4. Three study abroad experiences and three different lessons

Undergraduate Student Spotlight

by Kathy Cappelli


Although Britta Schumacher (senior, physical and environmental geography) had read about conflicts between humans and wild animals in South Africa due to habitat loss, she did not perceive the full extent of the problem until her stay in the Gamkaskloof conservation area.

“People kept warning us about baboons,” she recalled, “and we brushed them off like, ‘baboons, yeah, we’ll be careful.’

Then one of the grad students left her cabin window open. When she returned, the cabin was a mess and peanut butter handprints covered the kitchen. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a baboon shriek,” Schumacher said, “but it’s not a pleasant sound.”

Schumacher and two other undergrads, Michelle Lenze (senior, human geography) and Marina Burka (senior, human geography)—all three are Schreyer honors scholars— spent their junior years abroad, studying geography in different parts of the world. “It’s so surreal now that I’m back. It feels like it didn’t even happen,” Lenze said. “I’m not really used to normal things like the cold weather. And speaking English is weird.”

Lenze spent her year in South America, attending the University of Buenos Aires for one semester, the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paolo in Brazil for second semester, and then the summer in Guatemala, where she interned for Cassa, a company that builds sustainable housing for low-income buyers. About her time at the universities, Lenze said that it was very different. “It was fascinating to learn from a completely different perspective,” she said, adding that the classes were much more reading-intensive than the discussion-based classes she’s used to here.

For her internship at Cassa, based in Panajachel, Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, Lenze and another intern were in charge of creating a social impact assessment manual, which they did by creating a survey to give to people in their old homes. Once they had moved into a new home, the interns could measure how much their quality of life had improved.

Michelle Lenz at Iguazu Falls in Brazil

Michelle Lenze at Iguazu Falls in Brazil.

“For example, maybe they were spending less on firewood since now they had better insulation,” Lenze said. “This process involved a lot of fieldwork, travelling around the lake to all of the houses to see how the survey was working. I loved being able to see how my work helped people, but it was really stressful going into the field every day,” Lenze said. Now she’s more focused on GIS and analysis.

In contrast, Schumacher’s experience doing fieldwork in South Africa and Tanzania changed her from a human geography focus to physical geography. As part of the Parks and People program, led by Neil Brown, Schumacher and a dozen other students travelled north from Cape Town, South Africa, along the coast. In addition to speaking with locals about issues of conservation, the group completed an assessment of the integrity of the environment, which had never been done in the area.

“We found the southernmost extent of the endangered Kloof frog (Natalobatrachus bonebergi), and it was cool to realize that our work mattered,” Schumacher said.

Next, Schumacher went to Tanzania with an undergrad research grant to work with landscape architecture and geography professor Larry Gorenflo to study the impacts of global warming on the environment. It’s now the subject of her undergraduate thesis. “I became very interested in people’s perceptions about global warming; the real impacts of climate change on agricultural production; how these changes affect the sustainability of livelihoods; and how all this impacts nearby national parks. Conservation is so important to the area,” she said, “and what we were working on was teaching people that there’s enough that we can still conserve while providing for those who live off the land.”

While Schumacher was finding her thesis topic in Tanzania, Burka was finding hers in South Africa. Burka also participated in the Parks and People program’s expedition to South Africa, but as a human geographer, she found herself very interested in the lingering issues of Apartheid. Specific to South Africa, township tourism started toward the end of Apartheid to give outsiders a look at the towns and condition of life that non-white citizens had been segregated to, Burka explained.

“There are just so many issues and controversies surrounding it; you have to look at social justice from different contexts.” Burka became interested in so-called slum tourism after her work in Buenos Aires, Argentina. While there, she studied Spanish language and geography as well as volunteered as an education program intern at a shelter in the slum of Caacupe.

Twice a week, Burka would help middle-school-aged girls with homework and give them lessons in English. “It was a safe space for learning and discussing things like the issues of growing up,” she said. “It was hard work, but one of the best experiences of my time abroad.”

Burka, like Lenze and Schumacher, said she is still in touch with many of the people she met as well as the group from Penn State that she traveled with. “In general, just having the ability to study abroad gives you this confidence, this outside perspective. It’s stuff that you can’t get from a classroom setting because you have to be uncomfortable in order to get the experience,” Burka said.