AU’s Gilman Scholars explore academics abroad














Kevin O’Connor and Sarah Deitsch, Alfred University (AU) undergraduate students, earned cultural exchanges while abroad as Gilman scholars on the federally endowed fund for students seeking international experience.

Deitsch studied through the fall 2012 semester in Arusha, Tanzania, an African nation located just below the horn of Africa’s east coast.  O’Connor is currently studying abroad in Bodø, Norway, a coastal city of 50,000.

The Gilman Scholarship, endowed by the Department of State, grants up to $5,000 per student to 2,300 nationally recognized scholars.

Majoring in biology at AU, O’Connor is furthering his understanding of the science with marine biology courses at Norway’s University of Nordland. His first choice university is nestled in Bodø on the northern third of the country’s coast.

Above Norway’s glacially formed inlets of narrow sea between long iced over cliffs called fjords, the sun rarely shines on Bodø winters.

“In the course of the first month here I saw the sun five times. When I first arrived, sunrise was at 11 a.m. and sunset was at 1:15 p.m.” said O’Connor, whose Jan. 4 arrival was muted due to the Bodø’s location within the Arctic Circle.

At University of Nordland, O’Connor is taking marine biology, marine mammals, and Norwegian aquaculture courses.

O’Connor says he was academically well prepared for his trans-Atlantic journey. However, rifle training never made it into an AU syllabus.  Rifle training is a necessary precaution against polar bears for site-specific labs done in Svalbard, Norway, the world’s most northern archipelago.

 The prospect of an Indiana Jones-type expedition has O’Connor anxiously awaiting the trip’s finalization, as research is contingent upon the fjords’ temperatures. He and his team of classmates will be cutting holes out of ice to retrieve samples.

“One student has to be on guard with a rifle while we dig through the ice over a fjord and get samples. How cool is that? Though I hope I’m the one holding the rifle,” said O’Connor.

 During the average week, O’Connor has between two and four days of class. A little homesick for the American rigor of study, O’Connor stated, “ School is hard in America. We’re constantly dealing with assignments, quizzes, tests, labs, presentations, and class participation. Here my grade for all of my courses is based 100 percent on one final exam.”

In his spare time O’Connor has found a position leading English-based conversations as an English language assistant with the University of Nordland. The classes are held once a week and are comprised of students primarily from Russia and the Ukraine.

Now sunrise is early, at about 5:40 a.m. and does not set until 8:30 p.m. Eight minutes of sunlight are gained per day, until, between April and June, the summer sun can be seen in place of the moon over Norway’s horizon at midnight.

In Arusha, Tanzania, Deitsch, a junior global studies and political science major, never attended a formal class as the School for International Training (SIT) fosters independent learning programs.

The first place Deitsch stayed in Tanzania was a campsite on the savannah between mountains Kilimanjaro and Meru.

“The shower was a heated bucket of water,” said Deitsch describing her hygiene situation, as she first knew it in Tanzania.

Arusha, a metropolitan city of over 1.25 million, is the diplomatic and services industry capital of eastern Africa. Located in northern Tanzania and surrounded by some of Africa’s greatest natural beauty, ranging from Mount Kilimanjaro to Olduvai Gorge, an archeological site to hundreds of thousands of years in human history including as as homo habilis (the first human ancestor to use tools discovered by Mary and Luis Leakey), as well as the Serengeti desert; much of Arusha’s economy is anchored in tourism.

Despite significant growth to per capita gross domestic product (GDP) there remain high levels of economic inequity.

The first portion of Deitsch’s stay was spent living with a Tanzanian family known as a homestay. Deitsch spent just under a month at this homestead learning the Tanzanian cultural practices and national language of Kiswahili.

At the homestead, Deitsch grudgingly learned to hand wash clothes, get sweaty, significantly dirty, bath in a nearby stream, and eventually settled to taking tea three times a day.

The hands-on experience did not come free of hazard. A motorcyclist in the cramped streets of Arusha snatched Deitsch’s purse, Thanksgiving Day.

“It wasn’t that bad. I was upset for, like, a day,” said Deitsch as she spoke of losing $50, a purse, and her iPod.

Not to be dispirited, Deitsch went on as the only student of her group to conduct her anthropological studies alone. Due to the prominence of tourism in Tanzania, Deitsch chose to investigate some of the social and economic externalities of Tanzanian national parks by living with a native tribe in the Usambara Mountains. Here in northeast Tanzania Deitsch was fortunate enough to meet a local anthropologist who introduced her to the tribe’s people.

“20 percent of Tanzanian GDP relies on tourism, so we focused on how the national parks are affecting native people,” said Deitsch.

Deitsch flew back into the United States Dec. 10 just in time for the holidays. There were no more bucket showers, no more passes by cheetahs or opportunities to speak Kiswahili in front of silly tourists. No more African pastoral scenes.

Amidst the holiday season, the first place Deitsch went was the mall. “Shopping is weird now,” Deitsch said.

The Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship Program, established by the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000, expands the number of students who can study abroad by granting merit-based scholarships based on transcript, an essay, and university references.  

Recipients of the Gilman Scholarship are required to complete a service project that relays the benefits of international experience to young students across the United States.

Upon returning home, Deitsch talked to second graders at her hometown elementary school in Rockford, Ohio. Talking to an estimated 80 students she set up the tent she lived out of in Tanzania, talked about her interactions with its people and culture, and eventually the students were allowed to check out the tent hands-on.

O’Connor is completing his service project while abroad. He is currently working to enhance global ideas as studied by third graders in New York, NY through Skype and constant maintenance of his Reach the World blog. 

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