Jeremy Geller is director of student international academic affairs.
Photo by Bill Wiegand
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Anthropologist Jeremy Geller has spent his academic career unearthing the relics of ancient Egyptian civilizations and trying to divine the cryptic lives of people who walked the earth 5,000 years before him. Likewise, Geller, director of student international academic affairs, wants more Illinois students to transcend the insular world of collegiate life and develop a better understanding of other cultures and milieus through study abroad. Geller earned his doctoral and master’s degrees in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, and his bachelor’s in anthropology from Vassar College.
Tell me about your duties here.
The university has a very robust and successful study-abroad agenda. We are ranked roughly sixth in the nation in the number of students studying abroad. We have in the range of 1,300 to 1,600 study-abroad students.
This might sound Pollyanna-ish but the fact is that many study-abroad students come back and say they’ve been transformed. They speak of real "eureka" moments in terms of discovering how unequally resources are distributed around the world and of how potent a moment of understanding can be between people with radically different belief systems and values.
What are your goals for the department?
We have the potential of being one of the leading study-abroad programs in the nation. We’re there in numbers, and I think we have the potential to be there in stature as well.
I want to foster an atmosphere on campus where study-abroad becomes more mainstream and less the exception. It’s not for everybody, but I’d like to see more students going and more faculty [members] advising people toward it so from the time students declare a major they can be thinking how to fit study abroad into their curriculum.
Is there a typical study abroad student?
Study abroad students run the full gamut in terms of major, academic interest and ethnic and economic background, but I’d like to achieve more diversity in terms of under-represented minorities and students with economic disadvantage going into the field.
The old, old model of study abroad is that it’s for foreign language students who want to become fluent speakers but there are reasons for every major to study abroad. Everyone can anticipate international collaboration in their careers. The students grow. The classrooms that they come back to are enriched.
How might study abroad be adapted to various majors?
There is some talk about involving engineering students and faculty [members] in projects with international collaborators. Another alternative being considered is directly enrolling students in universities abroad where they could take courses on the local language and culture and the natural sciences. A third way would be through summer placements. I’m a believer that longer periods of time abroad lead to a more nuanced understanding of the host culture, but I also believe that a short-term experience abroad is better than none at all.
We are trying to build internships into many programs with the hope students will learn about social problems and public policy issues as they engage with the host culture. We had a very successful pilot program in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in summer 2002, and we have a similar program coming up in summer 2003 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Internships in the first program included a high-school enrichment program and an AIDS orphanage. The students going to South Africa will take a public policy course at the University of Natal and have similar internships with service organizations during the second half of the session.
Have the uncertain global political climate and recent acts of terrorism deterred students from going abroad?
It certainly is a concern for all the constituencies but we haven’t suffered a decline in numbers. Enrollment was flat for a year after Sept. 11, 2001, and I anticipate that spring and summer will be more robust than they were last year. In fact, in a national sense, the events of Sept. 11 have only underscored the value of study-abroad in terms of finding out how the United States is perceived elsewhere.