping the Past Find Its Voice

SU Abroad’s first theme-based program transports students to Central European regions still struggling with Holocaust-related issues of identity, reconciliation, and memorialization. “We introduce them to a part of the world most don’t see, and explore a topic with historic relevance,” Himley says. “We ask big questions and invite students to become part of the solution. Programs like this are changing the face of SU Abroad.”  

In their Signature Seminar, Central Europe students spend a month visiting nine cities in four countries, including some of the areas most scarred by the Holocaust. “Many of these places were very multicultural before the war, but their Jewish heritage was lost,” says program director Hana Cervinkova, a cultural anthropologist. “There is a lot of silence about the past.”

Because the process of reconciliation is ongoing, students are encouraged to participate in its resolution. “Our goal is to eliminate that sense of distant observation and introduce the idea of agency—the belief that students can be part of the conversation and the solution,” Cervinkova says.

To encourage conversation and bring sensitive subjects to light, “we sometimes stage deliberate encounters with local citizens,” says historian Juliet Golden, who co-teaches the Signature Seminar. “Students talk with people in towns with terrible histories, with no Jews, and no memorialization of Jews. But we also visit exemplary memorials, such as the Polin Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw.”

For students and faculty, the Central Europe program can become emotional. “I cry in some of these places. It’s impossible not to,” says Cervinkova, a Czech native. “I only go because of the students. We explore this together, intellectually and emotionally. And because of these personal connections and transformations, students come to see education as something real. It’s not just a diploma, it’s how you view the world.” 

Katelyn Olsen ’16, who had grappled with the magnitude of the Holocaust since sixth grade, appreciated the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. As a biology major, many of her classes were lecture-based. “In a biology lab,” she says, “you can’t really debate the number of protons in hydrogen.” When Olsen returned to Syracuse, she added a second major in political science. “I missed the way those discussions abroad made me think,” she says. “Biology is very linear. Political science is about people, and people are a wild card.”

IMG_0736.jpgAs a participant in the Central Europe program, Katelyn Olsen ’16 appreciated the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust and examine issues related to it, such as reconciliation.

Moving Forward

The ever-more-compelling need to nurture a global imagination keeps Syracuse and SU Abroad moving forward in high gear. In the University’s academic strategic plan, a multidisciplinary task force is charged with creating a blueprint for comprehensive internationalization. Potential priorities include exploring new program destinations and dimensions; coordinating global efforts on campus and abroad; integrating global perspective into all classes; increasing the percentage of students who study abroad; and improving underrepresented students’ access to international study. “As a university,” Himley says, “we believe it is critically important to ensure that all students, in all majors, and especially those who may not have the financial resources, have access and opportunity to participate in these programs. That means increasing financial aid and developing new abroad programs that are integrated into students’ majors, from engineering to social work.”

Igniting the global imaginations of tens of thousands of students is a massive undertaking. To remain focused, Himley finds it useful to concentrate on the University’s ultimate goal, which she defines as  “providing students with the knowledge, skills, and disposition to become socially and professionally responsible leaders in an increasingly global world.” «

Short-term Exposure, Long-term Impact

SU Abroad offers dozens of creative, short-term, faculty-led programs that cultivate global imagination. Here is a sampling:

Smart-Girls.jpgIn Grahamstown, South Africa, Syracuse students work with local teens, hoping to enhance their education, health, and quality of life.

After-School Enrichment in South Africa

When public health professor Mary Ann Middlemiss arrives with her students in Grahamstown, South Africa, they hit the ground running. “It’s not that we arrive with answers,” Middlemiss says. “We are there to help teens from poverty-stricken townships discover their voice and subsequent power to improve the health of their community.”

Before leaving the United States, the Syracuse students engage in a two-week online course in cultural competency, empowerment, and participatory planning, a community development paradigm that places community people at the center of the action. The online work addresses the question, “How do we make a difference in a culture we do not know?” Middlemiss says the answer is to appreciate the teens’ cultural experiences and promote self-reliance by engaging and working with them.

In Grahamstown, Middlemiss and the Syracuse students partner with Inkululeko, a Syracuse-based nonprofit, and Rhodes University to help local teens break the cycle of poverty by enhancing their education, health, and quality of life. The Syracuse students focus on a different public health project each year.

Last year, they facilitated a Photovoice project in which teens were given cameras and invited to “speak” through visual images and stories. They took pictures of such local resources as gyms, day care centers, and community gardens. The teens researched the agencies, created posters, advocated for change, and ultimately asked to become involved in their work. “It’s like service learning at Syracuse,” Middlemiss says, “except these young teens often lack the knowledge, skills, and confidence to even approach an agency. Our support helps them develop the self-esteem and advocacy skills necessary to transform their community.”

The Grahamstown students are so motivated, Middlemiss adds. “They want to go to university, so they can help their families and community. They welcome us into their world and into their lives.” Likewise, the Syracuse students are enriched by their immersion in a different culture and more empathic and global worldview.   


