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Undergraduates Conduct Research Abroad

City of Warsaw Warsaw and Strasbourg are a long way from Texas—culturally, linguistically, economically, and politically—but that didn’t stop two University of Texas undergraduates from conducting research abroad.

Studying abroad and conducting independent research were two goals that were always linked for senior linguistics major Amanda Haight. When she began making plans to spend spring 2014 abroad in France, she wanted something other than the standard pastries-in-Paris experience. “I wanted a study abroad program that wasn’t your typical study abroad program,” she said. “I wanted to have something to show for it afterward.”

Haight decided on Internships in Francophone Europe (IFE), a non-profit that places exchange students in France and Belgium. IFE organizes students’ study abroad experiences around field study and internships, with students completing a French mémoire (a research project or thesis) as part of the program. “I thought it would be a way to apply things I’ve been learning to real-life situations,” she said of the program’s combined emphasis on research and internships.

Haight and four other students went to Strasbourg, a city on the Franco-German border that went from war-torn in the middle of the 20th century to a model of international cooperation as a seat of the European Parliament. There, she was placed in an internship at the European Court of Human Rights. “I did research looking at what types of court decisions were implemented, and I looked at how many times each country had been reprimanded by the court,” she said.

European Union Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights

Haight impressed her supervisor by discovering some countries were reporting minimal measures along with the more substantial ones in order to boost their numbers. At the same time, her experiences at the court and the new skills she was developing in researching governmental policy fed into her mémoire project on minority languages in Europe.

Not all research experiences abroad follow such a formal structure, however. When senior economics major Hector Cantu attended a campus lecture by former Polish finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz, he could not have guessed that making a personal connection would take him to Warsaw as an undergraduate researcher.

Hector CantuCantu was so interested in Balcerowicz’s work as the architect of Poland’s transition to capitalism in the 1990s that he approached Balcerowicz after his talk. After asking several questions and sharing his own interest in economic policy, Cantu followed up with e-mail inquiries about interning at Balcerowicz’s Civil Development Forum, a Warsaw-based think tank. Aided in part by a Research Travel Scholarship from the Office of Undergraduate Research, Cantu traveled to Poland in summer 2014 to carry out a research internship that Balcerowicz created for him.

Cantu researched policies and conducted comparative analyses of international healthcare and pension systems and labor and tax laws. The goal of this work was to support the exchange of economic ideas globally, with a particular focus on Eastern Europe. “If you applied these ideas to new countries in development, we would extend their commerce,” Cantu said. “I think these ideas would bring new opportunities.”

Finding research experiences abroad can seem daunting, especially without established guidelines for finding a mentor. Cantu chalks up his success in securing this opportunity to perseverance and his willingness to think outside the boundaries that might otherwise discourage students from seeking research opportunities abroad. His advice to other students: “This is an opportunity to accomplish your dreams. If you want to spread economic knowledge among people, do it. If you want to study abroad, there are no borders if you want to do it.”

Engaging in research abroad also led to opportunities for cultural exchange, especially while living in a dormitory with visiting students from Ukraine and Belarus. The fact that Cantu was still working on his bachelor’s degree and had created his own research opportunity also set him apart. “When I arrived everyone asked, ‘What are you doing here? Where are you from?’ I was exotic there. I told them my story and they didn’t believe it!”

Collaboration with scholars and programs in other countries fosters not only new avenues for research, it can also strengthen international relations. Haight’s experiences at the European Court of Human Rights continued the decades-long tradition of post-war international cooperation that led to the court’s creation. Cantu recommends that students wanting to leave their mark on UT—and the world—seek out opportunities for research that involve international cooperation. In today’s global society, the goal of higher education should be as Cantu says, “…to make the best for society.”

Top photo of Warsaw © Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy per Wikimedia Commons
Photo of European Court of Human Rights © CherryX per Wikimedia Commons