Students, Professors Describe Impactful Lerner Study Abroad Trips

It was thousands of miles from home and far above sea level that Stephanie Spalding began to realize more clearly what she wanted to do in life.

“I vividly remember visiting a mine [in the Andes], and then that same day going literally down the hill and visiting the community that lived downriver,” Spalding recalled. “And through a translator … hearing from the community about the impacts on their lives [from] this mine that did not have very good environmental practices in place.”

This kind of personal, direct experience, far from a classroom, can make a powerful impression, say University of Delaware professors and students who have participated in study abroad trips through the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. They describe experiences that deepened understanding of global business, sparked new ways of thinking, and in some cases altered the courses of their lives.

Spalding, UD Class of 2005, who majored in business administration with a concentration in marketing, took her trip to Peru in 2005 under Jennifer Gregan, senior assistant dean in global programs and partnerships for the Lerner College.

Spalding now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she works for 3Degrees, an environmental consulting company that promotes renewable energy and works with businesses on carbon offsets. Spalding helps electric and gas utilities reduce their carbon impact.

“Just seeing firsthand how we, as human beings, can make a positive impact and a negative impact on both our planet and people’s lives … that was just really impactful,” Spalding said. It made her realize she wanted to work in the sustainability field after graduation.

Trips like these have been going on for decades at UD. Lerner’s first study abroad trips reportedly date back to a 1972 trip to Switzerland.

While UD is known for pioneering the concept of study abroad in 1923 — UD is marking the 100th anniversary this year — these programs weren’t tied to particular departments in the beginning, according to Lisa Gensel,  University archives coordinator. While trips went on hiatus in 1948, they started up again in the early 70s. At that time the College of Business got involved amid increasing interest in exposing students to international business. An annual report from the college for 1981-82 mentions the development of two new overseas study programs going to London and Brussels, based on earlier Lerner programs.

In the decades since, the program has built momentum. Each year now sees UD Lerner faculty from numerous departments leading forays to countries like Australia, Europe, Thailand, China and more.

Those who go along speak fondly of the strong bonds and friendships they build, and the increased connection between faculty and students. For many students, it’s also a unique chance to travel and experience other cultures while creating lifelong memories and friendships.

The Lerner faculty who have been involved say such experiences teach business concepts in a way that couldn’t be done in Newark.

Among those is Bank of America Professor of Business, Professor of Economics Charles Link, who has led many a study abroad voyage. His philosophy is that a study abroad trip needs to offer a different angle — if he could impart the same knowledge on campus, there would be no point in traveling overseas.

Another Economics Professor, James Butkiewicz, said, “I’ll be honest with you, before I got involved, I was not [an] avid believer in experiential learning.”

But that changed after he led multiple sessions abroad from 1991 until 2012. “I sort of felt it needed to be in the classroom … but once I took these trips, and saw the impact on the students, I came to realize how much they got from the trip.”

He believes students internalized these lessons better from a real-world experience than just theory in a classroom — that it stayed with them longer, and they appreciated it more.

How exactly do Lerner’s study abroad experiences shape and change students? Here are some of the ways participants described.

Exposure to new ideas

It’s a bit of a cliche that college is a time to broaden perspectives and confront new ideas about the world. Studying overseas can intensify that experience.

“I think students take for granted the assumptions that we have in the [United] States,” said Stephanie Raible, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Lerner, who has led trips to Germany and Thailand. Those assumptions may not hold in other cultures.

Students can fall into a routine on campus, Raible said, and immersion into a new culture can prompt them to think differently about information they already know.

She cited a trip to Germany where her students learned about enterprises to help refugees, which had sprung up when borders were crowded with people fleeing from Syria and Africa, and how enthusiasm for these projects had begun to wane over time. Students heard from a Syrian refugee who was leading historical tours of Berlin, a tour guide able to share reflections as a person who had actually experienced war. It helped the students come to a deeper realization of the very real needs refugees still have, even though those issues may not be dominating headlines as they once did.

Spalding had a similar observation about her time in Peru and other destinations. “It’s one thing to learn about different countries, different cultures, different foods, different customs,” she said. “It’s another to see it and experience it firsthand.”

Social and cultural differences also make an impression, giving students insights into the adjustments needed for global business.

Assistant Professor of Marketing Suresh Sundaram leads trips to countries like Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, and is able to point out many differences in the way business is done.

Those can be relatively small – like that internet speeds are much slower in Australia than in the U.S., or bigger picture, like higher labor costs spurring automation in Australia and New Zealand. Or students might discover how smaller population size affects exports, how there tend to be fewer brand choices in Australian supermarkets, or even the way New Zealanders can be more blunt in conversations.

UD alumnus Bryan Townsend, Class of 2004, and a Delaware state senator representing District 11, an area south of Newark, traveled to Europe not long after the new millennium. A dean’s scholar with combination studies in philosophy, biology and economics at UD, he recalled how learning about different health care systems in Europe influenced his future approach as a lawmaker: “The idea that there are different systems out there … you should try to learn from what others have tried, or are trying to get it right.”

Townsend said, “I try to take a robust and comparative approach to how I serve, how I write legislation, how I analyze policy. And so much of that comes from experiences like dropping a class of 20 or 25 students into western Europe for four weeks.”

The experiences also help create a new international way of thinking.

A common setup for these overseas trips includes a mix of cultural experiences and visits to various businesses, whether that’s a steel company, a financial institution like the World Bank, an oil company, a school, a hearing aid manufacturer, or the corporate headquarters of a car company.

