Cleared for Travel – Magazine | UAB – University of Alabama at Birmingham

Assistant professor, Department of Human Studies, program coordinator of M.S. in Higher Education Administration program
How can online programs extend the benefits of study abroad to their students? Bodine Al-Sharif created an innovative answer to that question as a member of the 2021-2022 cohort of Faculty Fellows in Education Abroad. “My students aren’t just in Birmingham — they are in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and beyond, working in mid-level roles as professional practitioners and faculty with family responsibilities,” she said. “I wanted to create an opportunity for them to have a study away experience and still maintain their full-time work positions without having to take vacation or spend time away from family.”
Bodine Al-Sharif is collaborating with Niamh Hamill, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland, for a fall 2022 course that parallels the Irish civil rights movement with the U.S. civil rights movement and the impact felt by higher education administration in both countries. “Our program has a strong social justice focus,” Bodine Al-Sharif said. “Students will go on tour in different spaces and places through their work with the Irish institute, learning about Irish culture, folklore and tradition. They will compare and contrast the civil rights movement in the United States with the civil rights campaign in Ireland, which looked to the U.S. as a model. We will also study global academic revolutions and the historic role of women in higher education in Ireland, as well as the academic structures that hold power and influence decision-making in the country.”
Bodine Al-Sharif is using her Faculty Fellows stipend to reduce the cost of attendance for students. “Right now, they will get this experience for the same cost as enrolling in a regular online course,” she said. And that experience should prove invaluable to their future careers, she adds.
Photo: Tanner Caton posing for a photoTanner Caton posing for a photo.
Caton, a junior majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, traveled to Alicante, Spain, in spring 2022 for a language immersion program at the University of Alicante.
“I stayed with a family. All of us who had home families had very unique experiences. I really liked it, but you need to be aware that you are staying with someone with different customs and expectations.
“I took a series of Spanish classes at the University of Alicante. I rode the train to school each day — a 20-minute trip. I was the only UAB student there. In both of my classes, I was either the only American or one of two Americans. There were Japanese students, Russians, Canadians — people from all over.”
“We went to Madrid and Valencia; but my favorite places to visit were the smaller towns around Alicante, places like La Vila Joiosa. I wanted to speak Spanish all the time. In big cities like Valencia, when I would say something in Spanish, people would often answer me in English, because they were used to tourists. In the little towns, they were excited to get a visitor and I could practice my Spanish.”
“Know what you want to get out of it. That applies to everything, but especially study abroad. You should also know you are going to a different culture. I didn’t realize how much culture I had, being from the South. I never thought of it that way, but the people I met were not as open and talkative. That was a big shock. You need to be aware that things are going to be different, no matter how hard you studied before you left. There will be frustrations, but you can get past them.”
“Spanish came first. I was interested in Spanish in high school and thought I wanted to be a lawyer — I like public speaking. But then I started thinking about medicine, and I read a stat that stuck with me: Only 7 percent of physicians speak Spanish, which is very low compared to how many Spanish speakers there are in the United States.”
“Yes, I think so. I’m so much more comfortable in new settings now. This summer, I am taking classes [at UAB] and all my friends are gone. That is something that could have been anxiety-producing before, but I’m making new friends. I really do feel that is something from Spain.
“A little bit of doubt creeps in when you are away from your studies. I had some doubts about my pre-med track. It’s OK to have doubt. New experiences bring on new questions about yourself. I ended up more sure of my decision to do pre-med, but it has helped me to be more aware of why I am doing it.”
Photo: Kenya Barnes with friendKenya Barnes (right) with friend.
Kenya Barnes, a junior majoring in neuroscience, was a NeuroScholar at KU (Katholieke Universiteit) Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, from February-June 2022. She worked with a research team led by Professor Astrid van Wieringen, Ph.D., that has developed an app that helps people with hearing impairment train their listening and communication skills in a process called auditory rehabilitation. There are currently more than 430 million people worldwide with disabling hearing loss worldwide, a number that is estimated to grow to more than 700 million by 2050.
“I took one ‘culture’ course, and the rest was full-time research at KU Leuven. I did a literature review on the psychology of motivation for people with hearing impairments. My job was to research how people with disabilities see motivation and how to increase motivation to use the app.” [Her research noted the potential motivational power of goalsetting, rewards, competition, personalization and testimonials.]
“Because of COVID restrictions, being fully in a lab wasn’t possible. But I was able to shadow my P.I. [van Wieringen] for several days. A lot of what they do is very independent. I got to see the different projects they were doing and see how differently they do medicine over there.”
“The summer after my junior year in high school, I did research in the UAB Department of Surgery through the PRISM [Pre-College Research Internship for Students from Minority Backgrounds] program. I worked with Dr. Brenessa Lindeman, an endocrine surgeon, studying how different communities around Birmingham were informed about health care options available at UAB for diabetes, obesity and renal issues. We were able to write a manuscript, and it was published in the Journal of Surgical Research and I got to be a first author. That was a very cool feat in high school. We also got to present our research at the Academic Surgical Congress. It made me want to get involved with research, and I also got to see the culture that UAB cultivates firsthand. Even though I was in high school, Dr. Lindeman and the entire team treated me like I had ideas they believed in. That said a lot about the culture of UAB. To this day, I still talk to Dr. Lindeman.”
“I got to see Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Brussels, Antwerp — but not as much as I wanted to. I wanted to see everything. The great thing is that Europe is all connected. I took the train for the most part. I flew to Prague with friends.
“I stayed in a university-run ‘kot’ — that’s what they call a dorm. Primarily there were international students on the Erasmus program. I had German, Austrian, British friends. There were only two of us UAB students in the NeuroScholars program — the other student was at Leiden University in the Netherlands. We presented our research midway through the program, and I saw him there.”
“I really enjoyed Amsterdam, and Bruges in Belgium. But Leuven was my favorite. It has a slow pace but the energy of a university town. You can walk from one side to the other in 20 minutes. It felt very safe and comfortable. I had a bike, and I biked everywhere.”
“Definitely. I would say it made me realize how much bigger the world is. It made me become more adaptable. And it made me stronger, knowing I can go anywhere and be successful. I was able to go across the continent and across the world.”
These undergraduates, all alumni of the study abroad program at UAB, are often the first points of contact with students interested in going overseas. “Our portfolio is vast,” Neyer said. “Peer Ambassadors help students home in on what is most important to them: academics, location, program features.” Crucially, the Ambassadors are paired with students based on their school or major.
Tanner Caton, a junior majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, traveled to Alicante, Spain, in spring 2022 for a language immersion program at the University of Alicante. “When I had my first meeting with a Peer Ambassador, I was so overwhelmed as someone who is trying to go to med school and meet those requirements while doing a semester abroad,” Caton said. “I really appreciated the Peer Ambassador who talked with me, answered a lot of questions, eased my anxiety and made it seem like this was possible.” Now, Caton is repaying that assistance by joining the Peer Ambassadors in the fall 2022 semester. “I loved my study abroad experience and I would like to help others do that,” she said.
Kenya Barnes, a junior neuroscience major who spent her spring 2022 semester at KU Leuven in Belgium through the NeuroScholars program, is also going to be a Peer Ambassador this fall. “Being in pre-med, enjoying research, being Black and female, there were a lot of things I wanted to share with other students about study abroad,” Barnes said. “I want to encourage other students with how accessible it really is.”

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