Concrete Skills in Switzerland

All SU Abroad programs cultivate soft skills such as cultural intelligence. One program literally cultivates concrete skills: Architecture students spend a week in Switzerland, mixing, molding, and folding concrete into shapes and models.

The course, created by architecture professors Roger Hubeli and Julie Larsen, offers a rare opportunity for students to work in the Swiss R&D labs of global concrete manufacturer CEMEX. “It gives them a sense of what’s possible with concrete today,” Hubeli says. “It can float, insulate, heat spaces, or be reinforced with fibers, making it one of the most versatile materials.”

Architects and material engineers don’t usually communicate with each other, Larsen says. “The students enjoy working with scientists and engineers, who are eager to learn what architects think of their products.”

The students also travel to France, Germany, and Italy to see buildings made with concrete and other innovative building materials and visit the factories where they’re made. The students travel on trains and buses, even when visiting remote suburban factories. Like many factory employees, they make the last leg of the trip on foot. “This gives students a glimpse of the sacrifices Europeans make to live sustainably,” Larsen says.


Song, Dance, and Cinema, Bollywood-Style

From a Western point of view, Hollywood is the center of the cinema universe. But Bollywood—the mainstream Hindi cinema industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India— generates twice as many films. In the SU Abroad Bollywood Practicum, students have access to another culture of film production and to the native country of the course’s creator, Tula Goenka, a television, radio, and film professor at the Newhouse School.

The Bollywood curriculum calls for three weeks at the Whistling Woods International Film School, where students devote the first week to filming and performing a song-and-dance routine, a standard feature in Bollywood films. Then they create and produce a short documentary with a local nonprofit.

Apart from the filmmaking experience, the students learn to navigate a very different culture. They return to Syracuse with a new perspective on the world, Goenka says. “They all notice that so many people in India live with so little.”

And then there’s the novelty of adding the Bollywood experience to their resumes. “One student told me that it helped land her first job,” Goenka says. “The SU Bollywood program has certainly opened many doors.”


Paris Noir: Variations on a Theme

After studying abroad in high school and later at the Sorbonne, African American studies professor Janis Mayes resolved to offer her Syracuse students similar inspiration. The result is Paris Noir, which explores the profound impact of black cultures on Paris and throughout the world—and challenges students to leave their own legacies.

Now in its 16th year, the five-week program uses Paris as its classroom and begins with communal experiences: visiting restaurants, museums, community centers, and studios; meeting Paris-based scholars, artists, activists, writers, politicians, musicians, and more; and reading African American writers who found refuge in Paris. The group’s seminars take place at Café de Flore, where James Baldwin wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Mayes compares the program to a jazz composition with multiple variations, created by students’ independent research projects. Kwame Phipps ’16, for example, explored La Sape, a fashion culture that was born when French colonialists brought secondhand French clothing to the Congo. According to Phipps, the Congolese became fascinated with French elegance. Their colorful, sophisticated style eventually found its way to Europe and the Americas.

Whatever directions the students’ projects take, Mayes says, “the goal is to help them appreciate a powerful black identity and redefine themselves as intellectuals and creative thinkers. These students are high achievers when they apply to the program. After Paris, they soar.”


The Big Picture

Janelle Linton ’15 discovered the joy of travel in high school, when her New York City basketball team competed in Puerto Rico and in states as distant as Oregon. In college, she resolved to continue to travel—with an academic agenda.

At the end of her sophomore year, Linton (pictured above) found the perfect opportunity in a traveling seminar that compared health systems in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, and Morocco. She scrambled to find funding—her HEOP scholarship didn’t cover summer study—but her perseverance paid off. “Standing outside the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva,” she says, “I knew I wanted to study public health.”

Linton went on to spend a semester in South Africa, in a program offered by Student International Travel and funded by her HEOP scholarship. That trip opened her eyes to the critical role of NGOs in health care delivery and led her to New York University, where she is earning a master’s degree in global health. During her first semester at NYU, she spent two weeks at an international emergency preparedness conference in Israel. “I don’t believe in limiting myself,” Linton says. “There’s too much to learn out there.”

That’s what Jennifer Zuccarelli ’03 discovered through her study abroad experience in London. Zuccarelli enjoyed the international experience so much that she now calls London home as the chief media spokeswoman and communications director for JP Morgan Chase there. She credits studying in London a few months after 9/11 with awakening her to the world around her. She began to follow international news and made an effort to get to know people who weren’t American. “Studying abroad put me in the mindset that led to my career today,” she says. “I’m sure I’m not the first to say that SU Abroad changed my life.”

For Jose Moreno Jr. ’14, London was also an awakening—to a passion for travel. “I discovered there is no better feeling than getting off a plane in a new place,” he says. During his semester abroad, Moreno took field trips to Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. “I developed that SU Abroad, where-am-I-going-next mentality. An hour ago, I booked a weekend flight to Paris,” says Moreno, a production assistant for WWE. “My network is broadcast to 180 countries. I hope that means there’s global travel in my future.”

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