World of difference

Alumni recall the study abroad experiences that helped shape them

Featured photo
Photo by Scott DuPre Mills, Ph.D.

When Jackie Cantwell was an undergraduate painting and printmaking major at Virginia Commonwealth University, she studied abroad one summer in Peru. She spent most of her time in the city of Cusco and developed a habit of visiting a picturesque square there between classes. Cantwell found the scenery in the square profoundly inspiring, rich with compelling subjects and scenery, and she filled her sketchbook with drawings. 

Cantwell’s presence one day attracted the attention of some local children. They approached to watch what she was doing and to ask her questions. Cantwell, who speaks Spanish, answered their questions and asked some of her own. She offered them pencils and paper so they could create their own artworks. Out of this, a daily routine developed. Cantwell would bring her art supplies to the town square and share them with any children who approached her. She began to create laid-back lesson plans, giving the kids ideas and instruction to help them with their efforts. For Cantwell, a new passion was born. 

Jackie Cantwell in Peru.
Jackie Cantwell in Peru.

Today, among other projects, Cantwell helps run an after-school art program in Brooklyn. In addition, she has traveled extensively and established art programs in Guatemala and Honduras during extended stays in each country. Even on a recent trip to Egypt for a wedding, she set aside time to volunteer with an art program. 

“My time in Peru really sparked an inspiration for me to continue with art education,” she said. “It was such a huge experience for me.” 

Cantwell’s story exemplifies the unique potential of an education abroad program. When students leave their customary surroundings, they enter into a rare atmosphere that stimulates discovery. The experience can add a fresh depth to their education or send them in an entirely new direction, revealing interests or purposes that they had not yet explored. Off campus, outside of their home country, the world becomes both a larger and smaller place at once — encompassing more than they realized, while becoming more accessible and connected than they dreamed. 

Students in Jackie Cantwell’s study abroad group explore Peru.
Students in Jackie Cantwell’s study abroad group explore Peru.

“Most students who go abroad say their goal is to learn about another culture, and most of them do that,” said Stephanie Tignor, director of education abroad in the VCU Global Education Office. “But they also come back having learned so much about themselves. What their strengths and weaknesses are, what their interests are, what it means to be an American. And what their identity is in this greater world that we live in.” 

Last year, 641 VCU students studied abroad through a variety of programs and exchanges offered or coordinated through the Global Education Office. The programs have influenced students from a full array of disciplines and backgrounds over the years, and some of the programs have become beloved and steadfast parts of the curriculum. For instance, Cantwell’s education abroad in Peru was part of an annual trip that has been led for 20 years by Javier Tapia, associate professor of painting and printmaking in the VCU School of the Arts. Peru is one of two VCU education abroad trips celebrating a two-decade anniversary this year, joining a summer program in Barbados spearheaded by Bernard Moitt, Ph.D., professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences

Professor Javier Tapia in Peru.
Professor Javier Tapia in Peru.

Tignor said part of the joy of working on education abroad programs is encountering stories such as Cantwell’s. 

“It’s the power of experiential learning,” she said. “Hands-on, high-impact learning experiences can truly be transformative for students. It’s so awesome. We hear these stories every day, and we never get tired of them.”

Finding a focus

Autumn Barrett was a relatively inexperienced international traveler when she signed up for the Barbados trip. Perhaps it was that relative greenness that led to her missing her flight — by an entire day.

Fortunately, Moitt and the Global Education Office were quick to help with new arrangements to ensure that Barrett, who had simply written down the wrong date in her calendar for her flight, got to Barbados as soon as possible. 

“I’m really glad they did because that trip changed my life completely,” Barrett said. 

Barrett, a history major who had returned to VCU after earning a previous undergraduate degree in psychology, embarked on that flight for Barbados still trying to figure out her academic and career path. She was working full time during her return to school, but knew she ultimately wanted to pursue graduate studies. She just couldn’t figure out in what field, despite her concerted efforts to find one that stoked her passion. 

