Reflections from Semesters Abroad

In March 2020, Bethel students studying abroad were called back to the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between then and January 2022, study abroad trips had mainly been on hold. In this story, we hear from three of the 20 Bethel students who spent this past spring semester abroad: Alise Ostercamp ’23, Sophia Nienaber ’23, and Vanna Contreras ’23.

By Cherie Suonvieri '15, GS'21, content specialist

May 18, 2022 | 10 a.m.

Alise Ostercamp with a giraffe

Alise Ostercamp spent spring semester studying abroad in Rwanda. Here, she’s pictured at Akagera National Park, where she had the opportunity to see animals, like this giraffe, in their natural habitat.

Alise Ostercamp ’23 boarded a flight for the first leg of her trip to Rwanda on February 7, 2022—and even then, she could hardly believe it was happening. In spring 2020, all Bethel students studying abroad returned home early due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in interest of both student and public health, no semester trips had been allowed since. In the months leading up to the trip, Ostercamp had this feeling that it might be canceled, she says—but there she was, preparing for takeoff, not knowing exactly what her experience abroad would hold, while knowing it had the potential to change her life.   

In January 2022, interim study abroad trips resumed, sending 100 Bethel students abroad on five different faculty-led programs. Then this spring, 20 Bethel students embarked on semester-long journeys. These students were based in 10 countries, including Spain, Thailand, Rwanda, South Korea, Germany, France, England, Lithuania, Argentina, and Chile. We connected with three Bethel students—Ostercamp, Sophia Nienaber ’23, and Vanna Contreras ’23—to hear some high-level highlights from their experiences abroad. 

Alise Ostercamp | Rwanda

Ostercamp, a reconciliation studies and social work double major, chose to study in Rwanda in part because of her exposure to the country’s history through her reconciliation courses. Rwanda experienced a devastating genocide in 1994, in which nearly 1 million people were killed over the span of 100 days. Studying abroad allowed Ostercamp to engage the reconciliation theories she’s learned in Bethel courses and observe how the people of Rwanda have redressed the conflict in the years since. 

Can you tell us about an impactful learning experience? 

“Our third week here, we traveled to the south part of Rwanda and we met with a women’s organization made up of survivors of genocide and the wives of perpetrators of genocide. After the genocide in 1994, refugees started coming back to Rwanda, and the perpetrators of genocide were also starting to be reintegrated into society. That caused a lot of conflict. This group of women decided to seek reconciliation together and do the hard work. The space felt so sacred to me. They had representatives of both survivors and wives of perpetrators, and they were able to come together for a greater cause.” 

Study abroad group visiting an organization for survivors and wives of survivors of the 1994 genocide

Alise Ostercamp (bottom right) with women from the organization and other students from the program. “They’ve been able to work on different initiatives to support each other economically, and they’ve recognized their common bond—that all of the women were almost like widows and in a really painful spot,” Ostercamp explains.

How has studying abroad equipped you for your future? 

"Being a reconciliation studies major, the content that I’ve learned through people that have practiced reconciliation for themselves has been really helpful. I’ve learned a lot about the theory of reconciliation and I’ve been able to talk to people who have done the really hard work." 

Alise Ostercamp outside the Strive Foundation Rwanda office.

During Alise Ostercamp’s time in Rwanda, she participated in an internship at Strive Foundation Rwanda, which focuses on economic empowerment for all vulnerable people, including women and youth. Here, she’s pictured with a coworker outside of the organization’s office.

How has studying abroad impacted your faith? 

"Studying abroad has helped me feel more connected with the church as a global body. Easter was kind of when I realized it. We went to church and sang 'Up From the Grave He Arose.' And I thought, 'Wow, people all over the world are singing this same hymn in different languages and using different instruments, but we’re all praising the same God.'”  

The Kimironko Market

Alise Ostercamp and her classmates did most of their shopping at Kimironko Market, where they bought fresh produce, tailored clothes, and other miscellaneous items. “They truly have it all here—you just have to be ready to use your bargaining skills,” Ostercamp says. “This photo was taken from the stand of the woman who has made clothes for me this semester.”

What would you say to a student who is considering studying abroad, but undecided? 

"It is a lot of work, everything you have to do before you go abroad. You have to put your life on pause back home and step into a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen. For me, that was scary. But the learning experience was so valuable. You learn how to be vulnerable, how to be uncomfortable, and how to adapt to new environments and new people. In my experience and for everyone who’s studied abroad that I’ve talked to, it always turns out to be worth it."

Sophia Nienaber | Thailand  

Nienaber spent interim and spring semester on a study abroad trip based in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. While she is a social work major, many of the courses she took went toward satisfying her general education requirements. Included in her course load was a Thai language class, which she found useful as she navigated daily life in Thailand. 

Nienaber stayed in a residence hall with 35 other students from across the United States. Her classes took place at Chiang Mai University, a five-minute walk from where she was staying. In addition to her courses, the program featured a variety of field trips and tours, including a visit to Doi Suthep, Yutthasak Elephant Care Center, and bamboo rafting.

Sophia with elephant

Sophia Nienaber with an elephant at Yutthasak Elephant Care Center. Nienaber says elephants are a revered symbol of Thailand. “Being able to learn more about them and pet them, feed them, and give them a bath in the river was really an eye opening experience into Thai culture,” Nienaber says.

