Bridging cultures, empowering communities: U-M students unveiled new ventures abroad

September 6, 2023
Written By:
Fernanda Pires, Juan Ochoa and Safa Hijazi
Rileigh Goldsmith teaching hip-hop class at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.
Rileigh Goldsmith teaching hip-hop class at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.

From the intricate tapestries of China and the untamed expanses of Mongolia to the vibrant streets of France and the heart of South Africa, University of Michigan students embarked on expeditions that defied borders and redefined cultural connections this summer.

Here’s a glimpse at their memorable experiences, diverse undertakings and transformative takeaways as they traversed continents in pursuit of knowledge, cultural interchange and enriching personal growth.

Bridging borders through dance in China

Rileigh Goldsmith was part of a group of five undergraduate students from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance who went on a 10-day exchange to China for a dance concert project. The endeavor strengthened the artistic connections between the U.S. and China, forming new concepts of knowledge, broadening the creative vision of students from both countries and enlightening them to rethink the meaning of culture and profession of dance.

U-M students perform in China.
U-M students perform in China.

Fangfei Miao, assistant professor of dance, was the visionary behind this international exchange project between the U-M Department of Dance and Shanghai Theatre Academy College of Dance.

The trip was marked by two evening-length concerts held across two cities. The first, a U-M dance concert held in Harbin, featured four student-created works, Miao’s major piece, “Hereafter,” and a joint performance in Shanghai, with student and faculty works from the Shanghai Theatre Academy.

Meanwhile, U-M dance students took classes in classical sword dance and Chinese folk fan dance at the Shanghai Theatre Academy and in Chinese folk handkerchief dance at Harbin Grand Theatre, taught by teachers from the Heilongjiang Art Academy.

During her time in Shanghai, Goldsmith also shared her expertise by teaching a hip-hop class to aspiring dance students at the Shanghai Theatre Academy—the first hip-hop exposure for many Chinese students.

“I have always loved teaching dance,” said Goldsmith, who studies dance and neuroscience. “While I initially harbored concerns about potential language barriers, I was pleasantly proven wrong. Our shared passion for dance transcended these obstacles, allowing us to communicate purely through the language of movement.”

Goldsmith said this trip sparked her curiosity in arts and dance outside of the U.S.

“I have always wanted travel to be a part of my career, but this experience helped me visualize what that might look like,” she said. “I could see how impactful cultural exchanges in the form of movement are in China.

“If you had told me a year ago that I would be performing and teaching dance in Shanghai, I would’ve never believed you. This trip validates that anything is possible if you lead with confidence and curiosity.”

The transformative power of education in South Africa

A group of 16 U-M students went to Makhanda in South Africa this summer to work closely with the Inkululeko Organization. The students are members of the Global Scholars and the Michigan Community Scholars programs.

Inkululeko offers academic support and business skills training for school-age learners from resource-limited environments. It assists South African youth in finishing high school and going beyond, either in higher education or gaining skills they can utilize in the workforce.

The students spent three weeks working in the program and immersed in the community around them. They were also introduced to and aided in other programs in the area, including a music school for children and a computer lab for after-school use.

“I witnessed firsthand the incredible transformative power that education holds,” said U-M student Julius Stuhec, who took part in tutoring South African students in subjects such as math and business.

Student Rahul Suri was eager to see the differences in education and what it means for this community.

“It was interesting to see the meaning of education in these areas versus in the U.S. because of the lack of opportunity and rising unemployment in South Africa,” he said. “Education is the ladder out of poverty for many.”

U-M students also assisted Inkululeko participants with sustainability activities such as turning plastic water bottles into planting pots, and helped with Inkululeko’s entrepreneurship program. They taught South African students about building businesses and engaged in sustainable business brainstorming sessions.

“In our group discussions, one of the learners shared his idea to repurpose used car tires into furniture,” Stuhec said. “I thought this was an incredible idea and created a plan with him to realize his vision.”