Soon after she arrived in Barbados, Barrett found herself studying history and culture in new ways, examining the relationship between the country and its diaspora through the lens of identity and studying the ways the histories of those who remained and those who left overlapped and diverged. Guided by Moitt, all of this exploration was happening on the ground, in the field, with tangible objects and people and places. Her purpose became clear. She would study historical anthropology.

Today, Barrett is a visiting professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. Her work focuses on cemeteries of the enslaved as contested sites of reclamation within local, national and diasporan memorial landscapes. She has worked on studies of history, race and identities in Rio de Janeiro and Virginia and a study of childhood, labor and race within Virginia’s system of indentured servitude from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Barrett has returned several times to Barbados to serve as a guest lecturer. She also frequently encourages her students to seek out study abroad opportunities to strengthen and alter their worldview. She said she has maintained friendships with many of the people who were involved in her Barbados trip — a collection of people who were “transformed because of their experience in Barbados and because of their exchanges with each other.” 

“I know I would not be doing what I’m doing without my fantastic time in Barbados,” Barrett said. 

One Caribbean summer leads to more

When Gabriel Williams was a freshman at VCU, he decided he wanted to study abroad but he wasn’t sure where he should go. When he learned of the Barbados trip and the prospect of “beaches and blue water,” he jumped at the opportunity. He didn’t know how influential the trip would be for him.

Professor Bernard Moitt, Ph.D. (left) and Gabriel Williams (right) during a study abroad trip to Barbados. Courtesy of Gabriel Williams.
Professor Bernard Moitt, Ph.D. (left) and Gabriel Williams (right) during a study abroad trip to Barbados. Courtesy of Gabriel Williams.

He appreciated from the outset the care that Moitt took to ensure that his students did not solely receive a tourist’s view of Barbados — a key characteristic that Barrett, Cantwell and others frequently cite about faculty-led study abroad programs at VCU. Moitt was forever leading students somewhere new and introducing them to local people and customs with an eye on “a fully immersive experience,” Williams said. Among the biggest highlights for Williams was the Crop Over Festival, an annual harvest festival that dates back more than 400 years and has become a massive national arts and culture carnival-like event that runs for approximately two months in the summer. 

“There was a diligent itinerary almost every day,” Williams said. “Every day you’re doing something different — going to a museum, catching a cricket match, eating something new. There’s always something to make sure you get the most out of your experience.” 

Williams’ time in Barbados did not end with a single summer. Moitt soon tapped him to help run the program, and Williams worked in Barbados with Moitt each of the next three summers. He also helped with year-round planning and preparation duties.

“Dr. Moitt gave me a lot of responsibility and helped shape me as a leader,” said Williams, who majored in communications arts and design with concentrations in graphic design and kinetic imaging and a minor in African American studies. “He introduced me to some very essential life lessons and really taught me a lot.” 

Tignor said faculty members such as Moitt and Tapia devote extensive time and energy to education abroad programs, working year-round to make the trip the best it can be. The benefit of all of that hard work goes to the students. 

“One of the things that is most valuable about these programs is the opportunity to interact with professors in a much more intimate way,” Tignor said. “The opportunity for students to get to know their professors better can build lasting relationships. They get to know each other not just on an academic level but on a personal one. And that can benefit students throughout their careers.”

Williams now works as a senior user experience designer for Marriott International, directing digital design projects at Marriott worldwide. Among the perks of the job is frequent travel. Most recently, he visited Thailand and Abu Dhabi. By studying abroad, Williams said he became someone less likely to put a trip off. Instead, traveling is always a priority to him, because, in his view, “It will open up your consciousness if you let it. 

“Barbados really gave me the momentum and hunger to travel,” Williams said. “It gave me the platform to understand that it was something that I could do. It taught me to be resourceful and to be creative in how I manifested my goals. It gave me so much that I’m grateful for.” 

Gabriel Williams in Barbados.
Gabriel Williams in Barbados.

A closer view of the Middle East

Ajay Kohli was born in India and his mother was from Japan. For a few years while he was young, he lived in the United Kingdom. By the time his family moved to Richmond when he was 9 years old, Kohli already was accustomed to a range of cultures and countries. Travel has always been in his DNA.

