Student Stories

What They Saw

Each year, more than 600 College students have the chance to study abroad. They return a quarter, sometimes a year, later with stories and photographs and a new understanding of themselves and the world.

We asked the winners of the 2010–11 Study Abroad Photo Contest to tell us exactly what was happening in their award-winning photographs. Some of the stories are beautiful and inspiring, capturing the moment, as Mike Kenstowicz, ’12, writes, of  “everything falling into place.” Others, like those told by first-place winner Claire McNear, AB’11, and Ethan Tate, ’13, involve heartbreaking encounters with poverty.

All of the stories speak to the intense, disorienting, transformative experience of studying abroad.


VaranasiFirst placeClaire McNear, AB’11

We were in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, a city of great spiritual importance to Hindus. In Varanasi, there is a small group of silk vendors who take quite a literal approach to their worship of the monkey god Hanuman. These devotees believe that one of the many troops of Rhesus macaques that live in Varanasi is the physical manifestation of Hanuman, and that anything any of its members touches has been chosen by Lord Hanuman for service—and must therefore never be used or even touched again.

We met several of these devotees during our time in Varanasi. On the afternoon I took my photo, we had stopped to have chai with a few of them in a market near our hostel. We were particularly struck by one young man, Abhishek, who had been orphaned as a boy but worked his way through the famed Varanasi silk merchants’ guild and become one of the most talented weavers in the city. He had finally saved enough money to afford a motorbike—far beyond the reach of most silk weavers—with which he hoped to woo the woman he loved and eventually rebuild a family for himself.

As we were drinking our chai, Abhishek parked his brand-new bike across from the chai stand and came to sit with us and a few other devotees. Suddenly, a member of the revered macaque troop dropped from a nearby apartment building, swung himself down to the street, and with a graceful leap landed atop Abhishek’s gleaming motorbike—thus, in the eyes of the devotees, claiming it for Lord Hanuman.

At the moment I snapped the photo, Abhishek had collapsed on the dirt beside me, shrieking and begging Hanuman to tell him why he had chosen to make this demand of him, a loyal devotee, at the very moment he seemed poised to leave his life of hardship and loneliness behind (we learned through a translator). The other devotees, meanwhile, had dropped their chai to the ground (one even on Abhishek himself, though he did not seem to notice) and launched into a fervent round of Hanuman Puja prayer, chanting mantras at the top of their lungs and ignoring the wailing of their bereft colleague. A heartbreaking moment.



UntitledEleanor Davis, ’12

The girl in the picture is from the village where I lived for three days in HaMakuya, South Africa. She was one of the dozens of children who spent time with us every day, playing games with us, asking us questions, and guiding us around the village. I befriended this girl, and right before this photo was taken I had given her a pack of silly bands, one of which is around her head in the picture. I decided to leave the photo untitled because I thought her face was so expressive, it spoke for itself.



The Puppet ManAnne Considine, ’12

The Puppet Man was taken at the Christmas market in Piazza Navona during December. This vendor stuck out to me from all the others because what he was selling was so vibrant, and he blends in perfectly with his puppets. The puppets were so visually overstimulating that they actually frightened me a bit, but that overstimulation reminds me of my own experiences in a foreign country. I was fascinated at first by the people around me who were so at ease in a world that terrified me. I have come a long way, but this photo serves as a reminder to me of my early feelings of being overwhelmed in a culture that I thrust myself into and have come to adore.



Oasis BreakDavid Sisco Casey, AB’11

During the Cairo study abroad program, my friends and I had rented bikes at the Siwa Oasis and were trying to circle the entire town on the bikes. We got really far off course, to the point where we thought we’d have to backtrack. So we stopped and decided to reassess the situation. I decided, on a whim, to get off my bike and snap a photo.



Jaisalmer Bus BoyEthan Tate, ’13

We were in Jaisalmer, India, after our program had come to a close. To travel to Delhi and ultimately Nepal, we chose the state bus, in contrast with the private bus company that had moved us to Jaisalmer in a fashion not unlike a clown car Volkswagen at a state fair.Some kids had tried to sneak onto the bus with an adult figure—an uncle, let’s say. The bus driver yelled for them to pay or get off, and as they were leaving this kid was in the back of the line, sullen and embarrassed. Most of what is successful in this shot is simply how interesting-looking the child is, with his old torn leather jacket, unbuttoned entirely, a homemade haircut, and eyes that cut straight through. It was a quick shot (note the blur), unlike some of the other more meticulously planned photos I took.



La dame de fer through broken glassThird placeRegina DePietro, AB’11

A group of us were walking around Paris on a cloudy afternoon, and we went to look at the Wall for Peace monument a short distance from the Eiffel Tower. We wanted to be near the Tower at dusk because “Sparkle Time,” as we called it, only happened once an hour at night and was brilliant. During Sparkle Time, all of the 20,000 light bulbs flicker for five minutes.

I never actually went inside or up the Eiffel Tower, although I went to some museums more than three times. Plus the views from the Arc de Triomphe and the Centre Pompidou were gorgeous and free for UChicago students. And no matter where you were in Paris, you could always look up on the hour every hour and see “Sparkle Time,” and it never got old—at least not for me.



Heaven on the Water, Cadiz, SpainMike Kenstowicz, ’12

During my time in southern Spain in May 2010, my brother and I took a day trip to Cadiz to enjoy the beautiful beaches and weather. At the time, I was exploring the wonders of Europe for the first time and catching up with my brother because he had been studying abroad in Seville since August 2009.

The majesty of the gleaming sun among the scattered boats captured the profundity of my feelings and the sense of everything falling into place. Spontaneous moments of utopia do not seem to happen enough in life, and I am incredibly pleased to have “Heaven on the Water” to remember and relive this one.


To see more award-winning photographs, including winners from previous years, click here.