Back home in Michigan, Suri wants to continue assisting Inkululeko and plans to give Xhosa lessons to students on campus. Xhosa is the language most spoken by the Inkululeko students.

“We wanted to continue these lessons and allow other students at U-M to learn more about the language and the culture while also spreading awareness and sharing the perspective we gained from our experiences there,” Suri said.

Learning opportunities in French health care

Sydney Prochaska and Alex Klopp were among 26 Ross School MBA students who took part in a two-week course examining comparative health systems in France. The program was led by Thomas Buchmueller, professor of business economics and public policy, and Gabrielle Wassilak, global education adviser at the Ross School of Business.

In Paris, students learned about Doctolib, a popular digital health platform in France where patients can make appointments directly with physicians in their area. The platform has become a primary scheduling resource in France.

Students also gained insights from company visits by digital health startups and pharmaceutical companies. The startups are located within the PariSanté Campus, an incubator for e-health companies.

“It was amazing to visit the PariSanté Campus,” Klopp said. “The campus’s energy was exciting to see, and we were able to listen to a few pitches from the startups located there.”

Students pinpointed several common challenges in the U.S. and French health care systems, such as physician shortages, the general decline of general practice doctors, lack of access to medical care for those who live in rural areas, and lack of consistency in data integration within and between health care providers.

“They had many of the same issues that we have, like access to care, for example,” Prochaska said. “Also, the urban-rural divide where young people want to live in urban areas led to disparities for people in rural areas, not having access to care or available providers in their area.

“The biggest difference is that they have a single-payer system, meaning the government provides universal health coverage to everyone in the country. This addresses many issues around health equity, access to care and inequality.”

In Bordeaux, students learned from regional government representatives and startups in the digital health space. During the visit, presenters outlined the role of the regional government in creating public policy and discussed the impact of digital health technology on the health disparities in the region and country.

“I wanted to partake in the course because I think we can learn a lot from how other countries deliver care,” Prochaska said. “I thought it’d be interesting to look at countries like France, where it’s all delivered by the government.”

Hands-on adventure in wildlife conservation, veterinary science in Costa Rica

U-M student Mia Bodnar-Cohen spent six weeks in Costa Rica this summer, helping turtles, dolphins, sloths and other Costa Rican wildlife, working with rescue dogs, discovering Costa Rican culture, and learning hands-on what being a veterinarian is like.

She was part of a small team that joined the Loop Abroad Pre-Veterinary Summer Semester program, which brings students to Costa Rica to learn alongside veterinarians from around the globe. The group also took a course in research collection and data analysis and assisted in research projects, including collecting data in the field and seeing firsthand the research’s role in contributing to sea turtle conservation.

“My experience abroad in the beautiful country of Costa Rica was life-changing,” Bodnar-Cohen said. “I worked with animals that I would never get the chance to in the United States. And as a pre-veterinary student, caring for animals unique to Costa Rica provided me with knowledge and experience that I would otherwise not have.”

Bodnar-Cohen and her team also volunteered at the Territorio de Zaguates, or “Land of the Strays,” a sanctuary home to more than 1,800 dogs. They observed surgeries and learned and practiced small animal clinical skills, including blood draws, suturing and skin scrapes.

The group also studied wild dolphins at the Center for Cetacean Research of Costa Rica, doing boat-based research on dolphin health and behavior. They examined data for photo ID processing and image analysis, conducted necropsies of fish that the local dolphins eat to determine their health status, analyzed stomach contents and collected biometric data.

A trip highlight for Bodnar-Cohen was working with sloths at the Rescue Center Costa Rica.

“It was a memorable experience to watch baby sloth ultrasounds performed by the veterinarians,” she said. “We witnessed the moment when a veterinarian realized that the treatment she was using was working on a baby sloth with malabsorption. It was a breakthrough in veterinary medicine. This emotional moment was so heartwarming and solidified my reason for wanting to become a veterinarian.”