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CHASS "At Home in the World" Student Award Fund


By Katherine Miller and Alexandra Villamor, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Interns
March 2, 2016

Support This Student Award Fund!

One of the most influential moments of Dean Milagros Peña’s undergraduate career took place not on campus, but on an educational trip to Mexico. It was on this trip that she realized that she could look at her own world through an international perspective – and that she wanted to continue to examine, challenge, and change that world through education. “I saw the trip in many ways as shaping my own sort of view of the world, another exposure, and a moment that shaped my career.” This was the trip that convinced her she wanted to go on to graduate school and continue researching in other cultural context: the trip that gave her the confidence to become at home in the world.

As CHASS strives to enable students to personally discover what it means to be at home in the world, Dean Peña sees international experiences as a potential cornerstone for the College. And when considering a name for the new fund she recently created to help undergraduate students pursue these experiences, she decided that the College motto, “At Home in the World”, was a perfect fit. Today, as she reflects on establishing the CHASS “At Home in the World” Student Award Fund, Dean Peña is reminded of her time spent abroad and the influence it had on her academic career. “I was exposed to other perspectives,” she says, “it allowed me to reflect on the country I was born in – it allowed me to be a bit more critical, and a bit more understanding of other countries and cultures.” The perspective she gained contributed to shaping her interests as a student, and, now, as an educator, continues to influence the vision she has for providing students with international experiences.

“In education,” Peña says, “I always look for the moments where – particularly for first generation students – there is a turning point that either encourages students in their career, or is important to them as they later articulate how they got to where they are.” This student award, which will be endowed in the near future, will give students greater access to international experiences – and richer, more diverse education. The aim of the fund is to assist undergraduate students who wish to pursue a transformative international experience – particularly if that experience takes a creative or nontraditional approach to education. “This experience,” Peña explains, “can be an internship, a service learning experience, an independent study, or short trip learning experience with a faculty member who has a project abroad.” By encouraging students to seek out alternatives to the traditional study abroad model, Dean Peña hopes to give students the tools to create meaningful experiences as part of their majors and their larger educational portfolio.

Seeking education abroad is nothing new, and has been informing student perspectives for generations. UCR alumnus Paul “Buddy” Warner traveled to Paris in 1967. “For me,” Warner says, “it was crucial to my education.  Not so much the book learning as the informal education of living on my own in a foreign country.” Without a university exchange program available in Paris, Warner constructed his own program. He enrolled as a first year college student at University of Paris, Sorbonne, and also at the Cours de Civilisation Francaise. Reflecting on his time spent as a student in Paris, Warner says, “When I returned to the US, I had new confidence in myself.  I had survived, and even thrived, in a foreign country where I spoke the language, although not well, and knew no one.” This kind of empowerment is unique to international experiences, and Dean Peña hopes to equip future students with its transformative knowledge.

While Warner’s experience reflects a traditional concept of studying abroad, Dean Peña also encourages students to seek out additional kinds of international experiences. Yolanda Ochoa, fifth year Sociology and Spanish major, traveled to Madrid during her fourth year. “I fell in love with exploring historical places and new cultures,” she says – so much so that she decided to apply to the Mexico field research program upon her return. There, she took part in the research of Son Jarocho’s historical value: its history, its development in Mexico City, and its pivotal role in social movements. Ochoa’s decision to research in Mexico came from a variety of sources; her family heritage, her newfound love for travel. Yet her research also profoundly impacted her intellectual development: “I had to set up my own framework, find my own resources, and get myself on the field to interview people and just be a part of the culture.”

Ochoa’s international experiences have given her the confidence to conduct her own research and poise needed to present her findings. “When I think of my time abroad,” she says, “I think of two things. One is the friendships I’ve made on both of my trips – I still keep in touch. The other is the moment in November 2015, when I got up in front of my mentors and fellow classmates and presented my research.” 

