An education-abroad experience leaves a student forever changed, with new insight and understanding of the world and the people in it. For students reconnecting with their heritage along the way, a visit to a foreign land can become a powerful milestone.
A high percentage of participants in St. Cloud State’s South Africa and Laos/Thailand/Malaysia study programs become immersed in the history, language, politics, traditions and religions that shaped their ancestors. As they are transported halfway around the world they are exposed to significant aspects of their culture that may have been lost to them through generations of Americanization.
In January, 35 St. Cloud State students and six faculty and staff members embarked on an overseas study experience in Laos, Thailand and Malaysia, led by Hmong-American political science Professor Shoua Yang.
Like the 222 students who have gone on previous learning trips to Laos and Thailand, the 35 returned deeply moved by their experience. Most are second-generation Americans who knew little about the homeland of their parents and other elders. In going back they learned about the traditions and institutions that influenced their families.
The students combined academic study of these lands with a travel experience that for most became an emotional journey. One of their stops was at the Mekong River to pay homage at the place where Professor Yang’s sister died crossing over. Some students connected with relatives and shared family stories.
As they discovered their heritage, they also learned about the acute poverty and lack of opportunity for their cousins and others who still live there, Yang said. “They return to Minnesota knowing they are global citizens with the responsibility to share with their sisters and brothers what they have learned. They see the opportunities in America and have a better appreciation of their country.”
This short-term education abroad program is transformative in the way that South Africa programs have been for hundreds of St. Cloud State students, including many African American and recent Americans from Somalia and Ethiopia as participating students “go home” to the continent of their ancestors.
Since the first St. Cloud State education-abroad opportunities in South Africa began in the mid-1990s — a time when South Africa was just emerging from Apartheid — 567 faculty, staff and students have been exposed to the history of South African society and culture in this very personal way. As they studied South Africa-U.S. race relations through spring break or semester-long studies in this high-profile country, many became involved in service learning activities. Some have taken part in South Africa study programs for future teachers and nursing students that will forever alter the way they perceive their careers and the influence they have on others.
Through a unique partnership with Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, 158 students have been involved in semester-long study in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, located on a nature reserve along the coast of the Indian Ocean.
They include those who have taken part in a special St. Cloud State First-Year Experience program that has fall semester freshmen taking a course about South African society and race relations and enrolling for spring semester at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
Efforts led by Robert C. Johnson, professor of ethnic studies, and Shahzad Ahmad, director of Multicultural Student Services, have built and sustained significant experiences for all who take part in South African study. Whether they are going for three weeks or a semester, for many the most transcendent moment is the visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held in a tiny cell for years before emerging to become leader of the nation that once imprisoned him for speaking out for equality and social justice.
Hundreds of students from St. Cloud State and NMMU have crossed paths because of the partnership agreement between the two institutions that dates back to 1995 – students like Tashiana Osborne, a junior meteorology and hydrology major from White Bear Lake who participated in a short-term spring break program at NMMU her freshman year. When she returned to Minnesota, she said her experience in South Africa made her feel like she can do anything with her life and encouraged her to find new opportunities.
Students who study abroad gain the skills they need to take control of their future. They learn new things about themselves as well as those around them, and for students transported to a land reminiscent of their heritage, the experience and the education are especially rich.