Arts & Culture

Fieldwork, community service key in study abroad

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Long lines at the airport customs desk? Blame those Harvard undergraduates — in the 2006-07 academic year alone, 1,458 students had an international experience of some kind. While summer travel has historically been the most popular option, increasing numbers of undergraduates are choosing to spend a full semester abroad.

This month, the Office of International Programs welcomed back 109 students who spent the fall term overseas. The road home to Harvard led from destinations as diverse and far-flung as China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Spain, and Northern Ireland. Regardless of the location, students found that field-based learning and community service are an integral and rewarding aspect of the study abroad experience.

“Innovative field study and research programs allow students to follow their desire for hands-on experience, cultural immersion, and an education in global issues from the perspective of another society,” said Cathy Winnie, director of the Office of International Programs. “Through interdisciplinary experiences like these, undergraduates transform themselves from students of the global community to full and active participants.”

Geology in Chile

If the true culture of a place lies below the surface, then Roger Fu ’09 has the ultimate perspective on Chile. Fu, a joint concentrator in Earth and planetary sciences and astronomy, chose to spend a semester in Santiago exploring the geological attractions of the region.

“Chile has a tectonically active subduction zone,” Fu said. “That means [that] unlike North America, where the mountain ranges are essentially static, the mountains in Chile are still in the building process.”

Fu found Santiago and the surrounding region to be the perfect setting for classroom study and fieldwork. With the support of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, he enrolled full time at the University of Chile and the Catholic University of Santiago. There, Fu took courses in astronomy, geology, climatology, and ecology.

“The lecture format was supplemented with fieldwork components,” said Fu. “It was so exciting to get out into the countryside, to see elements of the world I never thought existed.”

He also joined an organization of student geologists that took weekend field trips and participated in a national geology convention.

“We basically just went to go look at rocks,” Fu said, “but it was so much fun to share the experience with Chilean students.”

Fu continued his geological fieldwork after the semester ended, traveling to Argentina to work with a geophysics professor on a program organized by Cornell University and the University of Buenos Aires. The program was located in the western part of the country near the Andes mountain range.

Fu described the work in Argentina as “absolutely wonderful.”

“We dug holes for seismic stations that will help researchers to better image subducting plates, or the movement of the Earth’s crust,” said Fu.

The research station was located in a rural village of about 100 people. Fu and his colleagues lived in rustic cabins.

“South America is a frontier in many ways because it is so sparsely populated,” said Fu. “It was remarkable to live and work there.”

Traditional medicine in Mexico

Traditional health practices can often be at odds with modern medicine, particularly when it comes to childbirth. In Mexico, for example, women from rural, indigenous communities follow age-old birthing practices that bear little resemblance to those at urban hospitals. One result, unfortunately, is a higher infant mortality rate.

Recently, the Mexican Ministry of Health has sought to improve rural health care through education. By adding modern techniques to existing care practices, the government hopes to reduce infant mortality and improve quality of life among indigenous communities. Louizza Martinez ’09 witnessed firsthand the fruits of the program during a semester abroad in Cholula, Mexico.

Martinez, an anthropology concentrator, studied at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla in south-central Mexico. She took courses in anthropology, physics, and Náhuatl, the language of the region. Her curriculum also included a course on medical anthropology, in which Martinez studied conceptions of illness, healing practices, and the use of herbal medicine. But it was the time spent outside the classroom — and in the field — that truly opened her eyes to the complicated relationship between traditional and modern medicine.

Every other weekend, Martinez boarded a bus in Cholula for a bumpy three-hour ride into the Sierre Norte mountains. There, she served as a volunteer in several “hospitalos mixtos,” hospitals that provide modern care but also conserve traditional practices. Funded by the government, the hospitals are part of a pilot program that, if successful, will be implemented throughout the country.

“The program in Mexico is really part of a pan-Latin effort,” explained Martinez. “In 2001, nine Latin American countries signed an agreement in the hopes of initiating development in various sectors.”

In the course of her fieldwork, Martinez learned about the history of indigenous medicine, as well as how to make herbal medicines and prepare ointments herself.

She became particularly interested in how childbirth could be made safer by the intersection of the traditional and the modern.

“Gynecologists are working with midwives to help decrease infant mortality,” Martinez explained. “For example, many midwives don’t have the opportunity to bathe on a regular basis, but the gynecologists will come and emphasize the importance of maintaining hygiene prior to and during birth.”

According to Martinez, several of the birthing rooms have special features to accommodate traditional preferences.

“Many women in this region like to give birth standing up because they find it less painful,” she said. “It has also been proven to be ergonomically beneficial for the mother and the baby.” To allow for that, the hospital built showerlike stalls where a woman can stand and hold on to cross bars for support while pushing.

“The stalls are sterile,” Martinez said, “so it’s a thousand times better than giving birth in the middle of the woods, holding on to a tree.”

After giving birth, the women spend time in adobe saunas known as temazcales.

“The saunas help to cleanse their bodies and relax their muscles,” Martinez explained.

The fieldwork experience had such an impact on Martinez that she hopes to make it the subject of her senior thesis.

“I’d like to go back and do more research this summer,” she said. “I want to further investigate the success of mixed hospitals, or maybe study how herbal medicines are marketed.”

Martinez also hopes that additional research will shed more light on how divergent medical practices can best be reconciled.

