Navigating Political Differences Abroad

This November, while Claremont students were busy campaigning or casting their votes for in the presidential election, students abroad watched from afar, focusing instead on the politics in their new host country. While some students leave the Claremont bubble by traveling to industrialized and cosmopolitan countries, others select an experience in lands that seem worlds away.

Morgen Chalmiers PO ’13 was studying abroad in Mali when the 2012 Malian coup d’état began. Chalmiers’ program, part of the global School of International Training (SIT), was intent on extricating all study abroad students out of Mali after deeming the political situation unsafe. But Chalmiers was determined to stay in the country independently from the program. She called SIT, signed the necessary insurance forms, and agreed not to receive credit for the classes she had taken. SIT officially closed the spring 2012 study abroad program in Mali and all other students returned home. Chalmiers acknowledges SIT was liable to remove students from Mali, but believes that she was not in danger.

“My life didn’t change before the coup and after the coup … I talked to my parents every day. I didn’t want them to worry when all I was really doing was eating mangoes in the park,” Chalmiers said. 

By staying in Mali, Chalmiers was able to pursue the independent study project that she would have completed on the SIT program, which was shadowing a Malian midwife at a local clinic.

“There’s this idea of American exceptionalism, like we’re somehow in this special danger when we go abroad, but I didn’t really buy that,” Chalmiers said.  “I feel like among a lot of people here and some of the people that I studied abroad, there’s this perception that we’re in a special danger, different than other people, because we’re American…In general, you are not at any specific risk other than not being immune to diseases.”

According to Devin Foxall, Study Abroad Admisions Counselor at SIT, the decision was made to end the program in Mali due to the political instability throughout Mali.  Foxall cited a political vacuum in the capital, Bamako, the presence of terrorist groups, and general instability as reasons for ending the program.

“The decision was made that if we can’t ensure a certain level of stability, then we can’t continue to run the program there,” Foxall said.  “I don’t think that it feels dangerous until the point when it is dangerous.  It’s best to err on the side of students’ health and safety.”

Larkin Corrigan PO ’14 chose to study abroad in Havana, Cuba. As a politics major, the idea of living in a socialist country appealed to her. While it is not easy for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, the government will grant travel visas to students who wish to study abroad there. For Corrigan, one of the difficulties of studying abroad in Cuba was the machismo culture and cat-calling, which contrasted with progressive women’s rights laws. 

“What was surprising about it is that Cuba has free birth control, free abortion … So, in some ways, Cuba is way ahead of us, but there are no laws against that type of harassment,” Corrigan said. “That was continually really hard for me to get used to. Okay, you can cat-call me on the street a million times but I have more reproductive rights than I do at home.”

Will Tachau PO ’14 spent this past fall in a Nepali village about an hour away from the capital city Kathmandu. Without electricity, he had to adapt to going to bed when the sun set and waking when the sun rose. During his time in Nepal, Tachau was disappointed with the ineffectual government. 

“Every spring they say they’re going to come out with a constitution and that’s happened for like, five years,” Tachau said, visibly frustrated with the government impasse. 

Despite the difficulties, all three students claimed the differing politics only added a deeper layer to the cultural and lingual immersion of studying abroad in a different country. All three students explained that they knew a little about their country going in, but explored Malian, Cuban, and Nepali history in more depth once they were living there. 

Chalmiers said that she would have friendly debates with her host siblings about former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. 

“They loved Qaddafi and just thought he was one of the best political figures. He had done so much for Africa and much for [Mali], and they were angry that people had come in and assisted in him getting kicked out–and that’s just not an opinion that you hear expressed in the U.S., ever,” she said.

For Chalmiers, one of her most valuable experiences was interacting with people with radically different perspectives.

Tachau said that he would sometimes catch himself thinking how much easier it would have been if he had studied abroad in Europe, but he would stop when he glanced out the window to see the Himalayas in the background. 

“This is why you study abroad,” he said.

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