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Students study abroad to discover family heritage

Layton Dudley

For Nicholas Fitch (left) and Keelan Vaughan (right), national identity goes deeper than what their passports reflect. CW | Layton Dudley

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For Keelan Vaughn, the question of his citizenship takes more to answer than simply pulling out his passport.

Vaughn, a sophomore majoring in environmental engineering and German, is in the process of becoming a dual German and American citizen and will soon become what is known as a heritage student – students who study abroad in their family’s ancestral country.

Vaughn’s mother hails from Germany, and his plans to study abroad in Mannheim, Germany during Spring semester reflect his interest in regaining that side of his heritage. He said a part of him wants to stay connected to his German ancestry, especially after the recent death of his German grandmother.

“It’s hard for me sometimes because where is home?” Vaughn said. “I’ve lived here all my life but I feel more connected to German culture because that’s what I’ve actively sought out – German experiences. I would like my grandma’s life to live on, and I think I’m doing that by exploring my German heritage.”

Carolina Robinson, director of Capstone International Academic Programs, said around 1,000 students studied abroad during the 2013-2014 academic year. Robinson said studying abroad offers many advantages for students, academically and personally, and having a familial connection with a country can add to their personal growth.

“Studying and traveling abroad exposes us to different cultures and forces one to grow and to gain independence,” she said. “I think it’s always good to go back and see where your family is from – you kind of get an understanding of maybe the quirks that are in your family or why people celebrate something this way in your family. So I think it’s on the more personal growth of that student, much more so than they’re getting some specific academic knowledge.”

Robinson said heritage students studying abroad is comparable to Alabama natives enrolling at the University as freshmen. They may have come to campus for Crimson Tide football games all their lives, but going as students can allow them to gain more independent experiences and forge their own paths.

“There might be the advantage of having family close by, but they’ll have to create their own story this time and really understand life in that country as a student versus as a visitor,” Robinson said.

Holly Henning, study abroad coordinator at the University, studied abroad during her time in college and recently returned from a trip to Asia, where she visited students and represented Capstone International. Henning said heritage students tend to have a different set of goals for their trips abroad.

“Many times, heritage individuals choose to go abroad to countries of their heritage, i.e., a Spanish speaker with roots in Chile studying abroad in Chile, because it’s important to their identity,” she said. “They feel as if they are connecting to a part of themselves that they have never fully known or understood. Some may even describe it as ‘going home.’”

Henning said she can compare her experience studying abroad with those of heritage students.

“I have Irish heritage and studied in Ireland for several months for one of my programs, but I never felt as if it was a ‘going home’ type of experience,” she said. “The Irish part of my family has been in the United States for so long that the connection I felt to Ireland was perhaps much different, distant than what heritage individuals feel given that they are often first generation individuals with very closely related family still in the countries they study abroad in.”

For Nicholas Fitch, a junior majoring in mathematics, it’s his grandmother, not his parents, who has influenced his plans to study abroad this spring in Milan, Italy.

“I want to get a broader perspective of the world. I want that little extra ‘umph’ and see things from a different perspective,” Fitch said. “It’s to gain a better understanding of who I am and where my family came from.”

While in Italy, Fitch said he will visit Calibri, the birthplace of his late grandmother.

“It’s funny because some parts of Europe haven’t changed in the past hundred years, so it’s like, I’ll get to see what she saw and to get my experience with the modern aspects,” Fitch said. “I don’t know if I could put that feeling into words. Perhaps awesome would probably be the closest thing, but it wouldn’t do it justice. Maybe a bit nostalgic.”

Discovering one’s identity is a major factor for many students seeking to study abroad. Alex Forester, a junior majoring in marketing and German, said identifying himself as an American or a German has become more complicated as he has grown older.

“Growing up, I’ve definitely learned the parts of me that are more European or more German versus the parts of me that are more rooted in American values,” Forester said. “So sometimes I do feel torn apart especially with other kids and people.”

Forester was part of a UA faculty-led study abroad trip to Berlin and Munich this past summer. His mother is from Germany, and he still has family in the country. For him, the trip was a chance to learn more about his heritage and understand his family better.

“I told a lot of people I was German growing up, and I was always really proud of it,” he said. “When I asked my parents to do study abroad, there was no hesitation. They’ve always pushed me to embrace my other half.”

Tommy Condon, a junior majoring in marketing, grew up with an American father and a Chinese mother, whose side of the family spoke to him exclusively in Chinese. Condon studied at Hong Kong University, taking a summer intensive in Mandarin. Condon said he was happy to embrace his heritage while studying, though growing up split between two cultures was not always easy.

“Growing up as an Asian-American was a bit difficult going into my early years of high school and middle school, because I wanted to be more like everyone else in the U.S.,” Condon said. “ I did find myself shying away from phone conversations with my grandmother or mother, whom I spoke to in Chinese, in front of others. I would identify myself as a proud American, but I also am very proud to be a citizen of Hong Kong and of my Chinese heritage.”

Ultimately, the joining of Condon’s two nationalities have proven an advantage, he said.

“I have been very fortunate to meet people from all over the world,” he said. “This has helped me to understand [China’s] culture and realize the amazing diversity that many Americans do not get to experience. After spending so much time meeting new people and learning to understand their cultures, I feel I am very open to the different ways of life that people around the world live.”

Capstone International is available to help students who are interested in studying abroad. A study abroad fair is being hosted Nov. 19 in the Ferguson Student Center, showcasing faculty-led programs. Robinson said studying abroad brings students new experiences, offers personal and academic development and connects them to their heritage and the world as a whole.

“I think that’s maybe a human thing, where you want to go and see where your family grew up or see how you are connected,” she said. “[Studying abroad] gives people the chance to discover their roots and connect with their family, still learn [and] be there for educational purposes.”

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Students study abroad to discover family heritage