World Class

Since 1958, studying oveseas has been a highlight for thousands of Stanford students. Now, the University is looking beyond Western Europe to new frontiers--and students are expanding their career options as well as their horizons.

November/December 1996

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World Class

Stanford Overseas Study Program

Few of his students would guess it now, but there was a time in his freshman year when David Kennedy, '63, now one of the nation's preeminent scholars in American history, thought he might become an electrical engineer. That was before Kennedy climbed aboard a chartered plane with the first group of Stanford students bound for Florence, Italy, in the fall of 1960.

"I was a hick kid from Seattle, greener than the spring grass, when suddenly, thanks to Stanford, I was in Italy of all places--the cradle of the Renaissance and my introduction to European history, culture and languages," recalls Kennedy.

So much for engineering.

Kennedy credits history Professor Wayne Vucinich, who was teaching in Florence that quarter, for inspiring him to take up the study of history. "I frequently tell [Vucinich] that if it had not been for his influence, I would by now be a Silicon Valley zillionaire," says Kennedy, whose 1981 book, Over Here: The First World War and American Society, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.

In the 36 years since Kennedy's plane lifted off for Italy, Stanford's Overseas Studies Program has undergone more changes than the hemlines in Milan. Budgets have been cut, academic work re-emphasized, campuses closed and new ones opened in faraway places. Through it all, the popularity of overseas study has diminished somewhat but remains remarkably high given the lure of life on the Farm. About one-quarter of all Stanford students now study at an overseas center, half of what it was in the early '60s.

Today, Stanford has seven overseas sites: Italy, Germany, France, England, Russia, Chile and Japan. Once housed in palatial and pastoral refuges, most of the campuses in Western Europe have moved to major cities: Beutelsbach to Berlin, Tours to Paris, Cliveden to Oxford. Almost all overseas students now live with families and immerse themselves in the languages and customs of their host countries. They convene at the bustling "study centers" to trade stories and take classes. And the academic work--once incidental to tourism for many students--is now surprisingly intense. Up to half of the students at some centers are using the time to work on their senior honors theses, and many opt to stay extra quarters to do internships.

The biggest change in overseas studies, though, is in the geographic scope of the program. Once exclusively West European, the program has branched out in recent years to include centers in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Far East. There is even talk of establishing a campus in Beijing, just one element in Stanford's broader effort to raise its profile in Asia.

Why the turnabout? One reason is that today's sophisticated students are looking less for adventure and more for ways to widen their career paths. Many are seasoned world travelers before they ever get to Stanford--indeed, a growing number come from international families themselves--and they want more for their education dollar than a chance to see the Louvre and the Acropolis.

The financial markets also have played a role in the program's redirection. The sharp fall in the value of the U.S. dollar and sustained inflation in Europe created pressure to cut University expenditures in that region. Between 1972 and '74 alone, the World Studies Data Bank reported that average annual costs for academic programs abroad rose 22 percent, from $1,857 to $2,370. Over the years, the cost of maintaining large residential enclaves, particularly in Europe, has become less and less feasible.

Perhaps the most important explanation for the evolution of the program is that the world itself has changed. "Parts of the world that in the '60s were genuinely exotic to Americans have become familiar," says Russell Berman, professor of German studies and the director of Stanford's Overseas Studies Program. Russia, Asia and Latin America have emerged in commerce and culture. "For example, in the career life of current undergraduates, the opportunities in Russia are going to be enormous," says Berman. "We would be remiss in our duties if we weren't pursuing opportunities there."

At the same time, Stanford's interests have grown increasingly global. Professors have built up expertise and contacts around the world and have not been shy about lobbying for overseas centers that more accurately reflect their areas of strength.

Humble Beginnings

Stanford's Overseas Studies Program was a natural outgrowth of a late 1950s shake-up in the undergraduate curriculum. Under those new requirements, all students in the humanities and social sciences were required to take some courses in the natural sciences, and vice versa. A number of professors wanted to go further. Political science Professor Emeritus Robert Walker remembers sitting down with German Professor Wilhelm Strothmann in 1957 to think about "how we could get Stanford students overseas, to expose them to different ways of life and attitudes."

