Exploration beyond the borders of the United States drives personal growth and engenders understanding of other people and their culture, which has become essential in today’s closely connected world. Supporting study abroad opportunities for students is lighting the way for their future.
By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers
Moravian University seeks to transform students—to help them become their best selves before they step onto their postcollegiate path. An invaluable piece of a student’s Moravian experience is a global experience. Studying in another country broadens knowledge, expands perspective, and transforms the self.
Perhaps no one can better affirm these three outcomes than Bryn Wiragh ’20, program coordinator with the Center for Global Education, who traveled extensively during her four undergraduate years at Moravian. As a sophomore, she took a three-week tour of Europe—Venice, Salzburg, Munich, Berlin, and Paris—led by Jean-Pierre Lalande, professor emeritus of French. Throughout the fall semester of her junior year, she studied at Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, and as a senior, she spent two weeks in Costa Rica at the CPI Costa Rica Spanish immersion school, where she lived with a local family while studying Spanish. Today, reflecting on her international travel, Wiragh has an even greater appreciation of the value of those experiences.
“I deeply value the environmental, cultural, and linguistic exposure that travel allows,” she says. “To have the opportunity to be reminded of the vast differences—not good or bad, just different—that exist in the world by physically experiencing the environment reorients me to my place in the world and how it operates.
“Because of my experiences, I know that humans have more in common than not. When you remove base assumptions and attitudes, you become more patient and less assuming and judgmental when interacting with people. Being abroad shows you exactly how everyone comes from a different place, and that cultural norms do not apply everywhere. It’s easy to forget that there are so many microcultures in the United States and to live as if everyone is the same as you, until being outside the country reminds you of the opposite.
“I am quite resourceful now, too. Figuring out on my own how to get a visa and how to get from the airport to Olomouc were things I learned the hard way but greatly benefitted from doing. Throughout my travels, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. Now, a big motto I live by is, “You grow through what you go through.”
Wiragh’s reflections are echoed in the stories from current students who have recently studied abroad.
Eyes Wide Open
Helen Meckstroth ’23
Helen Meckstroth decided to study sociology because it made her look at the world in a different way. “On the first day of sociology class my freshman year at Moravian, we took our seats, and the professor asked us why we sat in rows facing the front of the room. Next, she asked what would happen if we broke this rule and sat facing the class or the back of the room,” she recalls. “Then she had us think about the numerous and unwritten rules ingrained into society that we never question—our relationships, education, media, government, and other social institutions that affect our lives every day.”
It was in that class that Meckstroth decided sociology was the major for her. “Sociology is an area of study I had never encountered before but could spend the rest of my life studying and still find it interesting,” Meckstroth says. “Societal norms are always changing.”
This same interest in looking at things in a different way made Meckstroth want to study abroad. As a Spanish minor, she recently spent three months in Spain at the Barcelona School for International Studies through a program called Center for International Studies (CIS) Abroad.
There, she opened her eyes even wider. “I wanted to go beyond the tourist destinations and understand the politics, media, and culture of the city of Barcelona and its people,” she says.
She was surprised to discover that her experience gave her a new perspective on US culture as much as it taught her about the country in which she was immersed. “I realized everything from restaurant etiquette to public transportation to political movements is shaped by the surrounding culture,” she says. “Going abroad can make you challenge a lot of the nationalistic ideals we are taught growing up. There’s nothing wrong with having pride in your country, but we shouldn’t disrespect other cultures just because they are different from what we are used to. There is no right or wrong way to do things.”
In Spain, she also learned the value of seeing historical places up close, in person. “I could read all I wanted to about important locations of the Spanish Civil War,” she says, “but going out and actually standing in those locations was a totally different experience.”
Meckstroth traveled to Barcelona in part thanks to the Engels Scholarship for Study Abroad and the Alexander, Elizabeth & Joann Trotsky Study Abroad Endowed Scholarship Fund she received. “I was honored to receive these scholarships and glad people are willing to help students go abroad—it’s such an amazing opportunity,” she says.
As she prepares for her senior year and impending graduation, Meckstroth appreciates the independence she developed studying abroad. “It’s different from living apart from your family in a dorm,” she explains. “Abroad, I learned how to navigate a new city despite a language barrier. I learned how to live in an apartment and how to use Spanish to communicate in stores, restaurants, and on the subway.” Plus, she embraced the ability to travel throughout Europe. “You pretty much have the whole continent at your fingertips.”
When she graduates next May with a major in sociology and a dual minor in Spanish and psychology, Meckstroth plans to go to graduate school, possibly to pursue a master’s degree in social work. As she learned to do in her sociology class and studying in Spain, she will continue to keep her eyes—and possibilities—open. “I don’t know what I will end up doing for my career long-term, but I am excited to see what opportunities I find and pursue in the future.”
An Italian Immersion
Benjamin Stefan ’24
Unlike many first-year students, when Benjamin Stefan, from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, initially sat down with his advisor at Moravian University, he had a clear idea of his career goals. “I’ve known my whole life I was going to be a teacher,” he says. “I absolutely love the thought of working with kids every day.” He also knew he wanted to study music. “In high school, I was involved in every music ensemble available to me, and I planned to continue playing music at Moravian,” he recalls. But one of the most emphatic statements he made to his advisor in that first meeting was, “I want to study abroad.”
