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Education abroad experiences can serve as opportunities to develop a better understanding of the elements of conflict and peace, explore historical and contemporary examples of conflict around the world and enable students to use conflict for positive change as they encounter new opinions and worldviews.

The following testimonials are drawn from former and current USIP staff members who reflected upon their education abroad experiences; they illustrate some of the lessons that have stayed with them to this day. The testimonials highlight experiences and themes that young people are likely to encounter when studying abroad, like overcoming interpersonal or cultural conflict that arises from traveling to a new place, identifying legacies of conflict in other countries and cultures, and forging relationships with people of different backgrounds.

Embracing Conflict, Building Peace

Danielle Lane: "My parents believed that cultural immersion was the best form of education. So when I turned 10, my family stopped giving Christmas gifts and instead started traveling internationally for the holidays. What I didn’t know at the time was that this gift of global awareness would also contribute to my understanding and interest in peacebuilding. After a number of cultural exchange programs as well as studying, volunteering and working abroad in Russia, Turkey, Guatemala, Colombia, Europe and Cuba, I moved to Peru to become a volunteer coordinator for a small development agency. Working with an organization that trains volunteers to properly create and implement education, small business, public health, and environmental projects was the best decision I have ever made. Being part of the energy of volunteers, kids, adolescents and adults within the communities and the local government to make projects happen was beyond fulfilling. There is nothing more gratifying than the warmth of appreciation and gift of building a new family and place to call home."

Michael Zanchelli: "Approaching my junior year of college I had a decision to make: should I do the traditional semester abroad, or something different? I chose the latter and spent one month in Rwanda with a U.S.-based NGO as part of a cross-cultural experiential learning program. The program included international and local Rwandans in a week-long workshop on human rights and conflict transformation, as well as volunteer work at a local peacebuilding NGO. The direct, hands-on peacebuilding work was eye-opening. It gave me a glimpse of how a local organization runs, its constraints and what day-to-day work looks like for peacebuilders. More than the program itself, simply being out of my element had the greatest impact on me. I grew up in an upper-middle class family from the suburbs of Virginia and had never been outside of the U.S. To now be in Rwanda, sticking out like a sore thumb, was new, uncomfortable and important. I left Rwanda with a better understanding of how others experience me, and it better prepared me to help build peace. Ultimately, the experience was far less about what I contributed (which was very little, as a young, uninformed outsider), and far more about how I evolved, learned and grew as a result. I’m glad I made the decision I did."

Group of international participants and Rwandan facilitators after a workshop on different views on human rights.
Group of international participants and Rwandan facilitators after a workshop on different views on human rights.

Garrett Nada: "In January 2014, I traveled to Japan with several colleagues to participate in a 10-day exchange program, The Kakehashi Project – The Bridge for Tomorrow. During our visit, we gained a deeper understanding of the Japanese government’s approach to international affairs and peacebuilding, which is colored by Japan’s unique status as a former imperial power and the world’s first and only target of a nuclear attack. We heard from aid workers and foreign ministry officials about the Japanese method of delivering humanitarian assistance and restoring domestic security before developing political, judicial, and administrative systems and institutions. I was inspired by the Japanese peacebuilding practitioners we met because they are so utterly devoted to ensuring that the horrors of World War II are not repeated."

Emily Fornof: "When applying for my study abroad in Fes, Morocco, I had to fill out a preference survey for my homestay. I was ready for almost anything, but I had one red line: I wanted a western-style toilet. Upon arrival, I had a last-minute homestay switch and the school was unable to accommodate my original preferences, so I ended up in a home that only had a squat toilet. Suddenly, I felt completely out of my comfort zone, which turned out to be the best way to learn. My host family was so warm, and I was much more open to learning about their culture than I would have been if their home had resembled my own in the U.S. I also learned that squat toilets and bucket baths are not so bad; they are different from what I was accustomed to, but it turned out that something that seemed so different was not so scary."

Emily Fornof in Morocco with host sisiter, Amina.
Emily Fornof in Morocco with host sisiter, Amina.

Recognizing Legacies of Peace and Conflict

Celena Canode: "For the last decade, Kosovo has been on a road to peace. I noticed quite a difference in Kosovo from my first visit in 2008 to my second visit in 2011; the progress towards peace and stability was substantial. Reports and news articles cannot replace talking to survivors of conflict who are now studying law at a local university. Nor can they replace seeing booming cafes, shops and nightlife. My study abroad experience at the American University of Kosovo allowed me to not only study and read about peace and conflict resolution, but also to see the consequences of conflict and the ability of a country to progress towards peace and stability. I learned about interacting with many people, including every majority and minority group, which allowed me to absorb the difficulties that lie ahead for Kosovo. For example, living with a Romani family in Bitola, Macedonia provided an insight into the lives of a persecuted group. I experienced their hardships in their home, in their community, and their struggles in the broader context of country and Europe. Likewise, in visiting Mitrovica, Kosovo I was able to experience the tension between the Kosovar Albanians and the Kosovar Serbs. Although there is still progress to make, being there and seeing transformation alongside what needs to still be done provides me a greater understanding of what peace means for Kosovo."

