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University News

Students undertake independent study projects abroad

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2012

For many students, studying abroad means an opportunity to explore a foreign country in an academic setting while gaining independence both inside and outside the classroom. The Global Independent Study Project allows students to go one step further and receive a course credit for an independent research project conducted while abroad. Students design their own course syllabus and remain in contact with a Brown faculty member throughout their time abroad, often compiling what they learn into a creative final project once they return. 

Over the past three years, more than 80 students have completed GLISPs, “tapping into resources that cannot be duplicated stateside,” said Kendall Brostuen, director of the Office of International Programs.


Riding local

One of the most immediate ways to learn about a new place is to take local transportation. Navigating a foreign city can be challenging even for the people who live there, and for a visitor, there is no better way to understand the transportation system than to use it. That is exactly what Shawn Verma ’13 did as part of his GLISP, entitled “The Cross-societal Impact of Public Transportation in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam.”  

After being accepted into the International Honors Program, which allows students to divide a semester abroad among three different countries, Verma decided to supplement his experience abroad with a project that would enhance his understanding of the ethnography of the countries he visited, he said.  

Verma said he got the idea for his GLISP – which he completed with one other student during his junior fall semester – through a course with Assistant Dean of Medicine Timothy Empkie on the “social and structural factors that influence people’s health.” Verma said Empkie guided his decision to focus on the topic of transportation. In each country he visited, Verma gathered qualitative data by interviewing locals about different forms of transport, society’s perceptions of public and private transportation and policy decisions that could improve their everyday travel. 

“We experienced ourselves what people in those countries experienced,” he said, which “simply can’t be replicated by reading about them or looking at pictures in a textbook.” In addition to consulting experts who were knowledgeable about transportation, Verma and his GLISP partner captured all of their interviews with locals on video, which they used to produce a documentary. 

“That sort of personal touch that we added obviously would not have been possible had we not been riding the subway every day in Sao Paolo, Brazil, or riding on the backs of motorbikes in Hanoi, Vietnam, or riding on the backs of pick-up trucks on dirt roads in rural South Africa,” Verma said.


Opera immersion

Nora Rothman ’13 got the idea to go abroad at the last minute. A singer and art history concentrator, Rothman created a program that tapped into both interests and allowed her to study in a place she already knew and loved: Florence, Italy.

“I was interested in continuing my vocal study while I was abroad,” she said. Because she had not studied Italian, she enrolled in an English-speaking program offered through Syracuse University.  

“I came up with this idea that I wanted to study opera while I was in Italy, but not just study it in an academic or scholarly sense,” she said. Especially because her program was not Brown-affiliated, she said her mindset about academics while abroad was different. “It’s not in any way, shape or form at all as rigorous as the academics at Brown are,” she said. But the GLISP enabled her to expand her study of music beyond the realm of academics.

The main components of her GLISP involved researching and writing about Italian opera and vocal technique while also actively participating in the music scene around her. As part of her syllabus, Rothman imposed a requirement of seeing at least five musical performances, which “brought me off Syracuse University and into the heart of Florence,” she said.  

Rothman continued her vocal study by taking weekly voice lessons at the music school Il Trillo, where her teacher did not speak English. This forced her to “approach music in a foreign language … which was really cool,” she said. Because she did not know anyone in Florence, studying abroad was “a very formative experience in the arena of developing your independence.”

Rothman’s requirement to attend performances brought her to the Opera in Venice and jazz rehearsals in Florence, venues where she might not have ventured had she not been completing her GLISP, she said. Rothman performed alongside Italian students in their holiday concert, and even sung jazz shows with a quartet in Florence. 

Through her GLISP, Rothman said she learned about the differences between contemporary Italian and American approaches to vocal technique, and that she has applied what she learned to her continued music study at Brown. As a culmination to the project, she gave a performance at Brown of some of the songs she studied in Italy, which have remained part of her repertoire since returning to Brown.   


Borrowed language

Simon Vecchioni ’13 also studied in Italy. In contrast to Rothman, his interest was not in music, but in the Italian language. To supplement his time in the Brown in Bologna program, he decided to investigate the phenomenon of language borrowing from English in Italian. Studying at an Italian university alongside local students provided a unique context to observe how English words have entered regular Italian speech. 

“I basically found that it’s everywhere,” he said. To identify the sources he used for his project, Vec
read Italian newspapers, watched Italian news and conducted frequent interviews.

“Part of the being abroad process is you’re there 24/7,” he said. “The project really grew as a result of being with real Italian people.” 

Walking around with a camera, Vecchioni took pictures of Bologna’s graffiti, which ended up becoming a side project of his GLISP. He observed different kinds of dialogue that emerged in English language graffiti, which he presented in a slideshow upon returning to Brown.  

In addition to extensive outside research, Vecchioni supplemented his interviews with lessons from his university courses that focused on loan words in the language. He said the one rule he found throughout his GLISP was that language change is subject to cultural attitudes. “Anything can change in any way, or nothing can change, and it’s all subject to how people feel about that change,” he said. 

Because his GLISP entailed a close examination of the language Italians use every day, Vecchioni said he could not have made the same discovery were he not studying abroad. There is no other way to learn about certain language choices, like the names of stores, until you actually enter the store and ask, he said. “It’s like a cultural dialogue that’s going on, and you can’t get that without being there.”


Back to Brown 

GLISPs do not always end when students return from being abroad. For Kara Kaufman ’12, her independent research continued the following summer after her semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

An environmental studies concentrator, Kaufman was interested in researching the process of producer responsibility by examining Danish manufacturing and recycling policies. Producer responsibility is a system in which a manufacturer of a product takes responsibility for the product when the customer no longer wants it, she said. 

“The GLISP was an opportunity to look at that in depth,” Kaufman said, though she did not know beforehand just how immersive her experience abroad would be. Through completing frequent readings on the theory of producer responsibility and relevant policies of the European Union, Kaufman became familiar with ideas of famous scholars in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and surrounding countries. And she had the chance to meet them. 

“My faculty mentor in Denmark was able to set up a meeting with the world leaders in Sweden,” she said. There she met “these world-class scholars of this very particular subfield of producer responsibility.” Talking to the top executives of the companies she was learning about was “such an amazing insight,” she said.

From her fortuitous interviews with these world scholars as well as her day-to-day contact with local Danes, Kaufman said she was able to “get a sense of the cultural fabric of the country and how these policies trickle down in people’s attitudes toward products.”

Kaufman’s faculty advisor for the GLISP, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Christopher Bull, said her GLISP was part of a larger investigation of policies in Denmark and the European Union that can translate to conditions in the United States. “It was an interesting experience for both of us in that I was relying on her to figure out what was going on there and help me understand what that was, so she was my eyes and ears in Denmark,” he said.    

The summer after she returned from studying abroad, Kaufman applied what she learned abroad at her internship with Clean Water Action, where she extended her research to producer responsibility relating to Rhode Island mattresses.  

She said she would highly recommend doing GLISP to anyone considering studying abroad.

“It was by far the most meaningful academic experience I had while abroad because of the independent research component,” she said.

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