Having toured Italy in high school two years before, Stefan was bitten by the travel bug. “As soon as I got to Italy the first time around, I knew I would return some day,” he says. He didn’t have to wait too long.
The music education program is jam-packed with requirements, making it difficult to take a semester abroad and graduate in time, so Stefan immediately got to work taking winter and summer classes at Moravian. Thanks to his hard work, he received two scholarships—the Engels Scholarship for Study Abroad and the Alexander, Elizabeth & Joann Trotsky Study Abroad Endowed Scholarship Fund. Both are awarded based on academic proficiency and financial need.
Going into the trip, Stefan wanted to improve his language skills, travel throughout Europe, and make new friends. Stefan spent the spring semester of his sophomore year in Florence, Italy, studying at the Instituto Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Italian International Institute. He wanted to immerse himself completely in the culture, so his courses spanned Italian language, cooking, pairing food and wine, film, and history. “I loved all of my classes and learned so much about Italy and specifically the city of Florence,” says Stefan. “History was never taught in a classroom. We would walk through different parts of Florence, and our professor would teach us topics on site. The Italian professor would take us to certain markets where we would have to speak the language. My Italian improved, because I was using it every day.”
“In the three months I was in Europe, I traveled to 10 different countries,” he says. “They were all amazing, and I met people who will be lifelong friends.”
He also gained valuable perspective. “Going abroad gives you a fresh appreciation for other people and their cultures,” he explains. “Whenever I traveled, I made sure to do things that not every tourist would do. For example, in Morocco we went to a hammam, which is a public bath. I enjoyed seeing how others live their day-to-day life.”
Stefan made the most of his opportunity to study abroad and is grateful for the scholarships that provided him that opportunity. “The scholarships meant so much to me and my family.”
When he graduates in May 2024 with his degree in music education with a concentration in voice and minor in theater, Stefan plans to combine his love of teaching, music, and other cultures as an elementary school music teacher. “I can’t wait to pass on my passion to young students,” he says.
For the Love of Language
Marissa Notte ’23
Marissa Notte chose Moravian because of the university’s language and education departments. She also knew she wanted to travel and was happy to see that Moravian required study abroad for a language major and worked it into the regular course schedule.
“I have always loved learning languages,” she says. Notte took Italian and Spanish in high school and found Spanish to be her first love. “Plus, I knew I wanted to teach, and my language teachers in high school were a big part of why I decided to pursue Spanish education as my major,” she says.
For her study abroad requirement, Notte traveled to Cordoba, Spain, with help from the Stanley F. Banach Foreign Language Department Endowment Scholarship Fund. There, she studied at Ucoidiomas, part of the University of Cordoba.
Notte’s main objectives during her semester in Spain were to improve her Spanish and learn more about the culture, and she accomplished both. Her classes were in Spanish, and all her classmates spoke a different first language, so they always talked to each other in Spanish. “I spoke Spanish at school every day and with my host family, and now I am very close to being fluent.”
Living with a family also taught Notte so much about the culture of the region and especially the food. “I would cook with them all the time,” she says. And to learn more about the country, she ventured throughout Spain. “I traveled all over the country and experienced so many wonderful moments.”
At one point during the semester, a friend joined Notte, and they visited Rome and Florence. During their four-day trip, they saw the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the statue of David, and Il Ponte Vecchio, among other sights. “I studied Italian throughout high school and always dreamed of seeing Italy, so I was very grateful for this experience,” Notte says.
The study-abroad experience in Cordoba was Notte’s second visit to Spain. The first was also through Moravian: “I went on a spring break trip run by associate professor of Spanish Dr. Carmen Ferrero. She was amazing and took us to see Madrid, Toledo, and Segovia,” Notte recalls. Notte adds that shorter trips like that one offer fantastic opportunities for students to travel. “I saw and learned so much in a brief period of time, and it was very affordable.”
Thanks to a scholarship made possible by the Stanley F. Banach Foreign Language Department Endowed Scholarship Fund, Notte’s semester in Spain was also affordable. “Without this scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to travel as much as I did. I gained so many wonderful experiences. Through the University of Cordoba, I made friends from all over the world—China, Japan, England, Palestine, and Brazil, among other countries—so I learned about their culture and experiences as well. And I know I’ll keep in touch with them for the rest of my life. I cannot express how grateful I am.”
To any student struggling with the decision of whether to study abroad, Notte wholeheartedly says, go for it. “Although the idea of living in a foreign country can be a little daunting, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and 100 percent worth it.”
“My time in Cordoba changed my life,” says Notte. “Meeting people from other countries and learning about their lives, experiences, and cultures has made me a better person overall. And traveling to and living in another country on my own helped me grow as a person and become more confident in myself. I was so nervous to go to Spain by myself, but I did it and it was amazing!”
When she graduates in May 2023, Notte plans to teach Spanish at the secondary level. Eventually, she would like to return to Moravian University to obtain certification to teach English as a second language.
“I also hope to travel more and to return to Spain and Cordoba one day,” she says.