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Globe-Trotting Studies: Alumni Share Their Study-Abroad Adventures

Globe coming out a book; a plane in the sky

Dating back to the late 1870s, IU’s study-abroad program is one of the oldest in the country. Since the “summer tramps” to Europe in the early years, the program has grown exponentially; today, one in three graduating seniors has studied abroad.

When we asked for study-abroad stories in the Spring 2023 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine, we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. From “then and now” photos to dissertation topics to, yes, a Taylor Swift concert, our alumni made the most of their travels abroad.


Español Rookie

Bethany Gross in front of a building in Spain
“My study abroad experience was a highlight of my college career,” says Gross. Courtesy photo.

I studied abroad in Alcala de Henares, a suburb of Madrid, during the summer of 2015. This was the hardest, yet most rewarding, experience for me. My Spanish was limited, so living with a host family and being immersed in the language was hard at first. [However,] by the end of my experience, I felt like I knew the language.

The best part was traveling and learning another culture. I was able to visit Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, Toledo, Granada, and Seville. I experienced a bullfight, saw paintings by Pablo Picasso, bought snacks at markets, and more. Toward the end of my stay, I visited Paris and went to a Taylor Swift concert in Dublin! 

—Bethany Gross, BS’16


Increased Perspective

I studied abroad at the University of Hamburg in Germany (West Germany at the time) during the 1982–1983 academic year. I lived at the Paul Sudeck House dormitory off campus. I’m not sure if there were on-campus dorms available at the time. The dorm was co-ed, which at first felt odd to me since I lived in Wright Quad, Todd House, in Bloomington, which was all female. The co-ed bathrooms in Hamburg took some getting used to, but it was such an acceptable practice in Germany that I quickly became comfortable with it.

At the time, the IU program was allied with the Purdue University study-abroad program, so I had the opportunity to get to know Purdue students whom I would never have met otherwise. We had a director for the joint program, Curtis Peters, professor emeritus of philosophy at IU Southeast. Professor Peters had an office near the university, which served as the central meeting place for the group. He was very serious about making sure we got as much out of the study-abroad experience as possible, including insisting that we speak only German, even with our American friends. That was difficult but very valuable advice. I became more fluent from speaking only German during my year there than I would have if I had alternated between German and English.

We had a six-week preparation course before the semester started, which included intensive language instruction as well as an introduction to German culture, norms, etc. Before studying abroad, I had studied German in both high school and at IU, but the language instruction during the preparation course prepared me, at least somewhat, for the colloquial language as well as for the more formal German that I would experience in the classroom. I had spent six weeks in Berlin in high school as part of the German American Partnership Program (GAPP) program, but I still found the cultural immersion part of the preparation course to be very valuable.

The German higher education system is very different from the U.S. There are normally no course exams, papers, or grades since German students take a comprehensive exam at the end of their four years at university, instead of incremental exams in each individual course.

I remember how most Germans I met were patient with my attempts to communicate in their language. I also remember being intimidated when I had to speak with an official—for example, to buy a ticket at a train station or to ask for directions on the street. As the year progressed, I became more confident in my ability to communicate effectively.

I learned so many things during my year abroad, including openness to the opinions of and willingness to learn from others; appreciation and love for the German people and culture; awareness of how much we have in the U.S.; and independence and the confidence that I could figure things out on my own or with help from others. I also developed a love of travel during my year in Germany.

To summarize, I feel very fortunate to have participated in the study-abroad program at IU. My year abroad broadened my horizons in ways I never would have thought possible. It gave me self-confidence that I did not have beforehand. It opened my eyes to the vast world beyond Indiana. When I completed the year, I knew I could tackle anything. I currently serve as an electronic resources and serials librarian/professor at Providence College in Providence, R.I. I always tell any student who expresses an interest in studying abroad about my positive experiences and that they should take full advantage of the opportunity as I did.

—Janice Schuster, BA’83, MLS’84


Mind-Changing Trip

In 1957, I went to study at the University of Geneva. My year in Switzerland was sponsored by a church program called Junior Year Abroad. At that time, it was unusual for undergraduates to study abroad.

While there, I learned to be a citizen of the world. My student friends at the university were from different countries and backgrounds, [and] I grew to appreciate multiple ways of thinking. I also learned to better understand my own country.

After more than 60 years, my memories have faded, but they are mostly all positive. I still marvel that my parents allowed their 20-year-old daughter to go to Europe on her own.

—Gretchen (Felger) Wiegel, BA’59, MA’61


Three-Point Turn

Susan Hume standing next to a sign that reads: You are now entering Zambia
“Some of what I learned from my Malawian professors and [my] experience living abroad are still a part of some of my geography lectures three decades later,” says Hume, who is a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Courtesy photo.

As a senior geography major, I was an IU study abroad student at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, in southern Africa for the 1991–92 academic year. When I encourage my undergraduate students today to consider studying abroad, I tell them that the experience shaped me in three ways.

First, I left as a 21-year-old kid and came home a 22-year-old adult. I did a lot of growing up that year as I learned to be a more independent decision-maker [being] so far from home. Second, I learned how to live happily in an entirely different culture and interact with a diversity of people, both on and off campus. I also frequently experienced being the only white person in the room. Finally, I learned how fortunate I was to grow up in a democracy with constitutionally protected freedoms in comparison to my Malawian classmates who were chafing against living in a one-party state under a president-for-life.

I particularly came to appreciate our First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, which were lacking in Malawi while I was there. However, I got to witness the first stage of what became the country’s transition back to a multi-party democracy.

