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Studying the world - for college credit

TYPICALLY, undergraduate ``study abroad'' means three months of studying art in Paris, London, Rome. At one college, it's a ``Semester at Sea'' - marketing and theater courses on the deep blue. But for 30 students from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, ``abroad'' means a rigorous five-month tour of ``second world'' countries - a trip unique for its breadth, depth, and the life-changing impact it often has. They left New York last month.

At St. Olaf, the trip is known as ``Global.'' And the name fits the itinerary: After briefings at the United Nations, students fly to Rome for a week. Then it's Cairo for three weeks, Jerusalem for two weeks, and on to Bangalore, India, for another three-week stint.

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After India, everyone takes a break - trekking through Kashmir and Nepal.

On Nov. 25, the group goes to Taipei, Taiwan, for 26 days. After Christmas in Hong Kong, it will study in Kyoto, Japan, until Jan. 22.

It's like an introduction to the Peace Corps - plus college. Students have contact with ordinary people. But there are tough academics. Along with a course taught by the Olaf adviser (in this case, the literature of East-meets-West by Prof. Lowell Johnson), students take courses from native professors. (In Egypt it's Coptic and Islamic history; in India, ``cultural economics'' - how the British and post-colonial periods and religion shaped India.) They also write five papers, use 14 textbooks, keep a daily journal.

Global's secret is to spend enough time in each country for students to ``really understand the cultures as a whole system - conditions, values, people,'' Dr. Johnson says.

Lacking the ``props'' of their comfortable Minnesota social world, the students are likely to face some severe trials. ``Everything's been stripped away, and they get down to the basics of what they value,'' says Sue Clarke, an Olaf professor. ``That's powerful.''

But in the busy, disheveled lobby of the 47th Street YMCA here, where the group stayed, there was no grim soul-searching on the eve of their departure - only a muted excitement. New alliances were already forming among students. ``Usually, you hang around with your own major, but we know we are going to have to get used to being with each other,'' says Kris Springer, a sophomore.

Students take Global - at a cost $4,000 above regular tuition - for reasons summed up by junior Karen Rylander: ``I didn't want to go on your typical European trip. I can do that later. This is something for me at this age, with the security of 30 people.''

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Johnson is beaming. After Zehdi Terzi, the Palestinians' permanent observer at the UN, spoke to the group, Meir Joffe, the Israeli ambassador, insisted he speak as well. Olaf students are now discussing land claims in the Middle East, the Jonathan Pollard spy case, and US policy. Junior Sarah Carlson said, ``Maybe I'm brainwashed by the 10 o'clock news. Terzi didn't seem like a terrorist-crazed person to me.''

For students, the real learning over five months of seeing both the ugliness of poverty and the beauty of ancient Oriental porcelain making is not as much about other cultures as it is about themselves. ``They learn about themselves as Americans,'' says Dr. Clarke. ``That's what surprises them. They go thinking it's about other cultures. But they find a need to think back to their own culture. They return with enhanced powers of critical thinking.''

Last year's group, for example, focused on the role of women in developing cultures. Group leader David Wee said that students came back feeling that women in the US had made significant strides - comparatively. ``We saw the status and participation of women in the third world. Our men recognized the awful situation these women endure: constant childbearing and rearing, responsibility for agriculture, water, firewood. Women were doing it all - usually with no help. Most of us came back thinking that while the status of women here has a long way to go, we've come a long way.''

Each student chooses a special focus group - ``population,'' ``food,'' ``women and children,'' or ``refugees.'' Johnson warns about romanticizing - he says to ``be a little skeptical sometimes.''

Still, different students fall in love with different countries. The favorite spots are the Indian countryside, the pyramids, and the Sea of Galilee. The big consensus ``place to go'' is Nepal: ``beautiful and intriguing,'' a teacher said. Taipei is the least favorite spot.

Ann Hartman is doing Global this year after hearing about the experience from her brother in 1985. ``He didn't realize till he got there how different the world was from what he thought. He came back saying, `You can't just go on with a yuppie life after seeing this.'''

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