Around the World in 16 Days

The weeks between fall and spring semesters provide an ideal time to study abroad.

By Ian Mathias

Photography By Eric Rice and Hannah Evans '14

You can read about Ugandan orphans all day long,” says public health studies major Amelia Thomas ’13, “but when you see them in person—when you meet them and talk to them—that’s what makes them real.” Thomas was one of more than 120 undergraduate students who brought their studies to life this winter in an Intersession Abroad program, perhaps the fastest growing segment of international study at Johns Hopkins.

It should come as no surprise that modern undergraduate students are attracted to a study-abroad experience that is shorter than a full semester. Many students, like devoted athletes or double majors, simply feel they don’t have the time. Others want to be truly globalized by multiple international academic experiences. Though traditional study abroad is as robust as ever, the growing demand for something new—shorter, more accessible, more intense—is undeniable.

As such, Johns Hopkins University Intersession Abroad programming in January more than doubled this year. New programs immersed Homewood undergraduates in Uganda, Paris, Cuba, Munich, and Brazil, while existing intersession programs—some older than the Office of Study Abroad itself—took students to Ecuador, Florence, and Ghana. Each three-credit program, which essentially packs a semester of learning into three weeks, is staffed by Hopkins faculty members with unique expertise of the topics at hand. “This is one of the strongest benefits of these intersession programs,” explains Lori Citti, director of the Office of Study Abroad. “We have such great faculty, and those faculty members rarely get to spend an entire semester abroad with our students. But this is three intense weeks of them bringing students deep into their research and areas of expertise.”

Here is a glimpse into two such programs, and why they are becoming increasingly popular with Johns Hopkins students.

Extreme Biodiversity

Ecuador is one of the few places in the world where Hopkins students can experience biodiversity at both extremes. Students in the Ecuador & Galapagos: Tropical Biology & Evolution intersession course split most of their time between eastern Ecuador, part of the Amazon rainforest, and the Galapagos, paradisiacal islands off the country’s western coast. At both ends of the spectrum, they studied the wealth of Ecuador’s rare organisms and discovered how such wildlife has migrated and adapted over the course of history.

“The rainforest in Ecuador has one of the highest species diversities on the planet,” says Greg Ball, the Krieger School’s vice dean for science and research infrastructure and one of this program’s instructors, along with Associate Professor Eric Fortune, of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “The ecosystem there is incredibly complex. We saw 150 bird species this year, really without trying that hard.”

But on the Galapagos, Ball explains, students find a set of protected, pristine, relatively new volcanic islands. Species here are unique, largely uninfluenced by any other creatures but themselves, and biodiversity is quite limited. “This is one place where the principles of evolution are quite clearly on display,” says Ball.

“It was amazing to see how the Galapagos animals are completely unafraid of humans,” recalls engineering student Hannah Evans ’14, who while studying in Ecuador witnessed a phenomenon known as island tameness that often evolves among animals on remote islands. “Since they have never been hunted, the wildlife there doesn’t recognize humans as predators. They have no reason to be afraid.” During her time on the island, Evans grew interested in the native iguanas, which seem to constantly sunbathe on the rocky beaches, and she wrote a research paper on their thermal regulation mechanisms.

Longtime Equador Intersession Instructor Eric Fortune did the same at egl2012.blogspot.com

“These kinds of lessons in evolutionary and organismal biology are a large reason why we run this intersession program,” explains Ball. “Johns Hopkins has great strengths in the biological sciences, but we tend to focus on cellular and molecular biology. Life science is much wider than that, and one of the ideas of intersession is to provide students with a focused academic experience they might not get over the course of the semester.”

Ecuador Photo Gallery

Perfect Public Health Primer

Admittedly, collaboration is a buzzword at Johns Hopkins. But even for this university, which is ripe with interdisciplinary opportunities, the Childhood, Health and Society in Uganda intersession program is uniquely collaborative. The course was led this winter by three instructors outside the Krieger School: Daniela Lewy, a research associate from the Bloomberg School of Public Health; Eric Rice, assistant professor at the School of Education; and Professor Aloysius Mutebi, of the Makerere University School of Public Health—known as one of the finest such schools in Africa.

The 14 Johns Hopkins undergraduates (most from the Krieger School) enrolled in this new intersession program were paired with seven of Mutebi’s students from Makerere University. The two-on-one teams were tasked with experiential projects that explored health and educational issues facing Ugandan children. Students studied issues such as water sanitation, prenatal and infant care, government-funded education, and childhood HIV—all in both urban and rural Uganda, and almost always through hands-on, service-oriented projects that connected students to the community. For example, while in the very rural town of Kalisizo, Johns Hopkins and Makerere students not only worked alongside local families but also stayed in their homes.

“The families were thrilled to have them,” says Lewy, “and both the Hopkins and Makerere students were way out of their comfort zone.” Lewy says the interactions between students were crucial to the program’s success, as each brought totally different perspectives to the shared experience.

“It was amazing,” says Amelia Thomas ’13. “I can’t think of a better way to understand the issues Ugandans face. We just kept asking the Makerere students question after question, and they were always there for us to help with Luganda translations. There’s just no other way to get a true feel for their life.” Thomas, the JHU Women’s Volleyball Team captain, had struggled to find time to study abroad and keep her commitments to the team. Now, inspired by her intersession experience, she wants to go back to Uganda “and get deeper into the issues” after she graduates.

Students and faculty members on the first Uganda Intersession program kept a detailed blog, with great photos at uganda2012.blogspot.com

“This trip is exactly what an aspiring public health professional needs,” says Lori Citti. “First, they develop a real sense of critical thinking about international relief by getting so many different perspectives—from each other, their instructors, Makerere students, and the recipients of their aid. Second, the global marketplace absolutely demands that people in this industry have cross-cultural proficiencies. After an intersession abroad, our students should feel more able to move freely and comfortably between cultures and adapt readily to different environments.”

Uganda Photo Gallery

Traversing the Globe

In addition to the two Intersession Abroad options featured, here are the other courses that were offered to Hopkins undergraduates during January:

Brazil—This intersession program, conducted by Hopkins’ Center for Africana Studies, introduces students to the culture and language of Brazil within a historical and economic context.

Hemingway in Cuba—This course tracks Ernest Hemmingway’s life and work in this exotic locale, where American travel restrictions were recently eased.

Surveying Paris—The varied Parisian museum experience is the focus of this course. Students study how it defines the history and identity of one of the greatest cities in the world.

Munich—This course explores the city’s rich history of scientific and technological discovery and Germany’s place at the modern table of innovation.

Ghana: History, Politics, and Culture—Students spend most of their time in the country’s capital city of Accra, where they study multiple aspects of this complex and storied West African nation.

Renaissance Art in Florence—Students travel to Italy to study the art, architecture, and culture of the Renaissance, with the city’s churches, palaces, museums, and piazzas as their classrooms.