Students at Alma College are no strangers to studying other cultures or being among them. During their time here, many students take time to study abroad, whether it be on their own, with a spring term or for a research opportunity.
Otto Warmbier was in a similar situation in 2016 that many Alma students face.
Warmbier attended the University of Virginia and knew he wanted to study abroad in a new, unique place. He chose Young Pioneer Tours to sketch the outline of the trip he was going to take.
This company, who specialized in taking students to “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from,” took Warmbier, along with other students from around the world, to Pyongyang, North Korea. The purpose of the trip was to show students the difference between the safety of their home countries and turmoil ridden North Korea.
Warmbier found himself in trouble during the trip when he decided to take a political poster hung in the country’s capital as a souvenir. North Korean officials took Warmbier into custody and claimed the act was due to spying for the enemy, as the U.S. is a South Korean ally.
Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a detention facility, but was released to his family after them not seeing him for a year and a half. When he was returned, Warmbier was unresponsive in a vegetative state and his family didn’t recognize him. His father even said his teeth looked like they had been taken out of his mouth and rearranged.
Warmbier died soon after being returned to the U.S. at the young age of 22.
Warmbier’s story is one that makes many college students weary about traveling to a new place with a completely different culture than they are familiar with. Still, Alma students travel all over the world for various reasons.
“I traveled to South Korea for study abroad,” said Karley Daniels (‘20).
She mentions the importance of understanding the culture of the place that you may be traveling to. “[Travelers] need to make sure they research a little about social rules.”
Daniels discusses how there are different ways to address people in South Korea depending on their age, as well as how there were certain ways to handle money.
“Also, I think people need to understand that they might not have the same thoughts or feelings on a certain topic as you do,” said Daniels.
Alma College also has a pool of students who are from different cultures, and moved to the U.S. to better their education. Prarthita Nath (‘22) is from India, and discusses the difference in culture.
“The culture [in the United States] is different in a lot of ways from India. Whether it’s how the religious festivals are celebrated or how your friend circle is. I feel even the way we are brought up is different,” said Nath.
Another point of view is from someone with a cross cultural background.“I was born in Santiago, Chile but grew up in San Luis, Argentina due to my father’s work,” said Michelle Malkowski (‘21), who’s mother is Chilean and father is American.
“I grew to love all cultures and now, as an adult, I’m forever grateful to have all three cultures (Chilean, Argentinian, and American) a part of me.”
Malkowski also had the opportunity to study abroad in Japan last summer. She said she would give anything to go back again- -just maybe instead with a friend and not alone–and that her experience among the locals was incredible.
Many students travel abroad each year, and media tends to portray only the bad situations, such as Warmbier’s time being imprisoned in North Korea. Still, Alma students stress the importance of not becoming too overwhelmed or lost in the thoughts of danger.
“Try not to get too overwhelmed because [being] in a different country is hard to begin with, away from your family. Take time for yourself and figure out how the surroundings are around you, and always ask for help, because it helps a lot,” said Nath, regarding what to do when you are visiting a new place.