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Studying abroad, SkillsUSA alumni put their leadership skills to the test, but learning how to communicate is half the fun

By Ann P. Schreiber

TIPS FOR GETTING ACCEPTED Applying for an overseas study experience? Jacob Donnelly (above, in London) suggests:

  • Make sure you write well
  • Have someone proofread your application
  • Get advice from professors who know about the particular experience for which you are applying
  • Find professors who can write you good recommendations

There’s nowhere to hide when you’re the only student in class. That’s one of many things Jacob Donnelly is learning in his international development class at England’s Oxford University.

“The classes are very different,” he explains. “Oxford uses what they call a tutorial system. So, I have a class size of one. My professor and I meet once a week. He asks me a question, and if I can answer it, then he asks a harder question. It’s a very good way to study at your own level, but it’s also very hard. There’s a lot of arguing and debating.

“Meeting one-on-one is a different experience. There’s nowhere to hide. You have to do all your reading. If you don’t do an assignment, he knows. And you can’t not go to class.”

The business management major began his studies abroad through Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. To qualify, he had to become an honors student. He’s already completed a program at the London School of Economics plus an internship with an Internet service provider. He started at Oxford in September.

While a SkillsUSA national officer back in 1999-2000, Donnelly studied culinary arts at Tri-County Regional Vocational-Technical High School in Franklin, Mass. The experience helps as he works at a restaurant in Oxford.

“There are language barriers,” he notes. “They know I’m an American.”

Things are different in England, and the student admits to suffering some culture shock. Challenges aside, he’s tried to immerse himself in the local culture … and the River Thames, too.

“I do crew,” he says. “Every morning, five days a week, we go rowing in all weather conditions, and the weather in England is not the nicest weather in the world. It’s 6 a.m., it’s raining, the boathouse at the river is a mile-and-a-half walk, but I do it. It’s what they do here.”

The skills he learned as a SkillsUSA officer have helped him adapt to England.

“Learning to work in adverse situations and learning to go with the flow, that’s what has helped me here the most,” he adds.

“My experiences traveling around the U.S. taught me to respect different cultures.”

Having an Eiffel time in Paris

Visiting London? Do stand on the spot where kings and queens have been crowned and marvel at the history that has occurred there. Visiting Paris? Don’t stand under the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day wearing a Horned Frogs sweatshirt from Texas Christian University.

These travel tips are brought to you by Niki Clausen (pictured on the bear's left with friend at the Tower of London), who, through a TCU program, studied sociology in London last summer. One weekend, she traveled to Paris with friends and visited the tower on the French equivalent of Independence Day. Her sweatshirt sporting the Horned Frogs mascot caught the eye of a man who asked if he could take a picture of her. He remarked that she was making a strong political statement.

Clausen was unaware that “frogs” is a derogatory term dating from the 1800s, when the French were derided as frog eaters. Upset by her faux pas, she wore her shirt inside-out for the rest of her visit.

Other than that little blunder, Clausen says she “loved every minute” of her experience abroad. In a class that ran four days a week for three weeks, she was one of 20 students in a cross-discipline course on criminal justice, sociology and business administration.

Students met each morning for lectures and in-class work, then spent the afternoons touring the places discussed in class. When the royal hierarchy was the lesson of the day, they visited Buckingham Palace. When it was Shakespeare, they visited the Globe Theater.

“The best part was getting to see all the things that I learned about and putting them into perspective,” Clausen says.

After her class ended, she was joined by her mother, Neva, a SkillsUSA advisor at Lebanon (Ore.) High School. The two spent the next 10 days touring England and Scotland.

While a 1998-99 SkillsUSA national officer, Niki Clausen studied commercial baking at Cascade High School in Turner, Ore. She graduated from college in December with a double major in speech communications and sociology. She’s now a post-baccalaureate student at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where she’ll begin a master’s program in education in June. Clausen hopes to be teacher and SkillsUSA advisor by June 2004.

SkillsUSA is in her blood, and she says it gave her the confidence to survive her international experience.

“I knew I could handle myself. I had done so much travel before. For some of my companions, this was their first time traveling. Some didn’t know how to handle their finances, use credit cards or take care of themselves.”

Czech your language skills

Language and leadership are critical survival skills, particularly when you’re a student at Prague’s Charles University.

“I found that throughout Europe, when you go there and try to live the culture, everything from food to art and even learning about architecture, your major barrier to understanding is language,” says Tom Boyer, who completed a full 16-credit semester in December. His main focus at Charles was language, and he earned 13 credits in that area alone.

“My language course was offered Monday through Thursday, three hours a day, and consisted of only four students. Being so small, it was much more detail oriented, and the interaction was ideal. It made learning Czech much easier,” he adds.

Boyer, a photography major at the University of Nevada at Reno, also studied art and architecture at Charles. His three-hour-long classes consisted of one hour of lecture and two hours of touring. The artists and architects studied were strictly from the Czech Republic area.

“We didn’t do the ‘Americanized’ version of the experience abroad, with all the students speaking English all the time,” he explains. “We lived on our own and had a much more local experience.”

Boyer, who stayed at the apartment of a friend’s family for six months, notes that “because my friend knows the language very well, that made things a little easier.”

Learning the language was the highlight of his visit. “You can adapt to the culture more easily, as well as understand it,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to speak to the locals and learn about the community.”

For Boyer, experience as a SkillsUSA national officer in 1998-99 helped during his studies abroad and in meeting people.

“The leadership skills that I learned through SkillsUSA, mostly the speaking skills, enabled me to get the information required to go to Prague in the first place. And, it gave me the courage to speak to the locals,” he adds, “even though I knew I was going to foul up the language.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Spring 2003 | Volume 37, No. 3
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