Campus & Community

Study abroad students have lots to say, in lots of languages

8 min read

Every fall, Harvard Yard comes alive with conversation as students greet old friends and recount how they spent the summer break. This year, with nearly 300 students participating in study abroad programs run by the Harvard Summer School, these encounters likely featured more foreign phrases and more exotic locales than in days past.

Under the Summer School’s auspices, undergraduates traveled to a wide range of destinations in the Middle East, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, and Africa. The 25 programs of study were as diverse as the countries themselves, allowing undergraduates to explore everything from anthropology to filmmaking, biology to language, technology to culture to history.

“Our hope is that study away from Harvard Yard will not only bring students a new appreciation of the diversity and wonder to be found in the wider world, but also allow students to learn about themselves,” said Donald H. Pfister, dean of the Harvard Summer School, Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, and curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium. “These new views better prepare students to be global citizens.”

Here is a closer look at three of the summer programs — in St. Petersburg, Scandinavia, and Tokyo.

Russian language and cultural study in St. Petersburg

George Thampy ’10 can recall precisely when he became interested in studying Russian.

“I read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ for the first time when I was 12 years old,” he said. “The passion and vitality of Dostoevsky’s prose struck me with such power that ever since then, I have wanted to read the book in its original language.”

This summer, Thampy finally fulfilled that goal. He also had the opportunity to do something he never imagined — walk in the footsteps of the famous Russian author.

Along with other students enrolled in the Harvard Summer Program in St. Petersburg, Thampy toured the house where Dostoevsky was born, the apartment in which he lived, and the squares he frequented more than a century ago. The outing was just one of several.

“It was remarkable that we were able to literally walk in the footsteps of the greatest writers of this country,” said Thampy.

The seven-week program of study was led by Julie Buckler, professor of Slavic languages and literatures, and Vladimir Gitin, senior language preceptor in the same department. Students took intensive Russian language courses and studied the nation’s imperial culture from literary, architectural, musical, and theatrical perspectives.  The classroom work, at the Nevsky Institute of Language and Culture, was interlaced with regular excursions throughout the city.

“I incorporated the city as a teaching tool by linking our work with literary texts to the cultural history of the specific neighborhoods and by giving assignments that required students to do on-the-ground observation in the city,” said Buckler. “My sense was that the more the program moved its activities out of the physical classroom, the more satisfying students found it.”

All participants were housed with Russian families, giving students the opportunity to practice their language skills. Courtney Skinner ’10, who arrived in St. Petersburg as a self-described “beginner,” found that her learning curve was steepest at the dinner table.

“Our host mom was very friendly and curious about our lives, so we had the opportunity to practice Russian a lot at dinner,” she said.

Mealtime also gave Skinner an authentic — if sometimes unusual — taste of Russian culture.

“Our host mom prepared lots of different Russian foods,” she said. “Every once in a while she would serve us a dish and we wouldn’t be quite sure how to eat it.”

Cold vegetable soup — with carbonated soda for the broth — was one menu item that gave Skinner and her roommate pause.

“We tried pretty much everything, including the soup,” Skinner said, “because our host mom worked so hard to make the experience positive.”

Viking studies in Denmark, Germany, and Sweden

History has not been kind to the Vikings. The medieval explorers tend to get a pretty bad rap in the popular imagination as murderous, pillaging, funny-hat-wearing heathens. To a certain extent, says Stephen Mitchell, professor of Scandinavian and folklore, those appellations are deserved.

“Many Vikings were pirates — awful people by any measure,” Mitchell said. “But there’s another side to the story, which is that there were plenty of people who had nothing to do with those activities. Part of the fun [of studying the era] is just trying to make sense of what they were up to.”

The “other side of the story” was a feature of the Harvard Summer Program in Scandinavia, led by Mitchell. Traveling through Denmark, Germany, and Sweden, students explored the archaeological and literary heritage of the Vikings to discover a culture far more complex than previously imagined.

