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Cultural Immersion Through Study Abroad

Achieving The Elusive Perspective Shift

Cultural immersion perspective shift

Some programs define cultural immersion as simply “being there,” asserting that physically studying in another country is an immersion in itself and that knowledge of another culture and language will follow naturally. While such programs range widely in design and learning outcomes, many educators feel that such an assumption can be limiting.

The elusive perspective shift that comes from a deeper, more critical cultural immersion experience includes empathy—the ability to see things from another point of view and evaluate situations not as American students (how would I feel in your place), but as local community members (how do you, the other, feel in your place).

It also includes critical reflection—an awareness of how one is informed by one’s own culture and makes sense of cultural differences subjectively. These skills, difficult to define and qualify, are becoming more important as students look for jobs in the global marketplace.

Experiential Programs

Experiential programs typically emphasize intense Language Learning, homestays with local families, and heightened independent interactions with local communities—often in the form of internships, field research, or service-learning projects. They include a range of forums for enhancing the reflection process, such as discussion sessions, essay writing, field reports, and journal keeping. John Wallace in “Educational Values of Experiential Education” suggests that “the right kind of experiential education constitutes a personal challenge, the meeting of which produces outcomes which cannot be achieved very often through books, reports, lectures, discussions, and tests.

These outcomes include an increased self-confidence, a deeper awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and a heightened knowledge of effective approaches to other human beings—all of which come from having functioned successfully in a strange environment and under a different set of ground rules from those found in one’s own culture.”

Most proponents of experiential education maintain that it not only requires students to reconceptualize their own relationship to the learning process and to assume responsibility for learning, but also asks facilitators to take less of a leading role, refraining from setting themselves up as “experts” who transfer knowledge to passive students. While this is challenging both for students and for facilitators in any sort of experiential program, it is particularly tricky in the study abroad context.

The Student’s Perspective

For students, a foreign setting is more demanding. They have to communicate in a new language while finding new, culturally appropriate strategies to seek out interactions. For many students it is difficult to accept not being well prepared for everything and not being able to “read ahead,” so to speak. The safe structure of classroom learning in which they normally excel is yanked away and replaced by a chaotic, exotic reality that challenges them to maintain clear vision and take charge of their learning process in ways they have never done before. They often undergo feelings of stress, frustration, anxiety, and rejection as they struggle with new experiences.

If experiencing becomes more difficult, the next phase of the experiential learning cycle, making meaning, is much more complicated. As students find out, intercultural communication glitches play havoc with verbal and nonverbal behavioral clues and make quick and accurate interpretation of experiences difficult.

We also ask students to consider the situated nature of their knowledge and to reconstruct previous ideas. But because we have labeled their knowledge as ethnocentric, situated, and contextual, it becomes difficult for them to extricate and to define their viewpoint.

The Facilitator’s Perspective

One of our primary functions is to make discovery possible, encouraging a sense of adventure, a willingness to “get out there and do it,” and a determination to seek out learning. We are also responsible for students’ well-being. We cannot knowingly allow them to make mistakes that could potentially endanger their health or safety. This means that while we may consider ourselves experiential educators, we also have to step in and out of the authority figure role.

At the same time, we are responsible to the host community. We depend upon its hospitality, tolerance, and goodwill, and we cannot look at it simply as a laboratory for student experiments in intercultural learning. This means that there may be moments when we cannot afford to allow students to make a particular mistake or to choose to act inappropriately and offend the community.

Finally, we have a responsibility as educators to our home institutions who are concerned with articulating and demonstrating that immersion does occur and that learning is taking place. We need to create assignments that both show and balance evolving knowledge about self and about other (i.e. neither too much introspection nor too much fact-gathering).

Achieving the Perspective Shift

Despite the difficulties inherent in both the student and facilitator roles, students can and do achieve the desired perspective shift. Much depends upon the individual student’s desire to learn, but there are certain types of activities that enhance the possibility that more students achieve this important outcome during the study abroad experience:

  • Fieldwork techniques offer a particularly effective model for training students to see deeper and to develop better listening and question-posing skills. By designing exercises that emphasize one or two skills at a time, we help delimit what to look for without giving away the discovery. Exercises also provide students with a structure in which to work and analyze.
    Observations, interviews, community or neighborhood mapping, and other activities allow students to practice seeing from another angle and hearing more carefully. As students begin to pay more attention to what they see, frame more appropriate questions, and better hear the answers, they gain valuable insights about both the culture and their previous understandings of it.

  • Creative writing exercises allow students to take on the part of a host mother or a person on the street, or write within a more thematic context—trying to see things from a doctor’s perspective if they are studying health or an NGO worker if they are studying community organizations. These exercises essentially turn the tables on students and force them to discuss and potentially resolve issues as cultural insiders.

  • Short readings or examples of reflexive writing can also provide an important tool to help students deconstruct their own knowledge. By teaching students how to extricate their own views as they analyze and then write these views back into their work, we help students learn to more carefully situate their knowledge base within their own identities and inevitable biases. This is one of the most useful ways to get them thinking critically.

  • Finally, ongoing discussion sessions provide both a forum and a framework in which students can process their experiences. These should not be viewed by students as gripe sessions or how’s-it-going sessions; rather, they should see the sessions as opportunities to compare, evaluate, and create knowledge as a group. Readings about the immersion process, culture shock, and American culture all provide good points of departure for student discussions. As the immersion process deepens, these are increasingly effective.

There is no formula that can produce the perspective shift automatically, but two points seem important: First, a program should not privilege one particular type of activity. Students’ learning styles vary, and different students will “get it” through different means. Second, all of these activities must be carefully contextualized within the larger learning goals and philosophy of the program, such that each systematically reinforces the program philosophy in a range of guises and styles. This gives students continued opportunities to have that breakthrough moment.

Immersion as Baptism

Of all the metaphors I’ve found to describe cultural immersion—plunging in, submergence, dousing, steeping, sousing, marinating, etc.—the image that struck me was that of baptism. Baptism, in the cultural immersion context, implies letting go, accepting risk, and acknowledging that one is about to go under. While under, there occurs a transformation, and when the person emerges from the experience, he or she is the same but also changed, having acquired new vision that will affect his or her perception and daily behavior.

As facilitators in this baptism, we can help students find the river, even push them into the water, but we do not have the power to effect the transformation. The actual shift requires that the students have faith, that they value both the journey and the discovery, and that they keep striving to immerse further, convinced that this endeavor is both possible and worthwhile. An experiential program asks students to embrace intellectual and personal challenges. The struggle to do so can produce major shifts in the ways students view the world and interact with people whose worldviews differ greatly from their own.

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