Students in every major can benefit from studying abroad

University Park, Pa. – As a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Michelle Toumayants often found herself exploring new countries, new cultures and a new way of thinking, all without leaving home. The Penn State comparative literature doctoral student describes Everett, Pa., as typical small town: homogeneous, everyone knows everyone, hard to find on a map. As a kid, she wanted to escape and see the world, and she did it by absorbing all the books she could find. Today, Toumayants is actually seeing the world, taking every opportunity she can find to travel, including study-abroad programs.

This summer, thanks to a Critical Language Scholarship she won from the U.S. Department of State, she’s studying Arabic in Cairo, Egypt. The scholarship will allow Toumayants to study the language and culture at a language-intensive institute for university students. She is one of four Penn State students and only 575 students nationwide, out of 5,300 applicants, to receive the scholarship.

Toumayants isn’t the only student interested in a global education. During the 2008-2009 academic year, Penn State had a total of 2,582 students studying abroad on every continent except Antarctica. This number is a significant increase from the 1998-1999 year, when Penn State had 866 students studying in other parts of the world. Penn State isn’t the only University seeing such a noteworthy increase. According to the U.S. Department of Education, recent decades have seen a 5 percent annual growth rate in the number of U.S. students participating in study abroad programs.

“There is no discipline offered at Penn State that cannot benefit from study abroad,” said Barbara Rowe, executive director of Education Abroad at Penn State. “Today, there are opportunities all over the world, and students don’t have to know the language in order to go. It’s a lot more affordable -- scholarship, government grants and regular financial aid packages make it possible for anyone.”

Kristi Wormhoudt, the academic coordinator for Education Abroad, added that today’s students have a wide variety of countries to choose from when selected to study abroad.

“It’s not your mother’s study-abroad program,” she said. “When that generation was in school they could study in only Germany, Italy and France and they learned the language and the culture. Today we have students all around the globe, taking a variety of courses.”

In fact, in the 2008-2009 academic year, Penn State students participated in 158 programs abroad in 42 countries. These students were studying fields representing every Penn State college, as well as medicine and other disciplines.

Toumayants, who hopes her knowledge of Arabic will help her access untranslated documents for research and teaching information, knows her work abroad this summer will enhance her education immeasurably. The CLS program, which pays for her plane fare, hotel and book expenses and includes a stipend, encourages students to spend time outside the classroom, learning about the culture and the people, while practicing the language they are learning.

Toumayants is an experienced globetrotter and encourages everyone to step out of their comfort zones to experience and learn about life outside the United States.

“It’s going to be scary but it’s important to confront things that you’re afraid of,” she said. “I teach my students not to hate a book because they don’t understand it, but instead to let go and learn from this piece of literature by an author who has had a completely different life than their own.”

While Toumayants has worked abroad before and has an idea of what she can expect on her trip, Penn State senior Alex Armao, another CLS recipient, is new to studying abroad. His first experience will be this summer in China. Armao, who is minoring in Chinese through Penn State’s Asian studies program, said the minor has helped him become more knowledgeable about the world. Learning about other cultures is crucial, he said, because everything is becoming more global. He thinks that the emergent economy in China makes having knowledge of how they conduct business and the ability to speak the language a more valuable skill set for his future. Four hours of intensive study of the language each morning, while surrounded by Mandarin speakers, will help Armao improve his skills immensely.

The Critical Language Scholarships that Toumayants and Armao earned were awarded by the U.S. Department of State. Kelli Burns, exchanges manager in Education Abroad, said Penn State does the best it can to make studying abroad as affordable as possible. Burns has compiled a list of study-abroad scholarships offered by Penn State, but added that individual colleges also may have money set aside for study-abroad scholarships available to students. In addition, students may check with government agencies for other scholarship and grant opportunities. Burns is one of several staff members who can help students plan the right study-abroad package for their major and their interests.

Last Updated September 09, 2015