International affairs may have been a topic from which she shied away years ago, but a study-abroad trip to the Holy Land last spring break gave Sheets the confidence to share her knowledge and experience.
“Whenever the bombings were going on … I felt so much more comfortable and able to talk about it and give my opinion, as well as understand the implications,” said Sheets, a senior speech communication major. “Whenever Gaza bombed Jerusalem, I understood why. … That was one of the biggest statements they've made in the conflict so far. I think without this (study-abroad) course I wouldn't have understood that.”
The university will offer a course in Israel and Palestine this spring, along with seven other study-abroad trips during spring break and through the summer. Each course is designed to enhance students' learning by giving them firsthand experience. Students typically visit historical sites and learn from local educators or dignitaries.
“One of the biggest advantages of study abroad is that I believe it opens students' minds about other cultures, and it makes students realize that we're all in this together,” said Jill Blondin, director of the Center for Global Edcation at UT Tyler.
Blondin said learning in a new environment takes students out of their comfort zones, which she believes is a good thing. Without as many familiar faces or distractions from around campus, students are forced to immerse themselves in a new culture.
“By changing your surroundings, they have to use their creative critical-thinking skills. They have to consider things differently,” she said. “I think that they really grow.”
For example, the Israel-Palestine Study Tour during spring break includes stops at the Western Wall and the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display, according to the itinerary. Students also will have the opportunity meet members of the Israeli Parliament.
Dr. Martin Slann, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, will lead that trip for the second time since joining UT Tyler in 2011. Slann studied the region in college and visited Israel and Palestine multiple times before moving to Texas.
“I think study-abroad programs ought to be part of the curriculum of any university or college,” he said. “I think it enhances the educational opportunities for any student, regardless of major and regardless of what career path the student wants to follow.”
“Students who get a taste of study abroad appreciate and understand different cultures,” he said. “They come back sometimes with an enhanced appreciation of the culture that we have in the United States.”
Sheets said traveling gave her a new perspective and helped her learn more about herself. Some concepts are too broad to fully grasp from a textbook, she said, and traveling provided the context that brought life to otherwise abstract ideas.
“My favorite part was just the ability to take the things that we learned in the classroom … and see them,” Sheets said. “It is so different overseas than it is here, so to explain these concepts sometimes can be really overwhelming. But when you're there and you see it and you experience it, it takes on a totally different context.”
Slann encourages students to do their research before traveling to a foreign country. Students may have to adjust to a region without a ubiquitous Internet connection or sparse dining options, so it helps to know what to expect. Learning how to speak the native language doesn't hurt either, he said.
“(Students) need to make an effort I think to really communicate with the people that they meet and not be passive,” he said. “They can stay home and be passive. … But if you go abroad, you really need an interchange.”
UT Tyler's study-abroad opportunities are not limited to areas in which Americans typically vacation. The U.S. Department of State has issued travel warnings to Kenya and Israel, both of which are targeted destinations.
Blondin said the university has been upfront about the warnings in place for those countries, but the advisories should not affect the current travel plans.
“We want to ensure the safety of students to the best of our abilities. We review the trip and the current situation in the country, along with the professor or professors in charge to ensure that the trip is something that is not a significant safety risk for the student.”
There are two scholarships available to help students pay for study-abroad courses and a third for students who are eligible for a Pell Grant. More information about how to apply is at www.uttyler.edu/cge/study-abroad/financialaid.php.