By MEGAN EICHENBERG
Ciaran Brennan is wrapping up his junior year at UMW, but unlike the students returning from winter break, it had been much longer than four weeks since he stepped through the doors of Combs Hall.
The Spanish and business major recently returned to UMW after spending the spring, summer and fall 2009 semesters studying abroad as a student at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.
Brennan was contemplating a transfer from UMW to Georgetown University when a conversation about the University of Deusto with Jose Sainz, associate professor of Spanish, influenced him to remain at UMW and consider studying abroad at the partner institution instead.
A private Catholic university founded in 1886, the University of Deusto is located in the Basque country of northern Spain and offers several courses in association with UMW, according to the Modern Foreign Languages Spanish department Web site.
Brennan made the decision to pursue a yearlong education nearly 4,000 miles from Fredericksburg and weeks later, after registering for the program through the Office of International Academic Services and spending some time at his family property in Ireland, he boarded an Iberia Airlines plane bound for Spain.
Throughout his flight and an 8-hour layover, Brennan began to experience his first inkling of cultural differences as Spanish conversation flowed around him.
“It took awhile to get used to, but being immersed in a language, you pick it up pretty quick,” said Brennan, who recalls feeling of excitement and adventure as he gazed out from the plane’s window to see cities like Madrid thousands of miles beneath him.
Brennan wasn’t the only UMW student who journeyed across the Atlantic in 2009.
From the fall of 2007 to the winter of 2009, 680 students studied abroad , according to statistics from the Office of International Academic Services.
Spain is the most popular destination for UMW students with more than 150 students studying in the country during that time frame, followed by France and Italy with more than 50 students each.
Several other countries have also hosted students from UMW, including Trinidad and Tobago, Israel, and South Africa.
Leslie Leahy, assistant director of international academic services, said students interested in studying abroad should begin looking into programs during their freshman year, although it is never too late.
Located in Lee Hall Room 434, the Office of International Academic Services holds a Fall Education Abroad Fair and Open House annually and maintains information on study abroad programs in its office and on its web site.
“We’re here and ready to talk,” Leahy said. “We try to have our student workers available. The best way to learn about it is through other students studying abroad.”
Students have the option of studying abroad for a semester or year or during a spring, summer or winter break.
On its web site, the Office of International Academic Services has brochures and fliers detailing 14 UMW faculty-led programs offered by several different departments and 16 semester and year-long programs.
Leahy said either elective or major credits can be earned while abroad, including the experiential learning requirement required for students matriculating fall 2008 and after.
At the University of Deusto, Brennan was able to complete several credits toward his major through courses in Spanish literature, economics, marketing and business that were held Mondays through Thursdays.
“Academically, it was incredible. I learned so much. My teachers were just geniuses,” said Brennan, who took a course with one professor who was a consultant for the European Central Bank in addition to his teaching duties.
The campus also is right in the heart of town, said Brennan, and is near several museums, shops, restaurants and bars.
In addition to excursions that exposed Brennan to cultural sites, museums and landmarks of the city, cheap airfare enabled him to also explore other regions around the globe, including cities in Italy, Greece, Germany Portugal and France.
“The experience is incomparable,” Brennan said. “Just being out there and seeing the rest of the world is worth everything.”
As a student employee in the Office of International Academic Services, Brennan said he also was able to return to UMW with ideas for the office and draws on his experiences to assist students interested in going abroad.
Each of the seven student aides in the office have studied abroad or have plans to study abroad, Brennan said, and work to help students figure out their goals of studying abroad, search for programs and educate students on aspects like obtaining a VISA, payment and pre-departure procedures.
“When a student comes in, we drop everything to help them out as much as possible,” Brennan said. “All of (the student aides) are marvelous people and superbly knowledgeable…who can’t help but make you want to study abroad.”
Brennan, who is contemplating studying abroad again during a summer program, is undecided about what he wants to do after he graduates, but is confident his time abroad had opened up leads.
“Deusto set me up with a lot of contacts and networks through which I can work later,” he said. “It’s completely different than any experience you’ll have in Spain.”
On the UMW Study Abroad! Facebook page maintained by The Office of International Academic Services, photographs, links to videos and discussions that highlight UMW student experiences abroad are featured.
In a post written last month about The University of Deusto by Brennan, he gave the program a 5 out of 5 rating.
“I cannot recommend the program more,” he wrote. “It’s worth every expenditure, temporal and monetary alike. You won’t regret your time in Bilbao, no matter how long you’re there.”