At VCU, Kohli majored in political science and minored in Spanish. He was especially interested in international affairs. Between his junior and senior years, Kohli spent a summer studying abroad — for six weeks in Beirut, Lebanon, and for four weeks in Sevilla, Spain. 

Kohli enjoyed Spain, where he immersed himself in the language and culture, but Lebanon left an especially strong impression on him. He enjoyed speaking with people and visiting historic sites, and he journeyed to the Israeli border and visited a Palestinian camp in Beirut — “their own city within the city.” Kohli said Lebanon in 2001 still showed remnants of the 16-year civil war that had devastated the small country.

“One thing that surprised me was the people’s attitude toward life — how happy they were, how they seemed determined to make the best of what they had and what they had been through,” Kohli said. “Lots of people had lost family members or their homes in the war, but you could see how resilient they were about it. The experience definitely prompted me to further my study of the Middle East, which had already fascinated me.” 

While at VCU, Kohli had studied in a B.A./M.D. program that streamlined his route to the VCU School of Medicine. However, Kohli’s interest in international affairs led to a detour. He suspended his pursuit of a career as a doctor after receiving his undergraduate degree in order to study at Columbia University for a master’s degree in international affairs with a focus on the Middle East. He later also earned a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and practiced law in New York. Kohli eventually made his way back to medicine, however, and received his M.D. from VCU in 2013. He now serves as an emergency medicine physician at Duke University Hospital. His work doesn’t require international travel, but he said, “I meet patients from all over the world and I’m ready to talk to them.

“Even on a day-to-day basis, having spent a lot of time abroad can have an influence on me,” Kohli said. “I meet people all the time who are from the Middle East or from Europe, and it’s a great conversation starter. It’s a great way to relate to people.”

An artist overseas

Cantwell’s trip to Peru was one of three she took during her years at VCU, along with a semester in Spain and a summer trip to Kenya. In Spain, she studied architecture, learning concepts and principles while walking down streets lined with striking examples of the day’s lessons — “Everything I know about architecture I know because of that trip, and I won’t forget any of it because of that trip.” In Kenya, she taught English. 

Cantwell said the Peru trip shook her out of an artistic rut. She had fallen into painting works that more or less followed a formula that she knew worked. Her time in Peru pulled her off that path and pushed her to experiment with new approaches and viewpoints. She took a painting class with Tapia and a photography class with Scott DuPre Mills — both, she said, remain mentors to her today. Mills, she said, was always getting the students out to study Peru on walks and hikes, seeking ways of jostling their accustomed practices and tried and true ideas. Both professors were determined to ensure every student learned the community intimately.

“It was a great mix of education and just pure fun and joy,” Cantwell said. “It was so immersive that it never felt like work.”

A painting inspired by Jackie Cantwell's time in Peru.
A painting inspired by Jackie Cantwell's time in Peru.

In addition to the after-school art program Cantwell oversees in New York today, she also helps run an art gallery and serves as executive director and founder of SHIM, which helps artists, groups and organizations present exhibitions for themselves (the group will be staging its first Student & Alumni Art Fair and Symposium this August). She points to Peru as a critical catalyst for much of her work, especially the art education efforts that have stretched from Brooklyn to Guatemala and Honduras.

“The reason I feel so comfortable traveling, and the reason I feel so confident going somewhere and believing I can make a difference, is because of that trip,” she said.

In the end, that sense of empowerment might be the most important lesson students bring home with them, Tignor said. Alumni such as Cantwell, Barrett, Williams and Kohli show that it’s a lesson that sticks.

“You see these students come back and they stand a little bit taller and they speak with a little more confidence in their voices,” she said. “They have more direction and they are more independent and they are more adaptable. They’re more comfortable with who they are.”

For 20 years, VCU students have benefited from the transformative experience of studying abroad in places such as Peru. Photo by Scott DuPre Mills, Ph.D.
For 20 years, VCU students have benefited from the transformative experience of studying abroad in places such as Peru. Photo by Scott DuPre Mills, Ph.D.