Other students have taken advantage of their time abroad to inform their art. Nicole Johnson, fourth year Creative Writing major, spent a semester in Japan to help develop her Japanese language and cultural knowledge. Through music, anime, and art, the culture had captured Johnson’s imagination for many years: studying in Japan was a way to “get closer to that world.” “From an academic perspective,” she says, “I knew that learning Japanese in Japan would be the most effective route available to me, so it was no surprise to me when my language abilities improved astronomically.” But her trip also served another purpose: “I was also able to conduct hands on research for my novel project, which takes place entirely in Japan.”

Though each student’s experience differed from the others, the Dean’s hope for undergraduates’ international experiences reflects the benefits to their majors: “There’s nothing more profound about what you can learn within your major than when you take yourself out of your comfort zone and explore your major through the eyes of another experience.”

Part of the value of an international experience lies in its long-term influence. Dean Peña sees her time in Mexico as, in a multitude of ways, “shaping my own sort of view of the world, another exposure, and a moment that shaped my career.” Warner, who found himself in the middle of Paris’ 1968 student riots, was able to be part of one of Paris’ most influential political upheavals – a period whose significance he did not realize until he returned to Paris in 1994, when “people were still talking about “les evenments de May 1968.” Ochoa describes her trip as a challenge to her previous understanding of life in the United States. Her advice to students interested in an international experience is to recognize that “the US has a very different system of understanding how things work,” and to anticipate surprises by “reading about what is happening in that country.” Johnson likewise encourages students to pursue new experiences, even experiences that are a little outside of their comfort zone: “Cultural exchange builds a level of trust and a sense of common ground, which can be vital for a fulfilling experience abroad. Being a part of a new community is scary, but people are excited to share themselves with you, so let them! And in exchange, share yourself with them. It can lead to some truly beautiful things.”

Over the years, both Dean Peña and Warner have been able to trace the ways that their international experiences shaped the larger portrait of their intellectual and cultural awareness. That, to Dean Peña, is one of the critical takeaways of international education. Students who are interested in international experiences should consider the benefits it will bring to both their major and life beyond the university. Dean Peña is a firm believer in international education’s power to not only inform a student’s major as an undergraduate, but to impact their future trajectory: “If they work in the business world, they can contribute to a workplace in terms of cultural understanding – if they’re going to graduate school, it would help them become much more critical thinkers and develop certain kinds of skill sets.”

Yet Ochoa also mentions the financial reality of international experiences – a facet that can be overwhelming and discouraging. Parental support, she says, along with a student’s own savings is important, in case of situations where one might need those extra funds. Peña describes her own trip as a financial commitment she had to take seriously. “I knew my family not only could not afford to put me through college, and that anything beyond that was going to be beyond their means, so I had to really, really think about how I was going to get the funds together.” Yet despite that obstacle, she firmly believes that putting together the financial aspect of international experiences is not as difficult as it at first seems. “I think that if you plan for it well in advance,” she says, “you could be saving for it, little by little, and before you know it you’ll have the funds to be able to make it happen.”

The CHASS “At Home in the World” Student Award Fund exists to help students decrease the gap between their own financial resources and the total cost of an international experience. The fund, designated for CHASS undergraduate students with financial need, is designed to assist students with the financial costs of international experiences. Though the initial awards will be modest, Dean Peña hopes to grow the endowment to a level that will help many students pursue these experiences in perpetuity. To the Dean, international experiences can provide a “profound transformation of who you are as an intellectual and a person.” Ultimately, her desire for students is to give them the opportunity to gain “knowledge of other cultures and experiences in other cultures, and to be someone who can graduate with a real sense of more than just the world in which we were born in and grew up in, but knowing more about the world that we’re part of, beyond these borders called the United States.” The fund is a true testament to Dean Peña’s personal commitment to helping students  take the opportunity to pursue challenges, victories, and new experiences abroad – and give them the agency to make themselves at home in the world.

Support This Student Award Fund!


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