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.
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.
So for class (“Seminar on Living and Learning in Dakar,” which is equal parts wonderful group therapy and headdeskingly awful) I had to write about what cultural intensity factors (which used to be “stress” factors, but we don’t like that word) have been the biggest for me. The cultural intensity factors we were able to reference–things like language, cultural expectations, visibility/invisibility–are basically a pared-down list of Why Field Work is Hard. If you’re interested, consult the second part of the first chapter of every ethnography I’ve read in my undergraduate career. But basically, they’re all the things you think would make living abroad difficult.
So, while thinking about that, I realized that my biggest stress factor right now (and the one that directly leads to like 90% of the stories on this blog) is that I possess a complete inability to figure out why people want me to do things now.
Do you know how difficult it is to respond to other people without the ability to predict why they’re talking to you and what their requests are leading up to? Turns out, it’s really difficult. I can no longer filter what parts of requests are really important and what aren’t. Operating in a second language, in an environment I’m unfamiliar with, has given me a mild filtering disorder. It’s disconcerting.
It’s less bad now, but I remember a particular moment about a month after I moved in to my host family, which I now think of as the Worst Dinner Ever. I had spent all day being told to move chairs and plates and bowls of rice in ways that were never fully explained because—to my host parents—they were obvious.
(Of course the rice goes in the living room and not in the dining room—we don’t eat in the dining room, and we need to eat the rice. For dinner. Which we are having now, because it’s 9 pm and that’s when dinner happens.)