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Morrissey College of Arts and Science

UN559 From Study Abroad, Back to The Heights

capstone program

Bernd Widdig

Director, Office of International Programs
Director, McGillycuddy-Logue Center for Undergraduate Global Studies

Office Hours: TH 4:30-7:00 p.m. in Hovey House Library
Telephone: 617-552-3827


More than 1,000 of our undergraduates study abroad every year. Most of them speak upon their return of the profound impact their time abroad had on their academic and personal development. They often had to communicate in a foreign language, they had to interpret cultural codes and norms that were new to them, and they had to adapt to different academic cultures. Many of our students were, for the first time, confronted with their identity as citizens of a superpower whose values, promises, and actions are carefully observed by other nations. For all of them study abroad is an intense period of exploration and self-discovery, for some a life-changing experience.

It is crucial that Boston College offer a forum for those students who have returned to the campus and wish a sustained and structured reflection of their time abroad. Since studying abroad is an all-encompassing experience that shapes academic pursuits, enables personal self discovery, leads to the responsibilities of global citizenship, and ultimately touches upon the deeply spiritual question of one’s own role in the world, a Capstone Seminar provides a fitting educational form for such a dialogue.

The seminar receives its structure by taking up substantial questions that our students struggle with upon their return and integrates them into the conceptual framework of Capstone. Each of the different parts of the seminar addresses crucial issues of the students’ commitment in life to work, relationships, society, and spirituality as those themes emerge out of the new perspective of an international experience.

1) Week 1
Cultural self-assessment and self-awareness   

A self-examination of students’ own cultural upbringing; a reflection about their own cultural codes, traditions, religious and spiritual practices, people, and institutions that shaped them.

2) Weeks 2, 3
Cultural difference 

Students experience cultural difference in a myriad of ways during their international experience. But how can one describe those differences? The second part of the seminar exposes students to the most important taxonomies of cultural difference. Students will then apply this knowledge to their host culture.

Parts 1 and 2 allows students to reflect in what way their own relationships and identities have been formed by their cultural upbringing and how, for example, gender roles and the concept of friendship may differ across cultures. These parts will also discuss how students’ religious and spiritual beliefs and practices were affected by the interaction with a host culture that may have different religious traditions or exemplify a more secular character than their own culture.

3) Weeks 4, 5
Learning in different academic environments

The adjustment to different academic environments is one of the most difficult tasks our students face. Briefly put, while an American private liberal arts college such as Boston College leads students from adolescence to adulthood through four years of closely guided undergraduate studies and formation, most other academic environments of higher education around the world regard students as adults. This has wide-ranging effects on the professor–student relationship, the expected autonomy and maturity of students, and the range of support for students. This section will work with students’ experiences in those academic environments. A comparative analysis will shed light on their own learning environment at Boston College and will yield a better understanding of the educational choices students have made.

4) Weeks 6, 7
The art of travel

Our students’ desire to travel and explore other countries is inextricably linked to their decision to study abroad. As the philosopher Alain de Botton writes: “If our lives are dominated by the search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardor and paradoxes — than our travels.” Using de Botton’s book The Art of Travel, the seminar will look at their travel experiences from de Button’s angle of “philosophy of everyday life” and reflect upon the questions of anticipation, discovery, disappointment, and fulfillment.

5) Weeks 8, 9
The view of the US from abroad

Often for the first time, our students are confronted with the diverse range of knowledge, opinions, views and stereotypes that people around the world have of American politics, culture, history, and our country’s status as a superpower. This part of the seminar will focus on the specificity of those views that are embedded in the complex historical and political relationships between the student’s host country and the United States. It will engage students in a substantive discussion of their own positionality, i.e., their relationship to American “mainstream” society, marginality, patterns of identification, etc.

6) Week 10
A future global workplace

An international experience often leads to a student’s plan to work in an international environment in the US or even pursue work abroad after graduation. Such work can take on very different forms, from seeking employment in an international corporation to working in an international NGO or a volunteer organization such as the Jesuit Volunteers Corps. Students present their thoughts and ideas for life after college and are assigned to search for resources that might help them find appropriate avenues for the international engagement.

7) Weeks 11, 12
Your global citizenship

The final part of the seminar will culminate in addressing crucial questions that are at the core of the Capstone academic mission and will lead to a discussion how each student’s academic and personal life will be affected by the international experience.

  • How will my study abroad experience as a foreigner in another country inform my own responsibilities towards foreigners who land on our shores, be they international students or recent immigrants?
  • How do I continue and nurture a new global network of social relationships and friendships? How do I integrate those newly found relationships into my existing circle of friends and my family?
  • What does “global citizenship” mean for me? What are the dimensions of my interest and engagement as a global citizen?


Brooks Peterson, Cultural Intelligence. Intercultural Press, 2004.
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel. Vintage, 2002.
Excerpts from What We Think of America. Granta, vol. 77, Spring 2002.
Pew Research Center, Pew Global Attitudes Projects, ongoing project.


L’ auberge Espagnol. Dir. Cédric Klapisch, 2002.


Aside from active class participation and different readings, the class requires:

  • two writing assignments of at least 10 pages. Those papers will allow students to research in more depth specific aspects of their host culture and relate those aspects to a one of the topic of the seminar;
  • four 1- to 2-page reflection papers that allow students to comment on the various topics of the course from their individual perspective.