Let’s Talk About Higher Ed.

So, lately I’ve been thinking about study abroad, and about how the ways in which higher ed institutions approach it is kind of profoundly broken.

At most universities, once a student applies to and is accepted to their program, their university piles them into a room with all of the other study abroad students and everyone has a nice chat about how to not get murdered. Culture shock is discussed. Personal boundaries are tested. Slideshows are played.

Sometimes discussed in the meeting is the graph charting students’ study abroad experiences. At the beginning, the student is in a honeymoon period. Life is great! Locals are just like me! Then, reality sets in and the student is bummed out for a while about cultural differences or loneliness or whatever. Then, there’s a spiky bit on the line that trends generally upward, and by the time the student finishes their time abroad they don’t want to go home, they feel like they are one with their new countrymen, etc. etc.

Study Abroad Model

Both of these are really stupid ways to prepare folks for the study abroad experience.

Because here’s the thing–both the meetings and the graph treat study abroad students as one group. And, for university insurance purposes, they are. But I think there are actually at least three distinct subgroups within study abroad students that need different information, have different goals, and will have profoundly different experiences during their time abroad.

The first group are the English-speaking country kids–folks going to the UK, Australia, etc. (Or, as students in other countries call them, “people on a four-month vacation.”*) These people are unlikely to be looking for a personal challenge in their study abroad experience and are unlikely to have insurmountable cultural immersion issues–they will not have massively-reduced personal comfort or technological access. They’re likely stressed about money.

The second group are students in non-English, non-hardship countries–France, Spain, the rest of Western Europe. These students are likely looking to improve their language skills, but are probably not looking at development careers or personal growth through hardship. They probably want to experience culture in the Grand Tour sense of the word–they want to see whatever amazing things their host culture has created and probably have an idea of what those things are before they go. They are unlikely to experience material stress, but may have stress from operating in a second language (particularly if they dual-enroll in a real university) and are experiencing the same money stress as the first group.

The third group are students in non-English hardship countries–West Africa, India, etc.** These students are probably looking to expand on their language skills, but they may also be operating in a context where the language they wish to improve is not the primary language of most of the population. They may also be more interested in development careers or working with NGOs post-college. They’re less likely to be worried about money, since cost of living is likely lower. However, they’re likely stressed about their European language, their native language, and reduced material comfort level–they may not have consistent internet access or hot water. They are also the group in which the largest percentage of students will be dealing with being an ethnic minority for the first time, and are the only group in which students are likely to be substantially wealthier than the host population and (if they are in American-only programs) isolation from the host culture is an issue.

Students in each of these groups have completely different needs. I’m crying when I get made fun of in Wolof by my host mom–a kid in France may be freaked out and lost on the metro without knowing how to ask for directions, and someone in the UK may feel pressured to drink every night rather than focus on other parts of their cultural experience. None of these problems (or their solutions) have anything to do with each other.

What’s frustrating, as someone who’s in that third group, is that most study abroad materials seem strongly geared towards the second group. In particular, that graph seems most likely to fit their experiences–language stress is the driver behind most of the spikes and dips in happiness on that graph. If language is the biggest lifestyle change in the study abroad experience, as it is for that group, then that graph makes sense.

But what if you start the graph completely devoid of a honeymoon period? I, and–as best as I can tell most of the kids in my program–started our graph with a complete blank. None of us had any idea what to expect from Senegal. So, the place that we started our graph out on became our baseline. Study Abroad Model 2

This doesn’t mean that our graph has to be different than the original one, but the first week in a host culture is pretty much horrible just because it’s new, and so that means that our bar is set really low. So when we experience new things without completely fucking up–a successfully-negotiated bucket shower, for example–we have a little daily spike. However, because we are constantly re-learning how to do basic life tasks (rather than just language), our spikes are tiny, and many of them happen throughout the day. We don’t have general trends, because every day introduces the possibility of some horrible domestic incident that will completely demoralize us.

We may never grow to love the new culture (or even enjoy the new city very much) because it simply may not be that comfortable, but we probably find the experience very valuable. And that’s the biggest difference between groups one and two and group three, I think–the goal of the first two groups hinges (possibly fully in group one and partially in group two) on enjoyment.

The goals of group three, in my experience, have a lot to do with value (divorced from pleasure), and so it may actually be kind of unlikely that people in group three don’t want to come back home. They may instead feel like their experience has been valuable, but is now over. And it would be nice to see study abroad talked about from that perspective, because it’s a lot closer to the one that I’m looking at and that a lot of the folks in my program seem to be going through.

This isn’t to say that my experience is worth more than the experience of someone in France–that’s absolutely not true. But I think the enjoyment/time graph and the value/time graph are very similar for that person, where as my enjoyment/time graph and value/time graph point in pretty different directions.

But by treating the experience as guaranteed to end up in the land of “but I can’t bear to part!” higher ed folks do a disservice to kids in my position. I’ve found this experience to be an interesting and useful one, but I really, really want to go home, now. Small children threw rocks at my head today. Staying longer will not help me achieve my goals, and on some level I feel guilty that my experience here is a goal-driven one. I feel like I should be crying over the fact that I’ll likely not come back to Dakar, but I’m not.***

So, I propose a new model in which orientations are handled in a three-group basis, and study abroad guides take into account that not every country is going to be delightful. Because really? I am looking forward to increased hot water and decreased dead street cats in my life in five weeks, and I don’t want to feel guilty about that fact.

*I kid. Mostly.

** English-speaking hardship countries exist, but do not frequently have study abroad programs in them, from what I can tell.

*** Similarly, the goals of group one don’t have anything to do with language acquisition. And that’s totally cool, but it likely means that the initial giant drop in your happiness level (which in group two has to do with realizing your linguistic difficulties) is unlikely to occur. They may just kind of enjoy the whole experience, and that orientation needs to focus more on not going into debt, activities to do that don’t involve drinking, and a review of first-world safety tips.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Higher Ed.

  1. You’re onto something — there needs to be more support offered at the beginning. I suspect the reason they don’t address the kinds of issues you’re talking about is that it would convince the majority of students not to go at all.

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