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Thursday, March 30, 2023

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Summer study abroad program still strong

Parul Fernandes’ office is like an international train station. Students are constantly arriving, leaving and returning — with exchange students from Germany coming in and UH students dropping off paperwork before going abroad.
Fernandes is the director of the Office of International Studies and Programs. Her office helps send more than 500 students annually to travel to 125 countries. According to Fernandes, the opportunity to go abroad is one of the most important experiences that a student can have, and the education students come back with is something that cannot be taught in a classroom.

“We should be exposed to as much as possible,” Fernandes said. “The world offers a lot more things than we think it does just through books and the Internet. It’s a personal experience. You must smell the air, we be the presence, understand the politics.”

Fernandes feels that there are three skills learned while studying abroad: cross-cultural communication, problem solving and organizational skills.

“And you can get it when you are outside because you have to communicate in whatever language you are in, whatever place you are for, your food or your bus, or whatever it is,” she said.

Fernandes’ department organizes students’ trips and creates a framework for travel programs, but she prefers to let the students learn and grow independently inside of that framework.

“Every person has to develop themselves as independently, as confidently as possible and also as knowledgeable as possible of the world,” she said. “If they do not do that, they will live in a bubble of themselves and they will not be able to accept challenges in life which come. We cannot just say India is an exotic country or China is like this, we have to see it for ourselves. We also have to learn to survive in a country that might not have the same facilities as our own. We have to learn from them how to be better.”

Once studying abroad, students live with a host family or in an apartment, while balancing classes and a new culture.

Learning about different cultures is about more than trying new foods and speaking in different languages. Students might learn that stretching and yawning in public is frowned upon or that cars are truly a luxury in certain places.

“They learn simple things of life and they realize that they’re not the only existing soul in the whole world and jobs might not just be waiting for them. They have to compete for it,” Fernandes said. “That builds personality.”

“I’ve seen students coming back changed totally — understanding, becoming more confident,” she said.

UH offers many different study abroad plans for students ranging from three-week programs over winter break, full semesters abroad during the fall, spring and summer, and even a semester at sea.

The cost ranges from $2,000 to $5,000 depending upon where a student chooses to study, with costs like airfare, lodging and food included. The exception to that is the semester at sea, which costs $23,000 a semester but offers students the ability to experience 18 different countries.

“If you divide $23,000 in 18 countries, how else can you ever visit all of those countries otherwise,” Fernandes said.

Fernandes grew up in India. She said she was lucky to have open-minded parents who would take her traveling.

“The love of seeing new places was always there, and international students would stay with us or eat with us,” she said.

After teaching college-level English in India, Fernandes came to the U.S. as an exchange student. She has master’s degrees in literature, world history, and international studies, and has taught in Vermont and New York, in addition to Houston. In 2001, UH invited her to lead the study abroad program.

“I am extremely happy and proud to see that after 10 years, I can see good results,” she said.

Her goal is to continue to promote studying abroad to UH students and offer them an opportunity to the experiences that it provides.

“A global competency is a requirement in our jobs right now and that global competency cannot be built on a campus even though we have the one of the most diverse campuses in the country,” Fernandes said. “It has to be built by personal experience and an exposure through academics and through cultural diversity and survival, basically.”

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