“We try hard to get them to think as global citizens,” Sandy Fields, retired senior instructor of marketing, said. Fields still leads these trips with her husband Andy, a former associate professor of finance at Lerner.

More than other countries, Sandy said, “We’re kind of sheltered in the U.S. … we focus inward,” a mindset that changes with travel.

“It helps students to start bringing everything together and putting the big picture in place for them,” said Andy Fields. “A lot of our students have said after they’ve come back … they find that they’re able to bring some of the things that they learned on the study abroad trip and apply it into the classroom so they can share with others. So that’s always gratifying for us to hear that kind of thing.”

“What it allows them to learn is that while cultures are different, business practices may be different, but at the end of the day … we’re still dealing with human beings,” Sundaram added.

For Nina Budischak, a Wilmington native who graduated in 2020 with a degree in marketing, that chance to experience the world beyond Delaware’s borders was a big draw. She traveled to Australia and Thailand, then later London.

“I wanted to experience other cultures,” she said. She liked seeing how the businesses and even the class structures differed from their counterparts in the States.

“It’s been such a game changer in my life, just understanding people and where they come from,” Budischak said. In her job as an account executive at Salesforce, she said, “I talk to people all day long, different backgrounds. And just trying to … put your foot in the other person’s shoes, is everything.”

Discovering career possibilities

While Raible’s career as a professor was still in her future, she was able to study abroad herself as a student at UD. She loved it, saying, “It shaped my career, and I spent a collective four years abroad because of it.”

Marin Gemmill, who works to combat fraud as director of the Division of Analytics and Operations for the Social Security Administration, went on three study abroad trips as a student, including a couple with Professor Link. She traveled to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and says her trips were formative to her future as well.

“When we went to Europe, I learned all about the different health care systems in Europe, and it was so eye-opening to me to see how they ran things in a very different way,” Gemmill said. “… That’s one of the reasons I ended up going into health care economics, because I found it so fascinating during that study abroad.”

She even spent some time studying and working at the London School of Economics, where she earned a doctorate, before launching into a longer term, health care related career in the U.S.

“I loved how the study abroad gave you a little taste of the different cultures and a little taste of what these different cities, different parts of the world were like,” Gemmill said.

The students get to meet real life examples of people who have moved overseas to work, including UD alumni, Sandy Fields said, who have similar backgrounds and have made very successful careers.

On her trip to Australia, Budischak’s group visited Salesforce, the company she now works for. “I had no idea at the time,” she said, that she would end up employed there.

The different experiences she had opened her eyes to new possibilities, Budischak said, and helped her consider where she might be able to focus.

Becoming more employable

Carter Broach, a retired instructor in the Department of Business Administration, said he heard from students that when they went to job interviews, companies would almost always ask about their study abroad experience.

“Study abroad separated so many kids from everybody else, so they had something unique to talk about,” said Broach, who led trips for 15 years.

Journeying thousands of miles away into a different culture moves students out of their comfort zones, Sundaram said, helping make them better able to understand people, assimilate to different situations and generally become more effective global managers.

“Companies have placed a significantly higher value on students that have that global exposure, which is part of the reason why we’ve created these programs at UD,” he said.

In talking with employers through his work at UD, Sundaram hears they are looking for adaptability in new college graduates, and the ability to learn.

“I think studying abroad has a significant impact on both of these,” he said.

For a less obvious impact, Sandy Fields also pointed to the benefits of traveling with others, which teaches group dynamics.

“For business, being able to connect with others, and being able to read signs of either their discomfort or their praise … is a very important skill to have.”

And sometimes, a front row seat for history

Professor Link’s students studied economic unification in the European Union in the 90s as the common market took the final steps toward unity and adopting a new currency.

Townsend, who studied under Link, recalls standing on a bridge in London at midnight when Europe finalized its adoption of the euro in the new year of 2002. England stuck with its traditional currency (a sign of things to come), but Townsend remembered, “We fly to Dublin a couple days later, and euros are spitting out of the ATM. And it was just a really cool moment to be there.”

Townshend also got to observe the European context, where cities might experience strong cultural differences despite only being as far apart as, say, Wilmington and New York, and how the countries were grappling with the effort to forge a broader European identity.

More recently, student Carleigh Strange, a senior in finance and marketing, got the chance to study at the American College of Greece in Athens in early 2023. In February, she noticed a lot of students were missing from class, and discovered it was a side effect of the deadliest train crash in Greek history. The collision near the town of Tempi killed more than 50 people and injured many others.

“When that train crash happened, it shut down basically the entire metro system in Greece,” she said, which is a bigger problem in a country so dependent on mass transit. Strange helped do what she could to support the community.

“A lot of people felt the [effects of the] train crash just because a lot of people had family on the train or knew somebody on the train, because it was a very popular route,” Strange said.

Despite the upheaval, she valued her time there.

“The culture, the food, and just the scenery of Greece, it’s so rich and filled with history,” Strange said. She was able to learn from the greater emphasis on work-life balance in that culture, and noted how learning was focused less on textbooks and tests and more around conversations about how to apply marketing tactics.

“Just an all around great experience,” she said.

To anyone who gets the opportunity to study abroad, Gemmill said of her experience, “No regrets, not a single one. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

“Even though we’ve been to so many of these visits numerous times, I walk away with a new piece of knowledge every time,” Sandy Fields said.

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