At the time, Walker says, few Stanford students had any experience outside the United States. Air travel was still a luxury, and the previous generation of students who had served overseas during World War II had come and gone. Walker and Strothmann found a ready ally in Stanford's Canadian-born president, Wallace Sterling. Recalls Fred Glover, who worked as Sterling's assistant: "We felt that Stanford students were somewhat isolated and needed to heighten and broaden their horizons. We wanted to teach courses overseas that could be taught better there. We wanted to expose students to a foreign culture; give them fluency" in a second language.

While the concept of a junior year abroad had long been a feature of American higher education, the Stanford approach was unique. The idea was a program so flexible and affordable that virtually any undergraduate with a little language preparation could participate, even premeds or engineering students with heavy major requirements. Under the leadership of Walker, who became its first director, the Overseas Studies Program was arranged so that general studies requirements could be met at the foreign campuses, allowing students to continue making normal progress toward their bachelor's degrees. "We also decided that we could have two Stanford faculty members in residence, and we determined that we could do the whole thing for the same tuition, room and board as we did on the home campus," Walker, now 82, says proudly.

The first Stanford overseas campus opened in June 1958 at Landgut Burg, a 30-acre estate on a hilltop near Beutelsbach, Germany, 14 miles outside Stuttgart. Two years later, campuses in Tours and Florence were established, followed by an English campus at Harlaxton Manor, about 100 miles from London, an Austrian campus at the Panhans, a ski resort 110 miles from Vienna, and a Spanish program in Salamanca. (The English campus moved to Cliveden House on the River Thames in 1969, and then to Oxford in 1984; the Austrian site moved to Caritas in downtown Vienna in 1967, and then closed 20 years later, a victim of budget cuts.)

Palo Alto attorney Toby Montgomery, '61, and her husband David Montgomery, '60, the Kresge Professor of Marketing at the Graduate School of Business, were in that first group of students to attend the Beutelsbach campus--and one of three couples from that year to marry. The German campus was so unusual for its time, Toby recalls, that its grand opening was attended by international dignitaries and covered in Time magazine. She still has a copy of the issue, with her photo in it.

"It was a life-forming event, definitely," she says. "My husband and I were both poor kids from small towns, and to be able to study in Europe was monumental. If you look back at that first group of students, they've been amazingly successful. Well over half of us went on to graduate school, and many of us stayed lifelong friends."

In many ways, Stanford's Overseas Studies Program presaged more liberal trends on the Palo Alto campus. Co-ed housing, for example, was the norm 

overseas from the beginning. Wine was served with dinner, and the informal faculty-student bonds forged overseas later inspired academic theme houses on the home campus. Many traditions that students now take for granted--the Viennese Ball, for example, or the practice of hanging huge BEAT CAL banners on architectural landmarks --had their beginnings overseas.

During the heyday of overseas study in the late '60s, Stanford was sending about half its undergraduates abroad, more than any other university in the country. In repeated surveys, seniors cited the experience as the highlight of their college education. After Walker retired in 1973, his successor, history Professor Mark Mancall, credited him for building a program that, "for significant numbers of Stanford students, provided the first introduction to another culture, and this was an important development in the history of the University."

End of the Enclaves

The Vietnam era brought growing pains for the overseas program. Like many campus institutions, Overseas Studies suffered from declining student interest during the war. Dramatic changes on the Palo Alto campus, including relaxed liquor regulations, co-ed and theme housing and a burgeoning political activism, gave students less incentive to leave home. In 1968, overseas centers operated at 96 percent capacity; by 1972, that figure had plummeted to 67 percent. Those who did go became increasingly restless with the isolation of the enclaves and the strict regulations that held them there during the week.

Those travel restrictions were finally loosened in the early '70s, and the students returned. They quicky learned they could meet the workload and still strap on a backpack and head off for a four-day weekend. "I'm not saying that Cliveden wasn't an academic challenge--a lot of students got a tremendous amount out of Cliveden," says Geoffrey Tyack, the current director of Stanford-in-Oxford who began teaching history at Cliveden in 1972. "But I also know for a fact that there were a lot of people for whom it was a pretty lightweight intellectual experience. I remember saying to students, 'See you in class next week,' and they'd say, 'Oh, I'm going to be in Greece.' "

The key, most faculty agreed, was to create an overseas program so intellectually compelling that students would be standing in line to apply for their passports. Mancall got the ball rolling in 1975 with a new German study center in Berlin that allowed some students to live in apartments and take courses at local universities. (Community-based housing eventually became the norm at most overseas centers.) He also worked to toughen academic standards. Students still could travel all they wanted, but classes, now more rigorous, would meet five days a week. The three-week travel breaks between quarters were jettisoned in favor of longer semesters.