For many years after studying abroad, I gave free presentations to school, church, and community groups about life in Malawi to try to break stereotypes and humanize African people for American audiences. My study abroad experiences ultimately shaped my career. My doctoral dissertation was about how African university students’ identities change from living in their home countries to living in the U.S., and my research since has focused on the experiences of immigrants and refugees in our country. I also had the opportunity to take my own students on a five-week travel study to South Africa in 2006, and I witnessed how studying abroad transformed their lives, too.

—Susan Hume, BA’92, MS’97


Magical Memories

Susan Hume in early 90s next to an image of Susan Hume present day
“A few years ago, Mack and I went on a Rhine River cruise and retraced the special places we dated. We even recreated a joyous photo Mack took of me in front of the Cathedral of Strasbourg,” recalls Thomas. Courtesy photos.

In August 1968, I headed to Strasbourg, France, for a year of study abroad. I decided to concentrate on art history, because where better to see art? It was the year I didn’t worry much about grades but ended up learning the most of my college career.

Strasbourg was perfectly located for travel by train in every direction, and travel we did! Monsieur Vallette, our faculty sponsor from IU, met us in Paris where we toured for a few days and then he helped us get settled in Strasbourg for the year. Then in autumn, I took a trip with my new friends to Munich and Salzburg, Austria. At Christmas, one of my friends from IU, Judy Stoops Dibble, BA’70, came to Strasbourg on the train from her junior year in Madrid, and together we traveled to Vienna and again to the Salzburg region to learn to ski. We were so naïve that we didn’t think we needed reservations, but we met wonderful people along the way who took us under their wings to make sure we found a place to stay and had homemade meals.

In spring, it was a train through the breathtaking scenery of Switzerland and on to Italy for Roman history and to soak up the sun. Somehow, we managed to [visit] Venice, Florence, and Herculaneum, and still ride a train all night to reach Rome and the Vatican for Easter Sunday. Every step of the way, we met people who helped us make contacts to see and do everything we wanted.

Later in the spring, we visited the Netherlands and Belgium for the spectacular tulip season. Just before coming home, we spent a week in London, where we had the most beautiful weather anyone could remember.

The year was magical and what a wonderful place to find romance. I had barely arrived in Strasbourg when Macklin Thomas, ’68, contacted me. We had attended the same high school and he was now in the U.S. Army stationed in Frankfurt, Germany.

Since I was just a few hours away by train, why not get together? He contacted me by letter (how quaint!) and invited me to bring some friends up on the train for a fun weekend. Several romances blossomed from this group and two couples eventually married. Mack and I were married after I graduated from IU in 1970 and he returned from the military. This year, Mack and I are celebrating our 53rd wedding anniversary.

I encourage everyone to spend a semester, summer, or year abroad. It is a perfect way to learn about the world and understand yourself at the same time. I found resourcefulness and resilience that I didn’t know I had. My year abroad led to a lifelong interest in all things global—both in my professional and personal life. I am especially proud of being a founding board member of the International School of Indiana, which started in 1994. The school is in Indianapolis and is now approaching its 30th year of opening the world to Indiana children.

—Susan (Spahr) Thomas, BA’70, MBA’83


Special Selection

Group of 25 students
“We had to interview for a spot. [There were only about 30 students] taken to Tilburg in 1986,” Ehrlich says. Courtesy photo.
I studied abroad through the IU business school [and] at the time, there were two programs: one in Singapore and one in Europe. We went to Tilburg, Netherlands, during our fall semester and were accompanied by an IU professor. We studied international business and learned about the political, economic, and legal environment in Western Europe. At the time, the Berlin Wall had not fallen, so our focus was on Western Europe and the European Union.

It was the best trip of my life—making lifelong friends and propelling me into the international career I have today. [I work] with many companies that develop and manufacture medical devices overseas. We traveled extensively during our time in Europe and lived in Dutch dormitories with Dutch students.

—Allen Ehrlich, BS’87, MBA’92


Transformational Choice

Allan Grafman in an IU jacket in front of a forest
“‘Indiana University has the country’s finest language programs, especially in Russian and Slavic languages.’ That is what I tell people immediately after [they learn] that I was a Russian language and literature major at IU,” Grafman says. Courtesy photo.

It was the fall of 1971. Russia was the most important country in the world [other than] the U.S. [As Russia was] preeminent in science, literature, art, and military power, it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of IU’s language requirement and study Russian. It [seemed] a questionable choice when I was one of three remaining students of the 23 who started.

Persevere I did, adding summer sessions at the IU language camp.

All this led to my inclusion as one of only 30 undergraduate students allowed to enter the USSR and study at Leningrad University in the fall of 1974. A momentous time in U.S./USSR relations, as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment passed in December 1974. (This important bipartisan bill was a key contributor to the demise of the Soviet Union 15 years later. But that is a story for another time.)

Over the years, my IU Russian language training has opened many vistas. Culturally, to magnificent literature. Politically, as an activist to free Soviet Jews, a movement that helped bring the Soviet Union’s demise. Commercially, as a tour guide/interpreter and business adviser to a U.S. investment fund in Russia.

So, in 2020, a return to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, was included in our Baltic cruise. The city was as beautiful and memorable as ever. Similar to Venice and Amsterdam, on which it is modeled, the air was clear and the canals crossing the city ever vibrant. I was able to visit the university with my wife and reconnect with a former fellow student, who has been an instructor there all these years.

Painfully, we must close with a complete and total condemnation of the war crimes Russia is committing in Ukraine. May the guilty parties be brought to justice as they were in Nuremberg.

—Allan Grafman, BA’75


This story was published in the Fall 2023 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

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