The value of studying abroad: Seeing the world in a new way

Dr. Kevin Demmitt's picture

It is early in the morning and dawn is breaking over the Tuscan hill town of Lucca. Lying in bed, I listen to the solitary clip-clopping of shoes as shop-owners cross the deserted piazza and make their way down the narrow streets to open their businesses for the day. Soon, my students will be fanning out across the town for their morning cappuccinos and croissants. For most, the day will end with a nightcap of gelato and memories of another day on their study abroad trip to Italy.

In March, I will be leading my third study abroad trip for Clayton State University and the first to be cosponsored by CSU-Fayette. Everything from preparing the itinerary to actually looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Michelangelo’s David makes me appreciate what a wonderful job it is to open students’ eyes to life in other cultures.

The objective of this course is to help students understand our culture better by experiencing life in another culture. We are so immersed in our own day-to-day life that we often do not realize how we are influenced by the culture and society surrounding us.

I first acquired the travel bug during a cross-country trip I made with my family in the summer of 1968 when I was just 7 years old. My father bought a camper and we traveled from our farm in Ohio to the coast of California.

This was before the days of seat-belt laws, so I made the entire 5,000-mile trip looking out from the bed that hung over the cab of the truck. With my three brothers at my side, we rode across the plains of the Midwest, the mountains of Colorado, the deserts of the Southwest, and the Pacific coastline of California. I still remember the sense of wonder as I saw things I had only seen in books and pictures. I was hooked.

Upon graduating from college, I had my first experience crossing the border of the United States. I went to Mexico as part of a mission trip with my church. My bedroom was a cot next to the shell of a van parked next to the house of my hosts. I was warned not to let my sleeping bag touch the ground lest the snakes crawl up it during the night.

I worked in the hot sun for two weeks helping to build a school. What the local workers lacked with regard to modern tools, they made up for with ingenuity and a lot of sweat. It was here that I learned to see my life in America in a whole new light.

A few years ago, my wife and I wanted to share a similar experience with our children, so we spent our family vacation working at an orphanage in Peru. My children helped watch the children of the orphanage as my wife taught first-aid and nutrition classes for the local house mothers.

Although I planned the trip for my children, I will never forget how I was touched by sharing this experience with my family. On the last night of our stay, these children, who had only what they could fit in a shoebox under their beds, lined up to give gifts to my kids as an expression of their gratitude.

Most of the children tore the colorful covers off their notebooks, which is about all they owned, and wrote notes of friendship and appreciation on the back. Watching the children line up to give their hugs and gifts, I knew that my family would never be the same.

After seeing the impact of travel on my own children, I decided to develop study abroad trips for students. After all, experiential education is education at its best.

Of course, traveling to Italy is quite different than visiting a third world country. Yet, I still find that experiencing another culture allows students to see the world in a whole new way. For example, most students come away with a very different sense of time and history. In Lucca, we stay at a hotel that was built more than 500 years before the United States was even founded.

Students also learn that not all cultures place the same value on efficiency that we do in the United States. Other values, such as tradition or extended family ties, lead to different ways of structuring their everyday lives.

Shops routinely close for a few hours in the afternoon and mealtimes may go on for hours. This is quite a change for students who are accustomed to eating food in their cars as they speed from one activity to another.

In the space of two weeks’ time, students see many of the most famous sites in Italy: the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Roman Forum and Pantheon, Venice, Florence, and Pisa. These treasures of Italy spark student inquiry in a wide array of interests and academic disciplines.

Who can see the works of Michelangelo and not have a new appreciation for art or walk the streets of the ancient Roman forum and not gain new insights into the historical and political roots of democracy? Who can walk through buildings that have withstood the tests of time for thousands of years without reflecting on the architectural skills and the rich culture of the people who built them?

Students also embrace the little things of daily life such as gelato, cappuccino, the marvelous little shops, and the evening stroll after dinner. It is these tastes of another culture that also flavor how students see the world when they return.

This coming year’s trip to Italy is cosponsored by CSU-Fayette and by the University’s Honors Program. We will depart on March 6 and return on March 17, which overlaps our spring break so students miss only two days of class. Traveling in March keeps the cost of the trip down and also avoids the summer crowds.

Students participating in the study abroad trip to Italy earn three hours of academic credit, which is usually applied as upper division elective for most majors. Based on the feedback I receive from students, most say it is a highlight of their college career.

The cost is $2,630, which covers everything except lunches and dinners. For more information, students can click on the study abroad link at

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