Katherine Lesnak ’15 visited Paris while studying abroad.
For Katherine Lesnak ’15, study abroad was not an option. It was a requirement.
“My parents instilled in me that you need to travel and see the world,” she said. “Also, I want to teach social studies. I thought it was important that I go out and see the things I would be teaching about.”
Lesnak went to Randolph@Reading, the College’s flagship study abroad program in England, in the spring of 2014. The experience was a crash course in European history and culture. She traveled nearly every weekend, taking in eight countries during her four months there.
After returning to the United States, Lesnak sat down with her advisor, Mari Ishibashi, a political science professor, to discuss her experiences and how they related to her future goals. It was in the midst of this conversation that the political science major realized she had gained much more than intercultural understanding and a greater appreciation for French food.
“I’m more confident in class,” she said. “I used to be afraid of giving my opinion. I’m now much more vocal. My opinions are more solid, and I’m strong with my arguments.”
Maureen Kiernan, director of international programs and study abroad, believes those life lessons are some of the most valuable aspects of the college experience. Study abroad helps students grow by letting them live among people who are different— even when the language is the same.
“For most students, it’s the first time they’ve ever lived in another country,” Kiernan said. “The difference between visiting another country and actually inhabiting it and joining the rhythm of everyday life is life changing. It stretches students in ways they don’t even know they need to be stretched.”
More and more members of the Randolph student body are taking advantage of study abroad options, especially the Reading program. This fall, 20 Randolph students will study in Reading, double the number that enrolled just a few years ago.
Faculty advisors know, many of them from personal experience, how important international study can be. Gerry Sherayko, a history professor and liaison for Randolph@Reading, encourages students to make time for study abroad and helps them find ways to fit it into their four-year plans.
“There’s no better way to get out of one’s comfort zone and understand the world better than to go to other parts of the world,” said Sherayko.
Lesnak learned that lesson firsthand during her time in England. While she took many classes at the University of Reading, she gained just as much knowledge from living in another culture, especially one that moved at a slower pace.
“I loved the fact that they take time in the middle of the day to have tea together and talk about each other’s day,” she said. “It really made me appreciate my family and the downtime I have with them so much more.”
Lesnak also learned about the British primary education system while traveling with friends of her father. By interacting with the friends’ 7-year-old daughter and one of the girl’s teachers, she saw several advantages. When she leads her own classroom, she hopes to emulate the creative freedom provided at British schools.
“The British do a very good job of making sure the students know how to apply the material,” Lesnak said.
Another eye-opening experience came when she and two other Randolph@Reading students got lost on a trip to Paris. They did not know where they were, and their limited command of French made it difficult to find their way by reading signs or asking around.
But they did find their destination—and gained a bit more confidence and independence in the process.
Kiernan said stories like this show students are choosing to experience the world independently, without relying on an authority figure to guide them every step of the way. While traveling during their time abroad, students can pick their destinations, plan their own transportation, find their own housing, and immerse themselves in a new city. Even more importantly, they learn they can solve their own problems.
For many students at Randolph, the benefits of a study abroad experience last well beyond graduation. A year in Reading made such a difference to Teague Nelson ’14 that he set up a recurring annual donation to the program to help encourage others to take part.
“It’s really all about exposure to different things,” Nelson said. “The more of the world that you can see, and the more cultural places, moments, icons, and ideas that you can be exposed to, the more it makes you think in a bigger
way. It gets you out of your own mindset, and it lets you see a bigger picture.”