Casey Skinner, a senior agribusiness management major who grew up on a tobacco farm in rural North Carolina, had never owned a passport before last spring. In fact, he had hardly set foot outside the state.
So it’s no surprise that his experience in East Asia, as part of a new study abroad course in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, was life-changing.
“This trip really and truly opened my eyes to things I would never have experienced before,” Skinner said. “Most importantly, the experience taught me that I can travel and do international business overseas. I made connections with people in four different cities on this trip … it gave me options I would have never fathomed before. And I definitely feel more of a connection to the outside world.”
Lynn Clark, also a business administration major and a participant in ARE 494, agreed.
“I’ve been to a lot of places around the world, and I really wanted to go somewhere completely different, like going to another planet,” Clark said. “Asia was completely different than anything I’d ever seen before.
“One of the most important lessons I learned on this trip is that in order to be the most successful person you can be, you have to go outside your comfort zone and experience everything,” he said. “I felt like I became a much more worldly person by traveling to Asia.”
The study abroad trip, organized by Dr. Frederick Parker, assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics, is the first of its kind, designed to give students from agricultural communities an opportunity they might not otherwise find in traditional study abroad trips.
“A lot of our students don’t have the time or the opportunity to travel over the summer because they live on farms or are having to work their way through school, and the majority of their income comes from summer jobs,” Parker said. “They just can’t go for the traditional study abroad program for several weeks or months because the opportunity cost is far too high.”
Parker designed the East Asia trip (with stops in South Korea, China and Thailand) to be about two weeks long, fitting into the schedules of a large number of his students whose summers are dictated by planting and harvest cycles.
“Then the question became how much can you accomplish in that time that would be of value to the students?” Parker said. “We figured we could show them the major business cities – how business is conducted – and also expose them to different cultures.”
Ten students traveled to East Asia in June 2011. Parker said 25 students had originally signed up, but a number dropped out after unrest in Korea and the earthquake in Japan last spring. He said the small size worked well for this first venture to Asia.
“In each city that we visit, the objective is to have one day of cultural activity, one day of business meetings and at least one day of free time for the students to explore on their own,” Parker said. “China and South Korea are among the top trading partners for the U.S., so our objective was to go to the major business center in each of those countries.”
In China, however, the students visited both Shanghai and Beijing, the primary business and cultural areas of the country, respectively. They also visited Bangkok, Thailand; and Seoul, South Korea.
Skinner and Clark discovered striking distinctions between the classes in the cities they visited, noting styles of dress and other visible indicators of wealth or poverty. They both enjoyed experiencing new cultures and were astute in their observations of national pride, religion and culture in each of the cities they visited.
At the international trade offices, the students discussed internships, jobs and trade, particularly as it relates to North Carolina agriculture.
“We learned a lot about why China doesn’t import much from the United States,” Skinner said. “They can make most of what they need … they’re almost entirely self-sufficient.”
He said that if he had a chance to go back to East Asia, he’d definitely return to Beijing.
Clark agreed, saying, “I really enjoyed Beijing, especially seeing the emperor’s summer palace, the pagodas in the mountains, the national people’s congress, the Forbidden City … and people’s square. You could really feel you were in China, feel the government presence, kind of like in Washington, D.C.”
Parker made sure that the students observed customs particular to each country, including the use of chopsticks.
“We’d starve if we didn’t know how to use chopsticks,” Skinner said.
The most unusual cuisine they sampled? Skewered fried scorpions and centipedes, octopus, fish heads, pig’s neck and tripe.
“I did it on purpose … chose restaurants that didn’t cater to Americans,” Parker said. “I wanted the students to get as authentic an experience as possible.”
One particularly somber moment of the trip was the group’s visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Korea.
“You could feel the heightened sense of security and the heavy military presence there,” Clark said. “We had to wear hard hats and surrender our cameras. I felt a little uncomfortable there.”
“But you needed to see it,” Parker said to Clark, “to understand why Koreans approach things so differently from other Asian cultures, because they have been under threat of war for almost everyone’s lifetimes and that has an effect on the way they think and do business.”
Language was never an issue, as English abounds in the cities they visited.
“We learned just enough of their languages to say things like please, thank you and excuse me,” Skinner said. “Most of the people we came across seemed to appreciate that we were trying to learn their language.”
Favorite activities for both Clark and Skinner were a toboggan ride along the Great Wall of China, climbing the Temple of the Sun in Thailand and riding tuk-tuks, three-wheeled natural-gas powered taxis.
Parker plans to expand the trip to Latin America in 2012 and Europe in 2013. He’ll lead a class back to East Asia in 2014.
“There are some things we’ll change with future trips,” Parker said. “We’ll definitely make more business visits, rather than trade offices. It caught me by surprise and it shouldn’t have, but the trade offices hired Americans to talk with us. They were almost too accommodating.”
Clark and Skinner are already on board for the Latin America trip, which Parker said, will include flying directly into a cotton plantation in Brazil.
Parker clearly relishes the excitement of his students and their personal growth on the East Asia trip.
“The thing that caught me by surprise more than anything else is that out of ten students who went to East Asia, eight opened their eyes just like Casey and Lynn described, and they want more … to see everywhere else,” he said. “It really was neat.”
– Suzanne Stanard