U program to celebrate 60 years of helping study abroad

by Cati Vanden Breul

Minnesota’s oldest study abroad program will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.

Shortly after World War II, a group of University faculty members and students formed the Student Project for Amity Among Nations, or SPAN, to encourage students to do in-depth research abroad.

Since its inception, thousands of students have participated in the program, which helps students finance their research projects, said history professor Theofanis Stavrou, a SPAN adviser since 1960.

Stavrou said the founders, disheartened by the death and destruction of the war, wanted to create a program that would help minimize conflict around the world through global study and communication.

Participants, typically undergraduates, immerse themselves in the culture of the country before and after they arrive, he said.

“They’re not just going to be tourists in the country,” Stavrou said.

Students propose research projects when they apply, and, once accepted, spend a year studying the language, history and culture of the destination before they go. After researching 10 to 12 weeks abroad in the summer, participants write a 50- to 100-page research paper detailing their findings. The University grants eight credits to students who complete the program.

SPAN is more challenging than other study abroad opportunities and forces students to be independent, said University global studies senior Randi Aho, who went to India with the program in 2005.

Aho said she had to find her own housing arrangements and research contacts within India.

“It really forces you to be an adult,” she said. “I matured both personally and in respect to my scholarly interests.”

While living in the servant quarters of a well-to-do family in New Delhi, she studied the oppression of women in India.

“They moved the servants out of the ‘apartment’ I was in, in order to rent it out,” Aho said. “I think that spoke a lot to the issues in India’s caste system.”

She said witnessing the poverty plaguing India changed her perspective on life.

“I’m much more realistic now,” Aho said. “I was an idealist before. My idea of a developing country and what should and can be done has changed.”

University applied economics graduate student Rachael Dettmann, who went to Ethiopia in 2004 with SPAN, said observing the everyday lifestyle of Ethiopians also affected her perceptions.

“I could be wearing the dirtiest, raggiest clothes and they were still probably worth more than everything (the Ethiopians) had,” Dettmann said.

Her experience studying the production constraints of teff – a grass used to make bread in Ethiopia – made her appreciate life in the United States, she said.

“I don’t necessarily agree with my own government and what happens here,” Dettmann said. “But we live in a pretty dang good country. You don’t really get it until you live in and see such horrible poverty.”

Former “SPANers,” as some call themselves, often cite the program as an influence that sticks with them their whole lives.

Theo Prousis, a University alumnus and professor of European, Russian and Balkan history at the University of North Florida, studied in Greece in 1977 and said the experience was unforgettable.