Undergraduate Magazine: Stretching the Boundaries
The International Honors Program at UA allows students to tailor their academic curriculum to their personal passions and objectives, with a multicultural theme at the heart of it all.
By Lisa Frederick
No two students in UA’s International Honors Program (IHP) have exactly the same interests and ambitions. But they all have one thing in common: an appetite for adventure and exposure to new ideas.
Open to Honors students in every college and major, the IHP is designed for undergraduates who want to add an international component to their education. “It helps students create an international focus for their entire UA experience,” says Dr. Fran Oneal, director of IHP and assistant director of the University Honors Program. “From the very beginning, it enriches their lives.”
This global emphasis manifests itself in different forms throughout their college years, on campus as well as overseas. They may partner with exchange students who seek to improve their English-language skills, join one of UA’s international student organizations, tutor elementary students whose first language is not English or volunteer at events such as the annual Sakura Festival, a celebration of Japanese culture. As part of the IHP seminar “Culture and the Human Experience,” students examine their own cultural backgrounds intensively and expose themselves to worldviews, value systems and standards of living that are very different from their own. The insights they gain in the seminar, Oneal says, lead to a more meaningful overseas experience and one with less culture shock. IHP students also must take two years of foreign language courses and spend at least one semester or two summer terms abroad—studying, doing research or completing an internship.
John Natter, who participated in IHP as an undergraduate, set his sights on the program before he even enrolled at UA. “It had great appeal to me, since I had always been intrigued by different cultures and enjoyed learning languages,” Natter says. “The IHP was a way for me to explore those desires while going to The University of Alabama.”
Like all participants, Natter worked closely with Dr. Oneal and the Honors College faculty and staff to construct a flexible course of study that would suit his interests and career goals. “There’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter experience that’s right for everyone,” Oneal says. “The experience is 100 percent customizable.” IHP students, she adds, can pursue nearly any subject they like in any country considered safe for American citizens. Some, such as health care, are increasingly popular, but there’s plenty of room for those that are a little more esoteric. Students have gone overseas in recent semesters to study alternative energy in Iceland, marine biology in the Caribbean, Andean language in Peru and organic farming in Italy, as just a few examples.
Natter chose an international marketing major with a Spanish-language and Latin American focus, spending a full school year at the Universidad de Alcala de Henares near Madrid, Spain. Not only was he able to finish most of his Spanish class work overseas, he also credits the program with helping him mature, broaden his perspective and deepen his understanding of unfamiliar cultural norms.
“You throw yourself into a culture very different from your own, and you have two choices: sink or swim,” Natter says. “You learn to understand and thrive among those who have completely different backgrounds and perhaps value systems from your own.”
The impact of Natter’s IHP experience still ripples in his life: Employed by the U.S. Department of State, he currently is stationed in Caracas, Venezuela. “The IHP started a growing desire to travel and experience other cultures,” he says. “And it was a building block for my career in the Foreign Service—I was able to gain the necessary skills as well as overseas experience that the Department of State looks for in new candidates. Additionally, I’ve been able to use the experience I gained as a student in the program to handle certain situations that I encounter living and working abroad.”
Natter urges incoming students to give serious consideration to the IHP, praising it as one of the best and most innovative programs at the University.
“It provides a great experience while you study in Tuscaloosa, and it also presents you with a valuable set of skills that you will use in life after college,” he says. “The program is a springboard for opening doors, as well as understanding and communicating in complex cultural situations. It has taught me lessons that I still carry with me today.”