From ceramics to catacombs, swatties abroad go beyond classroom

Students at Swarthmore study abroad for countless reasons. Some go to fulfill language requirements, some because they find the one perfect, chance-of-a-lifetime program, and some, if not most, go for the main goal of getting off of Swarthmore’s beautiful but sometimes suffocating campus. While many Swatties choose to enroll as a student at a different college or university in another state or country, some Swatties opt into programs that aim to take learning out of the classroom.


Although about 75% of Swarthmore students graduate with a degree in either social or natural sciences each year, students of all majors choose to study humanities abroad, selecting programs that allow to them to earn credits while immersing themselves in a personal passion or studying something new entirely. Nikhil Paladugu ’16 is a double major in neuroscience and studio art, and also plans on attending medical school after graduating from Swarthmore. Although studying abroad as a pre-med student is difficult, Paladugu chose to enroll in an intensive ceramics program in China during the fall semester of his junior year.


His program, run through West Virginia University, placed Paladugu with three other undergrads in a ceramics studio in Jingdezhen, a rural city in Eastern China known as the “Porcelain Capital,” famous for its talented ceramicists and rich artistic traditions.

“We stayed at a youth hostel in the same factory as the pottery workshop where our studios were,” Paladugu said. After breakfast, students would work in the studios for essentially the whole day, taking a break for lunch mid-day.

Although Paladugu could have fulfilled his studio art credits at Swarthmore, he chose to go abroad instead, making up his other necessary credits by taking 5 classes other semesters. “If I’m going to do 10 years of rounds with doctors, I wanted the opportunity to really delve into ceramics,” Paladugu said.

Though Sadie Rittman ’16, is an honors religion major, she chose to study abroad her junior year at Prague Film School, taking classes on film directing, editing, cinematography and screenwriting.

“I’ve never really known what to study,” Rittman said. “I’m not a film major, but I have a lot of interest. I wanted insight into what it’s like making films; I was exploring that option.” Rittman’s program was more course-based than Paladugu’s: she attended classes four days a week for six hours a day. Rittman’s academic work consisted of four different film projects that involved large amounts of individual, creative work time outside of class.


Both Paladugu and Rittman seemed to share the notion that their experience was very different from that of being at Swarthmore for a semester. “I didn’t have to write any papers or do any reading the whole semester,” Rittman said of her experience at in Prague. “I got to work with a different part of my brain. It was nice to spend a whole semester not doing any Swarthmore work. It was extra nice to experience a new city in Europe while doing that kind of work.”


Paladugu shared a similar experience. “Our art history midterm is the only real work,” he said.

“Otherwise you’re free to just focus on your art.”


For many students, studying humanities abroad in a certain location greatly enhances the experience of their learning by providing a new perspective.


Natalia Sucher ’16 chose a program that was directly related to her honors classics major. Through Duke University’s Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies, Sucher studied in Rome with 30 other undergrads from the United States. Although the format of the program was several hours of lecture-based classes per week, Sucher’s professors would bring the students to relevant sites in all parts of Italy where they would learn while experiencing in person the architecture or artifacts about which they were learning.


“Twice a week we had a double credit class where we would take trips for the entire day,” Sucher said. These trips often included long days at museums around Rome, where students would look at the same artifacts they studied in class. The group also travelled up and down the entire Italian coast, took a trip to Etruscan tombs to see paintings, spent a day at Mount Vesuvius and got the opportunity to walk through the Roman Catacombs.


Paladugu also stressed the importance of his program’s location in his learning experience.


“The entire city is focused on ceramics,” he said. “The biggest thing I learned was the cultural history. They took us on field trips to amazing hundred-foot long dragon kilns…. We got to see things that tourists can’t see.” Being fully immersed in a culture so focused on ceramics allowed Paladugu to develop as a designer and ceramicist in a way that may not have been possible had he not gone abroad.


“They want you to basically try everything you could possibly try,” he said. “The people you’re working with and living with are all international superstars. Since you get this opportunity to completely dive into and immerse yourself in the study of ceramics, it really helps you grow as an artist.”


Sucher, who chose her to study based in part on a desire to learn Italian, also found that the location of her program offered large advantages over classes at Swarthmore. Although she entered the program without even a familiarity with Italian, Sucher became fluent by the end of the semester. On her return to Swarthmore, this skill allowed her to further her study in Classics by taking a directed reading on Dante’s Divine Comedy in its original form.


Other students also felt their abroad experiences impacted their academic lives at Swarthmore upon return.


Rittman felt that her experience abroad gave her a much-needed sense of renewal and clarity, and saw her time in Europe as a much needed break from the overwhelmingly academic experience of school at Swarthmore. Going abroad also helped her make the choice to participate in the Honors program, although the actual content of her study abroad was not related to her major in religion.


“I would not have done honors before going,” she said. “Now that I’m back it feels so different from before. I’m more relaxed about what I’m doing and can appreciate it so much more… I feel much more grounded.”


Paladugu shared the notion that a semester abroad was a necessary relief from the intensity of Swarthmore.


“Taking a break from academics was awesome,” Paladugu said. “Especially coming from a place like Swarthmore, it’s really refreshing to get a new perspective. It doesn’t matter where: I think traveling abroad is something everybody should do.”

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