One of the many billboards Celena came across in Kosovo. Loosely translated,  'Win with the heart and not with weapons!'
One of the many billboards Celena came across in Kosovo. Loosely translated, 'Win with the heart and not with weapons!'

Building Human Connections across Differences

Abigail Appleton: "I grew up in a conservative rural area and my decision to study, live and work abroad was a break from the norm in my hometown. The four years I spent in Egypt taught me that the differences between the two cultures were actually small when compared to the similarities we shared. My travels gave me experiences and opportunities to reach out to those who seemed different and form bonds that will last my whole life. I now see it as my responsibility to help bridge the gaps that are not as big as they may appear."

Abigail enjoying the view of a sunrise from Mount Sinai, a site of religious and cultural significance.
Abigail enjoying the view of a sunrise from Mount Sinai, a site of religious and cultural significance.

Nate Wilson: "I studied abroad in Israel in the summer of 2011. The trip introduced me to people with different perspectives of not only the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also of Israeli society. Through listening to such a broad swath of opinions and meeting people with incredibly different backgrounds, I learned that building peace involves building relationships and really trying to understand the interests of individuals and groups. These relationships have to be built and maintained before any sort of crisis happens, because peace is a proactive pursuit. Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to meet people, including Arab Israelis who feel they are under-represented politically, whom I would not have otherwise met. I keep in contact with them to this day."

Students studying abroad in Israel on the side of a mountain overlooking Jerusalem's iconic Dome of the Rock.
Students studying abroad in Israel on the side of a mountain overlooking Jerusalem's iconic Dome of the Rock.

Sophie Grumelard: "Discovering the differences and similarities between the American and French cultures made me understand how important it is to experience other cultures through first-hand interactions, in order to acknowledge differences without judging others. My experiences further inspired me to discover more cultures and motivated me to study abroad again in college, twice in South Korea and once in Poland."

Peacebuilding Activities as Study Abroad Experiences

Kelly Mader: "While I was preparing to begin my study abroad in London, I was applying for Parliamentary internships. I was disappointed to find out that the only option was for an MP of a political party that did not align with my own. I was torn between really wanting the experience and potentially feeling uncomfortable working in a political office with those of a different political opinion. I put my reservations aside and applied anyway.  I got the internship and it was an amazing experience!  I thoroughly enjoyed working with the people in the office. We had political debates, but they were always conducted with respect. I was able to refine my beliefs and even change some of my opinions. When talking with my supervisor at the end of the internship, he told me that he had the same reservation about selecting me as I had about accepting the position. It was my desire to learn that changed his mind. I learned that things rarely turn out quite like you would expect, but as long as you keep an open mind and engage respectfully with others, you will be surprised by all that you can learn and experience when studying abroad."

Sarah Saleeb: "My biggest concern before studying abroad was that I wouldn’t be accepted by others. Not others in my program, but by the community I was about to live in. Being an American in the Middle East isn’t easy, I was told. During our orientation session before leaving for the small town of Irbid, Jordan, our professor said, “People know that there is a difference between being a citizen of a country and a government’s policies.” I crossed my fingers, hoping I would be accepted. The Jordanian women I met through the language partner program did just that: they accepted me into their homes and at their dinner tables with no regard for my nationality. There was a clear separation of the personal and the political, and my professor was absolutely right."

Personal Development and Career Discovery

Gretchen Sauvey: "One of the most lasting impacts has been a life-long appreciation for the variety that the world has to offer. The things I did in France made me more open-minded about trying new experiences that have in turn led me to value diversity in people, cultures and even points of view."

Jonas Claes: "The most rewarding aspect was the exposure to the diversity amongst the host families, which varied in ethnicity, religious faith, living standard, worldliness and political beliefs. This experience motivated my decision to obtain a second Master’s degree from Georgetown University following my undergraduate and graduate schooling in Belgium. In my view an international educational experience is both a priceless professional asset and life lesson, as it will strengthen one’s independence, tolerance, cultural sensitivity and communication skills."

Tim Luccaro: "Studying abroad offered an invaluable exposure to life in other parts of the world at a young age. It reframed the way I viewed the world, and made me realize that the politics of a nation don't always reflect the hopes and aspirations of its people."

Kim Feinstein: "My experience taught me the extent to which your worldview is shaped by where you grow up -- and the benefits of having that challenged when you travel away. It reaffirmed my desire to study anthropology and my interest in working in a field where cultural understanding was key."