Transforming the Study Abroad Experience

In a recent article published by the NY Times, “Extreme Study Abroad: The World Is Their Campus,” Claire Cain Miller describes a new trend in higher education that takes college students around the world as they complete their undergraduate degree essentially making the world their campus. While transforming education is one of my favorite topics, this article made me stop and think about transforming study abroad education. What is the true motivation behind the better, shorter, faster trend in study abroad?

One of the skills most desired by employers today is cultural awareness. Employers need their new employees to be comfortable and to thrive in a multi-cultural, global work environment. Study abroad is a fantastic tool to achieve a high level of cultural awareness as well as maturity and self reliance. But the type of study abroad experience described in Ms. Miller’s article (its third semester; it must be Berlin) has me wondering if we are doing our students – and therefore ourselves as a society – a disservice. Are we just reinforcing bad habits and catering to an inpatient and short-attention-span new generation?

In an age where young people can hardly be bothered to read more than 140 characters at a time and won’t watch a video that is more than 2 and a half minutes long, depth of understanding in a cross cultural situation is still incredibly important. Assuming that you and a colleague with different cultural backgrounds are starting from the same point of reference in a negotiation or even just in conversation can be very damaging.

It is so important for our young people to understand that their frame of reference – their lens of perspective – is not the same for others around the world and from different cultures. The collective experiences they base their opinions on are not the same as those from the Middle East or from Southeast Asia or from Russia. But if you spend only a couple of weeks trekking through Europe or even a couple of months living in Turkey, you will still only just begin to see the outline of the iceberg under the water.

The metaphor of the iceberg, where the majority of the ice is actually under water and much broader than what you can see above the water, is often used in cross cultural classes to describe what happens when two cultures meet.  At first, you see the ice above the water and think that there is not that much difference between you and the other person, and you begin to assume truths about this person that have no basis in reality. It is not until you have really spent some time together and come closer to each other that the ice under the water begins to collide. At first you are not sure why you and this new person are not getting along as well as you thought you were. Small misunderstandings become bigger misunderstandings until you finally come to realize that there is much more to this person than just the ice above the water. There is an entire foundation – their basis for their reality – that you have not even begun to see.

This kind of realization takes time and proximity to really work through. It takes the building of trust in order to identify what the issues are. And it takes trust to be able to work through the misunderstandings to get to the core collective experiences that shape who we are.

So the transformation of  the study abroad experience that advocates for speeding up and whizzing through is not doing our young people – or the rest of our society who will entrust this world to them – any good. Not everything is better, faster, smaller. Some things take time, words, and patience to see the process all the way through.

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