Visiting U.S. Embassy in Croatia becomes empowering experience

Guest post by Rob Schneider, School of Social Work coordinator of external affairs:

Carmen Luca Sugawara knew that she and her students would have a strong program for their stay in Zagreb, the first leg of their 18-day study-abroad course in Croatia. But what she did not know was the impact that adding the U.S. Embassy to her program would make to her students’ learning outcomes.

For the last five years, Luca Sugawara, an associate professor of social work at the Indiana University School of Social Work at IUPUI, has taken students to Croatia for her international service-learning course, Social Work Practice in Post-War Communities.

During previous learning-abroad experiences, she had hoped the students would have an opportunity to meet with the U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, but scheduling challenges had made it impossible. This year, however, the students managed to secure a visit at the embassy before traveling to Osijek, Croatia.

Luca Sugawara developed the course as a learning platform to give students a sense of what it’s like to work within a country that experienced an ethnic war and to serve a global community. While the students may never work abroad, being away from one’s cultural support, in a post-war environment, enables students to learn about themselves and the world in a way that no classroom environment can duplicate. She believed the embassy could offer an invaluable perspective to the students’ understanding of working abroad.

Although Luca Sugawara was excited about this new addition to the Croatia Study Abroad program, what she expected was a quick meet-and-greet and a tour of the embassy. Her hope was at best to have a chance to talk with the Chief of Mission while they were in the building.

“To my surprise, the visit was put together very thoroughly to welcome our students as well as to help us learn the type of work the U.S. Embassy does abroad, and more specifically to learn about its efforts to foster democracy in this country and the region,” Luca Sugawara said.

What’s more, they met with the ambassador, Juliet Vall Noyes. The meeting, which Luca Sugawara thought might be a five-minute greeting, turned into a 30-minute private conversation between Ambassador Noyes and the students.

The ambassador wanted to get to know the class and to hear their stories and learn why they were in Croatia. The students had an opportunity to ask her any question they wanted, from thoughts about women in leadership to her career path and other foreign-service inquiries.

Students in Social Work study-abroad program visit U.S. Embassy in Croatia

Students in Social Work study-abroad program visit U.S. Embassy in Croatia

She listened to them, engaged them in conversations about local and global issues, and above all, challenged them to think about building their own dreams — dreams they might never have thought were attainable before they met with Ambassador Vall Noyes.

“It was truly an extraordinary, empowering experience for all of us,” Luca Sugawara said.

And that wasn’t the end of it. The students got to meet with key officers of the embassy and learn about their job responsibilities and careers in foreign service. For example, they met with the public affairs officer, who talked about his work, his concerns and focus, and his career.

“I think what was beautiful was that this individual gave our students an opportunity to hear about his career path and the choices he made to serve the U.S. abroad. His talk was very uplifting to our students,” Luca Sugawara said. “You could see the flickering light in our students’ eyes as they were beginning to shape new dreams.”

They also met with the head of the Marine Security Team at the embassy, who discussed his challenges in protecting and providing security for an embassy. Luca Sugawara said the security officer explained that his career in the foreign service was somewhat unexpected. “Between laughter and tears, we heard his story — a story of a challenging youth who found a path and a passion to serve his country. It was beyond inspiring,” she said.

When the students prepared to leave, the ambassador asked how many of them would be interested in taking the Foreign Service exam. More than half of them put up their hand.

“It (the visit) truly shaped our students’ dreams for a path they never thought of embarking on professionally,” Luca Sugawara said.

This embassy visit is a perfect example of the power of taking students far from their comfort zone, exposing them to many ways of learning and experiencing the world, Luca Sugawara said. “The meeting with the Embassy humbled us, empowered us to serve and work abroad, but above all reminded our students they are the makers of their own dreams.”

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