Tell us about an experience that stands out to you. 

"Even though we were based in Chiang Mai, we were highly encouraged to travel and see other parts of the country. One experience that was really exciting was when five of us went on a four-day trip to Chiang Rai, a city a few hours away from Chiang Mai. It’s known for the beautiful temples it has there, like the White Temple, the Blue Temple, the Black House. We booked the trip pretty much ourselves, and that was just such a neat experience, to be able to travel, explore Thailand on our own, and immerse ourselves into the culture."

Sophia Nienaber at the White Temple (also known as Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai.

Thailand is a primarily Buddhist country, and temples are popular sites to visit. The Thai word for temple is “wat.” Here, Sophia Nienaber is pictured at the White Temple (also known as Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai.

How did your study abroad experience equip you as a future social worker? 

"As a social work major, I want to work with people from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. I’ve lived pretty much my whole life in Minnesota, and it was really important to me to take that step outside and live among a culture that’s different from my own. I think that’s important for all people, but especially as a social worker how can I work with different groups without having put myself in new and different experiences?"

Traditional Thai dish

During her time in Thailand, Sophia Nienaber took a Thai cuisine course, where she learned how to make traditional Thai dishes like tom yum goong (spicy sour shrimp soup) and minced pork with basil.

How has studying abroad informed your faith? 

"While a majority of Thai people aren’t Christian, their lifestyle and way of thought is very kind and open. As a Christian, I enjoyed speaking with people of a different religion on a human level. Of course, I didn’t go over there with the intention of spreading the gospel, so I refrained from talking too much—but for those who did inquire or were curious, I was excited to share about my faith. Overall, it just opened my eyes to see more of God’s people and enabled me to have new experiences to inform my faith."

A view of a village called Mae Kampong

A view of a village called Mae Kampong where Sophia Nienaber completed her homestay experience.

What was one key takeaway? 

"One of my professors, who is Thai, said that no matter how much we (American students) learn and study Thailand, we are not Thai and will never understand the country as well as native Thai people do. It was a humbling moment because it reminded us that we are but visitors in Thailand, and that we have barely touched the vast amount of history, culture, and traditions that make up the country. I think it’s an important thing to remember when going to any country, and that no matter where we go, we must remember to respect and honor the cultures we visit." 

Vanna Contreras | Spain

Contreras is a communication studies major who spent her spring semester abroad alongside six other Bethel students in Segovia, Spain. While staying with a host family, Contreras took a variety of classes, completed an internship at the tourism office in Segovia, and managed the Spain Term Instagram account which features photos and videos from the program. 

What were some of the cultural differences you’ve encountered during your time abroad?

"While in Spain, we’ve seen the importance of family and the importance of breaks. Every day, the town closes down from around 2 p.m. until about 4 p.m., and during these breaks people go home to their families. Kids come back from school, families eat lunch together, and then at the end of the day we all come back together again to eat dinner. I see my host family members on a consistent basis throughout the day." 

Vanna Contreras with her host family

Vanna Contreras (top left) with her host family, Maria, Daniel, Pascal (dog), Maria Jesus, and Daniel. Contreras says she’s enjoyed her host family experience. “It’s been great. I love it,” she says. “This is what I’m used to back home, and this is what I look forward to at the end of my day here.”

Tell us about how you’re processing the cultural differences you encounter. 

"It’s a little different for me than it is for my classmates because I’m Latina. I’m half Honduran and half Mexican, so many of the cultural differences we’re encountering I’m used to seeing back home. What’s different for me, though, is the language immersion—hearing Spanish, my mother tongue, all the time. It’s so enriching and comfy."

Vanna Contreras (second from left) with the program group, in Santiago de Compostela.

Vanna Contreras (second from left) with the program group, in Santiago de Compostela.

Can you tell us about an experience that was particularly impactful? 

"We got to experience Holy Week in Spain, which was really incredible. For us in the U.S., we really just celebrate Easter—but here, Holy Week, or Semana Santa, is an entire week of celebration. There’s no school. Only certain workplaces are open. My whole host family was home and some of their family stayed over. While my host family wasn’t ultra religious, they were very supportive of me going to see the processions. And the people who participate in the processions practice for weeks. I heard trumpets and people playing the music that goes along with the processions all the time. That whole week was very special to me."

The cathedral, a central location in Segovia, Spain.

The cathedral, a central location in Segovia, Spain.

What would you tell a student who is considering studying abroad? 

"Just do it! When else are you going to be surrounded by people your age and have the opportunity to be that immersed in a whole different culture? I also had the opportunity to travel with two of my friends from the program to Rome, Italy, and it was one of the best times of my life. College is one of the best ways to get to know the world. Do it. Go for it. Take that leap of faith." 

Vanna Contreras and Rachel Brown in Rome Italy

Vanna Contreras and business major Rachel Brown '22 in Rome, Italy for a weekend excursion.

See the world through study abroad at Bethel.

Bethel University partners with 12 providers to offer students more than 600 semester, interim, and summer study abroad experiences to choose from. We also offer a selection of month-long, faculty-led interim trips each January.

Start exploring!