By Edie Gross
Aicha El Mahmoudi ’17 had plenty to adapt to during her first few days in Bilbao, Spain.
The six-hour time difference. A full course load of finance, marketing, and Spanish classes. Streets teeming with rapidly conversing pedestrians who walked everywhere and dressed to the nines, even on their way home from the gym.
But dinner each evening with her host family was perhaps the greatest challenge for the University of Mary Washington junior.
“I found myself not wanting to sit down to dinner with them because I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” said El Mahmoudi, whose Spanish-language skills were more suited to a Latin American dialect than the euskara batua spoken in the Basque Country.
That reluctance didn’t last. Not long into her spring 2016 semester abroad, El Mahmoudi declared dinner conversation with her host family her favorite part of the experience so far.
“The first week was definitely hard. Everything was so different,” said El Mahmoudi, who is studying abroad with support from UMW’s Abbott International Study Scholarship. “But I came here for a reason.
“I had to get out of my comfort zone,” she said via Skype from Bilbao, a grin spreading across her face. “Plus, the food’s really good.”
That’s exactly the response Martha “Marty” Abbott ’72 was hoping for when she established the study-abroad scholarship in 2011, during the early days of the Mary Washington First fundraising campaign. Abbott, a Spanish major, spent her own junior year in Madrid and, when thinking about ways to support her alma mater, said she wanted to give today’s students the same life-changing opportunity.
“That experience literally opened up my world and has had an impact on almost everything I’ve done since then. So I know firsthand what an important experience that is for our young people, and it’s even more critical today than it was when I was a student in the ’70s. We need to be able to interact with the rest of the world,” said Abbott, a longtime educator who is now executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. She holds a master’s degree in Spanish linguistics from Georgetown University and was honored by UMW as a 2004 distinguished alumnus and the 2014 UMW educator in residence.
Like El Mahmoudi, Abbott struggled at first to communicate. Seven years of classroom Spanish hadn’t prepared her for the first question her host mother asked: whether she preferred her green beans marinated in olive oil and vinegar or sautéed in garlic.
“I could conjugate every verb. I knew all the grammar, the subjunctive case, but I didn’t know what she was asking. I didn’t know the word for green beans,” said Abbott, who returned to Mary Washington a year later, fluent in Spanish and conversant in Spain’s culture, literature, and arts. “Being outside your comfort zone is what needs to happen so you can feel comfortable outside your comfort zone. It’s part of being globally competent.”
According to the Institute of International Education, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. college students study abroad during their academic careers, despite research showing that the experience boosts grade-point averages, cultural and language proficiency, employability after graduation, and confidence.
Participation is significantly higher at UMW, where 28 to 30 percent of students will study abroad before graduation, said Associate Professor of Spanish Jose Sainz, director of the Center for International Education (CIE). Of the roughly 300 students who travel abroad each year, Sainz said, about 20 receive UMW-backed scholarships, so cost still remains a barrier for many.
“When we talk to donors, the message is we just need to make this affordable for every student,” Sainz said. “We’re a 21st-century university. If our mission is to prepare students to be good citizens and global citizens, you can’t play in your own sandbox. Our students are bound to be in the real world with people of different cultures, different religions, different backgrounds. We need to afford students the opportunity, the possibility, to see what the real world is really like.”
Eynav Ovadia ’16 couldn’t agree more. She was born in California but moved to Israel when she was a teenager to live on a kibbutz founded by her grandfather. After finishing high school and two years of military service in Israel, Ovadia knew she wanted to return to the United States for college.
She chose UMW in large part because of its study-abroad options, she said. The school offers more than 100 programs, ranging from weeklong faculty-led excursions to yearlong journeys, where students can conduct research, pursue internships, and earn academic credit.
Ovadia spent half of her junior year in Italy after signing up for three back-to-back programs, ending with a semester in Florence, where she immersed herself in Italian culture and art while interning at a modern art gallery. The Pauline Grace King Study Abroad Scholarship in Art History helped Ovadia afford the trip.
“I’m paying for college myself, so any scholarship is a blessing,” said Ovadia, who returned to UMW with 24 academic credits, a well-worn museum pass, and the inspiration for her senior thesis on Botticelli’s Venus paintings. In fact, during spring break this year, she planned a trip to London to examine some of Botticelli’s drawings at the British Museum.
Alumnae Lynda S. White ’71, Lloyd Tilton Backstrom ’61, and Judy YoungmanWigton ’61 wanted to help students do just that when in 2012 they established the scholarship to honor Pauline Grace King ’37, the late art history professor who had so affected their lives.
“All of us agree it is important for students to travel to see artworks up close,” White told UMW. “Slides are great, but it is dynamite to actually see a painting or sculpture in person.”
Ovadia credits the trip to Italy with motivating her to pursue a doctorate in art history and ultimately to teach. Now a peer adviser at the CIE, she enjoys sharing her experiences with other students considering study abroad.
“I tell them to look at it as an adventure and a growing period,” said Ovadia, whose apartment in Florence was only blocks from Michelangelo’s church and Ghiberti’s workshop.
“There’s nothing quite like looking at art and architecture in situ, seeing it in person, looking at a Botticelli in person and being like . . .” she says, pausing with her mouth agape. “You have no other reaction. It’s just amazing. It’s like history hits you smack in the face. It’s exciting and breathtaking and overwhelming, and it becomes so much more tangible.”
El Mahmoudi said she’s determined to pack as much into her experience as she can. She’s already traveled to Barcelona with friends for a long weekend and to the south of France with her classmates, and she had a trip to Madrid planned for March.
“It’s such a rich culture here. I’m in such awe and shock all day. We’re trying to go everywhere and see everything, but there’s not enough time – and not enough money,” she said, laughing.
Born in Morocco, El Mahmoudi moved to Virginia with her parents and siblings when she was 9. The first in her family to attend college, El Mahmoudi said she was determined to scrape together the funds to study abroad.
“I didn’t know what the costs were. When I actually sat down and did all the math, I thought, ‘There’s no way I can cover this myself,’ ” El Mahmoudi recalled. “I was willing to take out a loan and come here, but the Abbott scholarship helped out a lot.”
She’s taking classes toward her business major, polishing her foreign language skills, and gaining some independence, she said. During spring break, she planned to take some of her new friends to Morocco to meet extended family members.
“It’s my first time being without my family and fully immersed in a culture, its traditions, and its language. I FaceTime with my friends every day, and I’m like, ‘You have to travel,’ ” she said. “You just learn a lot. You have to budget your own money. You have to exercise discipline. It teaches you to be on your own.”
Abbott said she’s thrilled when scholarship recipients like El Mahmoudi savor the experience as much as she did.
“Some of the letters I’ve gotten could’ve been written by me,” she said. “What I have really enjoyed is how much they’ve embraced the culture, embraced the language, the curiosity they have, their interest and excitement. That’s exactly how I felt.”