The program began in Århus, Denmark’s second-largest city. There, students were introduced to the material legacy of the Vikings through archaeological studies. They visited burial mounds and examined foreign artifacts that the Vikings had brought back from their trade routes in the east. Students also studied the Vikings’ narrative legacy in a range of sources, from skaldic (court) poetry to sagas.

“Prior to the trip, I had a conception of Viking culture which overemphasized their association with warfare and undervalued their importance as traders and explorers,” said Robert Cross ’11. “Examining the hoards of Arab silver and many other foreign artifacts the Vikings brought back to Scandinavia, while learning much more about Viking involvement in Iceland, Greenland, and North America, helped me gain a greater understanding of the multidimensional nature of the Viking identity.”

From Århus students journeyed to Roskilde, a medieval city on the island of Zealand. The group saw five Viking ships that had been excavated from a nearby fjord, and tried their hand at rowing on a replica model.

“This outing helped give us a visceral understanding of the importance of the sea in Viking thought and culture,” said Cross.

The program culminated in the Swedish city of Visby, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island of Gotland.

“The city is full of preserved medieval structures and still has the original wall surrounding it,” said Maisie Clark ‘09. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”

While Clark enjoyed her studies of Viking history, she also found plenty to learn from contemporary Scandinavian culture.

“There is a sense of open-mindedness and egalitarianism that is quite impressive,” Clark said. “People treat each other very well. They are focused on family, happiness, and wellbeing — not necessarily on how much money you have. It’s a wonderful model for living.”

Neurobiological study and research at Tokyo’s Brain Science Institute

The RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) near Tokyo is a renowned research center that boasts 55 laboratories and a host of international scholars, all at the cutting edge of neuroscience.

But when Takao Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology, first heard of RIKEN BSI, it was nothing more than a big idea.

“Twelve years ago I was invited to Japan as a new laboratory head to help build BSI,” Hensch said. “We started with just eight or nine labs. I have watched it grow up, literally from nothing.”

A decade of labor — and patience — has proved rewarding. Now, Hensch is watching as RIKEN welcomes a new generation of budding scientists from Harvard College. For the past two summers, a select group of undergraduates has been invited to complete intensive neuroscience research at the institute.

“It is a dream for me to bring College students to RIKEN,” Hensch said. “It’s rare for them to have an opportunity to study abroad in the sciences, because there are often a lot of unknowns about the facilities and the quality of experience. But I know that RIKEN can provide first-class science internships.”

Students on the 10-week program this summer engaged in independent research projects under the supervision of tenured professors and postdoctoral students. In keeping with the research goals of the institute, they focused on four key areas: understanding, protecting, creating, and nurturing the brain.

Kunal Raygor ’10 studied Alzheimer’s disease with Japanese professor Takaomi C. Saido.

“We focused on enzymes that can break down the disease’s toxic agent, known as beta-amyloid, in the brain,” he said. Raygor’s research at RIKEN complemented work he had done previously for Rudolph Tanzi, Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Child Neurology and Mental Retardation at Harvard Medical School.

“Dr. Tanzi was very supportive of my plans to go to Japan,” said Raygor. “He actually knew Dr. Saido professionally — they have attended the same conferences — so it was nice to have an established connection. I will certainly be able to continue the work I started in Japan now that I am back at Harvard.”

In addition to their research duties, students attended an intensive lecture series at the midpoint of the summer. They heard 20 lectures by neuroscience scholars from across the world, each with a different perspective on brain development, disorders, or repair.

“It was amazing to be at the cutting edge, to hear from experts whose work will propel the entire field forward,” Raygor said.

Scientific discoveries were not the only highlights of the summer for the Harvard scientists. Living and working on the RIKEN campus, many of the undergraduates made strong connections with Japanese postdoctoral students.

“I got to know the researchers I worked with very well,” Raygor said, “not just through talking about science, but because they invited me to their homes for dinners and introduced me to their friends. I felt like family by the end.”