“Simply dividing the two in half does not take into account deeper issues of socioeconomic class, gender relations, and politics,” she said. “I don’t advocate total integration of traditional and Western medicine, but neither do I think they should be totally separated.”

Further down the road, Martinez would like to obtain an M.D. or an M.D./Ph.D. so that she can give back to the community in a more concrete way and continue to work in medical anthropology.

“As an anthropologist I feel like I’m taking a lot from these people,” she said. “Yes, I write about them, but I’d like to actually give something in return, like medical care.”

Excavating in Ethiopia

More than 3 million years ago, the first hominids stood upright and roamed the Rift Valley of east Africa, leaving their bipedal footprints not just on the sun-baked landscape but on the arc of history as well.

This fall, Rebekah Kharrazi ’09 had the opportunity to follow in those footprints on a field study program in Hadar, Ethiopia. From geology to human evolution, Kharrazi studied a range of disciplines that enabled her to connect intimately with one of Earth’s richest archaeological regions.

Hadar is located in the Afar region of Ethiopia, a dry and forbidding spot where temperatures soar past 115 degrees and the nearest village is an hour’s drive away. It is best known as the location where the famous hominid skeleton “Lucy” was discovered in 1974. With the support of Arizona State University, Kharrazi and 15 other students had the opportunity to live and work on the same soil that was once home to the earliest hominids.

“Home” for Kharrazi — who concentrates in human evolutionary biology — was a cluster of tents powered by solar energy. Showers were makeshift bladder bags, warmed by the afternoon sun. Contact with the outside world was limited, typically to a once-per-week phone call on the satellite phone. With no e-mail, it was a far cry from hyperconnected Cambridge.

Despite the physical privations, said Kharrazi, Hadar was rich in academic excitement.

“The program was designed so that we were able to rotate through four academic disciplines,” Kharrazi said.

They began with archaeology, excavating areas littered with artifacts and stone tools.

“When the archaeology unit began I had no idea what I was looking for,” Kharrazi said. “But by the end I could look at a piece of lithic technology and tell you … what it may have been used for.”

Other units of study included geology and paleontology.

“We were kept pretty busy during the paleontology portion of the curriculum,” said Kharrazi. “In some areas, every two feet you could find a fossil of a hippo or an elephant.” The fossils discovered during that unit were donated to a museum in Addis Ababa.

Most exciting for Kharrazi, however, was the portion of the curriculum that focused on human evolution.

“We were looking for prehuman fossils — teeth and bones,” she said. “It was incredibly difficult.”

But the painstaking search proved fruitful.

“We found a partial jawbone of an Australopithecus,” said Kharrazi. The find was particularly exciting for Kharrazi’s group because the bone appeared to be from a female skeleton. Most Australopithecus fossils found in the Hadar region are assumed to have come from males.

“It was so incredible to be able to add to the fossil record,” Kharrazi said.

For Kharrazi, the hands-on approach to learning was the principal reason she chose to study abroad.

“I didn’t want to just go to another university and sit in a classroom,” she said. “I wanted to be out in the field, living it and breathing it.”

Teaching in China

Capitalism. Entrepreneurship. Economic growth. In the media as of late, buzzwords about China seem to focus exclusively on one thing: business. But a nation of almost 10 million square kilometers and more than 1.3 billion people cannot possibly be defined by economics alone, as Marianna Tu ’09 discovered this fall.

Tu studied in Yunnan, a province in southwest China that borders Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Tibet. Yunnan is geographically diverse, with a subtropical region in the south and snow-capped mountains in the north. Tu’s program, run by the School for International Training, focused on the ethnic minorities of the region.

“I wanted to get to know a side of China that was different from what most people focus on — the eastern, urban areas that draw attention for their business development,” said Tu. “There is a huge income gap in China and I wanted to focus on those who are left behind.”

Yunnan proved to be an excellent place to do so. Tu visited rural villages, Buddhist monasteries, and sacred mountains. She met people representing a variety of ethnic groups, including Tibetans, Dais, and Naxis.

“Yunnan is rural China,” she explained. “There are many people who live without plumbing; who still make their living farming rice.”

Along with other program members, Tu was able to participate in a harvest. She gathered up and tied bushels of rice, then loaded them onto trucks for delivery elsewhere.

“We helped for three hours and it was so hard I never want to do that again,” Tu said. “But there are old women who harvest rice for eight hours a day, loading the bushels into baskets that they carry by a strap across the forehead.”

During her homestay in Shaxi, a rural rice-farming town, Tu was so inspired by the people she met that she decided to start an English-language education program. She already had the tools at her fingertips, having taught English in Wangcun (a village 200 miles southwest of Shanghai) as a volunteer with Learning Enterprises the summer after her freshman year.

“A fellow student and I thought it would be wonderful to establish the same program in Yunnan,” Tu said.

According to Tu, the village was receptive.

“Everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “We met with government officials and the head of education in the town to establish the program, and it was clear they were very excited to see it launch.”

Now that she is back on campus, Tu has begun recruiting teachers for Learning Enterprises. She has also become involved with Harvard China Care, an organization that sends interns to orphanages, raises money for orphans’ surgeries, and offers mentoring programs in Cambridge for children adopted from China.

“By volunteering, then studying abroad, and then taking Harvard classes or participating in Harvard activities you can approach a culture from so many different angles,” Tu explained.