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Lopaka PurdyLopaka Purdy

Gilman Scholar Gains International Perspective

What do young people in foreign countries like Switzerland think about Americans? How do they feel about our culture, our politics and our foreign policy? These are some of the questions that Lopaka Purdy, winner of a 2003 Gilman Scholarship, wants to answer in a documentary film he's planning to make during his year-long study at the L' Universite de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland. Purdy, a junior from Hawaii majoring in French at Willamette University, says he chose Switzerland because he hopes one day to work in the Olympic movement.

"Lausanne is the Olympic capital," he explained in an email interview from Switzerland. "It houses both the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic Museum."

Since French is the language of Switzerland, the country was a natural fit for Purdy. "France is the choice of most French majors," he writes. "But I wanted something different."

He calls his first day in class at the large university "eye opening" and says that the language is one of his greatest challenges. "I can understand the professor and the readings for the most part. When it comes to participation in class, I tend to shy away. It will take some time for me to become comfortable and confident speaking the language."

The Gilman Scholarship Program that funds Purdy's year in Switzerland aims to increase the diversity of U.S. students and institutions involved in international educational exchange. The program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is administered by the Institute of International Education's (IIE) Southern Regional Center in Houston, Texas. Students who receive a federal Pell Grant from two- and four-year institutions are eligible to apply.

Nearly 700 students have received Gilman scholarships since the program was established under the International Opportunity Act of 2000. Congressman Benjamin A. Gilman, who retired in 2002 after serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for 30 years and chairing the House Foreign Relations Committee, recently commented, "Study abroad is a special experience for every student who participates. Living and learning in a vastly different environment of another nation not only exposes our students to alternate views, but also adds an enriching social and cultural experience. It also provides our students with the opportunity to return home with a deeper understanding of their place in the world, encouraging them to be a contributor, rather than a spectator in the international community."

So far, Purdy is finding the cultural differences fascinating. "Just walking in Lausanne with its gothic cathedral is an adventure," he writes. "So many things like the required etiquette are different here. It's considered rude not to greet a shopkeeper with "bonjour" or "salut.""

Being from Hawaii has proved to be a big plus in meeting people. "As soon as I say I'm from Hawaii, people want to ask me questions. For them Hawaii is a very distant, exotic place. Most of them have never been there or met anyone from Hawaii, so they have a lot of questions for me."

While he's only begun his international adventure, Purdy has already learned an invaluable lesson. "I've come to realize how much diversity there is in the world. Europe is a small continent, but has many distinct cultures with their own languages and customs. I've learned there's a lot more to the world than just American culture. It's taught me how big the world is and also how small it is."