Under Mancall's successor, law Professor Thomas Heller, change came even more swiftly. In the five years from 1987-92, budget woes and new priorities transformed the program: Vienna and Salamanca were closed, Florence was downsized, the Tours program merged with Paris and new study centers opened in Kyoto and Santiago. Heller spelled out his other priorities in a controversial 1987 report to the Faculty Senate. He spent the next half-decade carrying out this vision: an increased focus on the Pacific Rim and Eastern Europe, more frequent student contact with host cultures and educational institutions, and even more demanding coursework.

Getting Serious

Those who study abroad these days are more likely to carry portable computers than backpacks. Chitra Deshpande, '96, exemplifies today's focused overseas student. A Russian history and food research major, she was required to take a one-on-one tutorial at Oxford. "Writing a paper a week for eight weeks can be mentally and physically draining, but I never got to the point of doing myself in. I was doing research on a subject I chose myself for a tutorial designed according to my personal interests and passions," she says. "Through tutorials I was able to study Hindu philosophy, do a close reading of the Mahabharata and do research on the national identity of the Sakhalin Koreans, which became the
topic of my senior honors thesis."

Students with more vocational interests have another good reason to go overseas these days: the chance to do internships with cutting-edge foreign companies. Stanford's program in Berlin recently placed its 500th student intern with a German company; work sites have included Siemens, BMW, the Munich State Opera and even Babelsberg Studios, the German equivalent of Hollywood. In Kyoto, at the Stanford Center for Technology and Innovation, students spend fully half their time in internships at Japanese and multinational firms. The rest is spent on coursework in fields including comparative industrial organization and global political economics.

"My experience in Kyoto, and much more so the subsequent internship at Fujitsu near Tokyo, has given me advantages beyond my imagination," says Robert Chang, '92. Chang believes the language skills he picked up overseas--he's fluent in Japanese--have proved particularly beneficial to his work at Silicon Graphics Inc. in Mountain View. "We have Japanese partners from NEC and Toshiba working with us. Their English is usually marginally useful in everyday communication, and I've facilitated the communication between management and Japanese partners here on more than a few occasions," he says.

Jonathan Huston, '95, arrived at Stanford-in-Moscow in the midst of the country's tumultuous parliamentary elections last year. He figured he would learn a lot in Moscow, but it probably wouldn't be much fun. Says Huston: "It turned out I was right on the first count, but couldn't have been farther off the mark on the second."

What made the quarter worthwhile, he says, is how each experience built on the previous one, making his overseas education seem more integrated than his disparate classes and social life back on the Farm. "We would learn about the historical context of the Communist revolution in our history class or through our own independent reading; we would hear a guest speaker from a political party explain the party's platform; we would wander the streets of Moscow and spontaneously stumble upon a Communist or nationalist rally at Revolution Square or in front of the Russian White House," he says. "Then we would return home for dinner and hear our host families explain whom they were planning on voting for and why."

Such testimonials are Musik to the ears of Berman, the current director of Overseas Studies. Since succeeding Heller in 1992, it's been his job to nurse the new European centers to strength--as well as to oversee the 1993 launch of Moscow. Berman maintains that the difficult pruning of the past decade is beginning to bear fruit. Moving the Tours classes to Paris, he says, actually has strengthened the academic program for students of all levels of fluency, while the smaller center in Florence just scored a major coup with the hiring of a new director, the former head of Brown University's program in Bologna.

Best of all, says Berman, the overall proportion of students going overseas is inching up again. "It's not going back up to the 50 percent of the '60s," he says, "but I'm hopeful that we will be at 33 percent by the end of this decade."

Like many alumni who boarded chartered planes years ago on the journey of a lifetime, historian Kennedy has mixed feelings about the changes in Overseas Studies. He's all for the expansion into Asia and Latin America, and he acknowledges that a somewhat smaller student population is "probably intellectually better served than we were."

At the same time, Kennedy worries that the tougher requirements are making it harder for Overseas Studies to attract a broad band of students. As much as anyone, he knows how studying abroad can make a big difference in the lives of Stanford students--"callow louts like me included."

Theresa Johnston, '83, is a freelance writer in Palo Alto. She attended Stanford-in-Cliveden in the fall of 1982.

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