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Writers’ Workshop for Returned Students

Focus Student Reflection on Study Abroad

Students tend to think about study abroad in terms of a finite time and distinct place: a semester in India, a year in Germany. But they don’t always consider what happens before or after as integral to the experience. As teachers and administrators, and as students of the abroad experience, we’ve come to see study abroad as an emerging experience in which students start learning long before they ever go away and continue it long after they “reenter.”

The space-age metaphor of reentry, though, is not exactly fitting; it describes what study abroad looks like from here—students go “out” and then “come back”—but it doesn’t adequately capture the specifically cultural juxtapositions our students talk about. Our students generally rave about their trips, but in quieter moments they talk about their difficulty finding fellow students who will understand their ideas and feelings. They use terms like “culture shock,” “isolation,” and “distance” to describe what we’ve tended to see as “reentry” or “return.” We reject any simple model of “reentry.” The process is complex and deserves a complex response.

Over the past year we’ve worked to respond more precisely to our students’ experiences and to help them make the most of the learning that can, and dare we say, should, emerge from study abroad long after the trip is over. We figured that if we created a context in which returning students could write together, it would help them tell their own stories. So we created the IWW, the International Writers’ Workshop.

The IWW is a loose collective of returned students who gather on a regularly-scheduled evening to eat, talk, and write about their abroad experiences. We free-write, read our stories, comment on and edit each other’s work, and create polished pieces for contests and publications. We’ve run this program for two semesters and feel comfortable enough with the methodology to begin to share our lessons learned.

Validating Student Experiences

When our students study abroad two things happen: they become keenly self-conscious of their identities, and their identity changes subtly in the face of different normative systems. In other words, students abroad tend to be conscious of ways in which they are different from those around them, and students reentering their host culture tend to be conscious of way in which they’ve changed.

We started the IWW as a way of helping students who had studied abroad make sense of their experiences. The initial idea was sparked when a number of professors told us that students returning from study abroad would come into their offices and talk almost compulsively; the students had trouble being articulate, and to a degree they seemed to feel cut off from their peers.

Graduate anthropology students experience similar difficulties after their fieldwork: they often feel isolated, confused, and ambivalent about their research. In many programs, communal writing groups help these students come to terms with their work, think through their experiences in new ways, and overcome isolation. Cultural anthropology depends on “culture shock” and its resolution to produce knowledge; writing groups help precipitate that resolution. We thought the IWW could do the same for our study abroad students.

Our experience with the IWW over two semesters has given us much evidence that our proposition was correct. For example, one of the participants, Sarah, described to us a particular problem she had now that she was back on campus. She didn’t feel like the other people who studied in Vietnam with her. They all went, in her estimation, with big ideas about how the experience would change their lives. They got there, and they made it happen. But Sarah struggled academically, and she returned feeling she hadn’t “made the most of it.” She was ambivalent about her experience, disempowered by the powerful meta-narratives that frame the whole project of study abroad. She said flat out “I don’t feel like I have a story.”

The group, however, helped Sarah see that not having a story was her story. We came to see the writer’s group as a tool for empowering students to tell their stories honestly. The group also served to protect and validate these original experiences, and to open them to question and critique.

Starting a Writer’s Group: the Essentials

  • A comfortable place is a must. No classrooms; participants fall into the teacher/student hierarchy too readily. A comfortable kitchen and the living room of a student coop served us well. That comfortable place must have food. Eating and sometimes cooking together helped create an atmosphere of communality and cooperation. And early in the game the free food encouraged students to participate.

  • Timing. Keep it regular. Weekly evening meetings worked best for us.

  • The group needs structure. Loose or tight, it must be there. As facilitators, our main role was to provide provocation, model effective feedback, and “nudge” the group onward. And, of course, mind the logistics of space and food, computers and printers, distribution of written pieces, etc.

  • Participants need tools. The group’s early work was based on what Peter Elbow has called “freewriting,” writing without constraint or cease. Freewriting helps writers bypass self-censorship. We also employed two variations of this: “focused freewriting,” which strays and returns to a particular theme, to help writers develop and work through difficult ideas, and “loop writing,” in which participants select a single idea or passage from a previous freewrite and use it as a seed for further writing. Combined, these create a powerful process for moving writers more deeply into their own thoughts and language.

We offered participants narrative prompts—such as describe a place that was particularly important to them or to describe a trip they took every day while they were abroad—to get them started. The prompts tended to be concrete—describe, list, explain—rather than abstract, helping members remember their experiences in detailed ways, rather than rushing to fit them into prepackaged reentry narratives.

We also found the set of 50 provocative card prompts included with The Observation Deck, a tool kit for writers by Naomi Opel, to be an important source of inspiration.

These tools got words on paper, but we also wanted participants to produce writing they were proud of, and that called for revision. We approached this in three ways: First, we planned on time for revision during our meetings. We would produce raw writing for half an hour, and then devote another half an hour to revision. Second, we encouraged members to revise their work during the week and bring it to the group for feedback. Third, we structured the semester’s work around a goal—in one case a reading-performance; in the other an essay contest. Long-term goals helped us all to see the writing as work in development, rather than as isolated outbursts. Moreover, it put us under a little pressure, and that helped.

Get it on paper. One clear lesson that came out of both semesters was the need to get participants to distribute hard-copies of their writing to each other, as early in the workshop as possible. When participants distributed their writing discussion deepened, and the verbal feedback became specific and pointed. Written work should be distributed and worked on every meeting after the first week.

The Journey Abroad is Not the End

For our students, as well as for cultural anthropologists, the journey “abroad” is not the end of the epistemological project; it’s the beginning. To transform cultural “experience” and “encounter” into something more fungible, and ultimately more useful, students recast their experiences as stories and work to position them in relation to literary and scientific references. Students, like anthropologists, have profound and moving cross-cultural experiences, but unlike anthropologists they have little institutional support for turning those experiences into knowledge that they can share. The IWW is a step toward providing that support.

The IWW is just one response to the needs of returning students. We also encourage reflection before and during study abroad through a journal-writing workshop. And we provide our study abroad students a place to publish their work: The Aleph, a Journal of Global Perspectives. Retuning students have a variety of other needs that are served by career workshops, welcome-back desserts, and a student “ambassador” program in which returnees help prepare future study abroad students. The IWW, and our overall returning-student strategy, is a step toward reconceptualizing study abroad as a complex process that deserves to be fully integrated into the fabric of the liberal arts education as well as into the life journeys of our students.

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