Students challenge their perspective of the world and themselves by maximizing immersion in host communities.
So now you’re immersed in a different culture. What even is culture, then? One of the well known ways people think of it is using an iceberg as a metaphor. Like icebergs, only a little part of culture is visible. So much of what makes up who we are as groups of people is made up of things that “outsiders” are unable to see from the surface. Hidden (or submerged) aspects of culture can include deeply held values and preferences. One of the things that is tricky is that we can have a hard time understanding these deep, submerged aspects of even our own culture. We can be unaware of how the cultural values and beliefs instilled in us have shaped us and how our own culture affects us when we interact with others. This is why study away is such a fantastic learning opportunity! You can get to know your own culture much better through becoming acquainted with another culture and examining how your experiences and beliefs interact with theirs. Hofstede uses the onion analogy: “On the outer layer of the onion, you’ll have symbols, such as food, logos, colours or monuments. The next layer consists of heroes, and can include real life public figures, like statesmen, athletes or company founders, or figures such as Superman in popular culture. On the third layer, closest to the core, you´ll find rituals, such as sauna, karaoke, or meetings.”
We’ve shared two ways to consider cultural adjustment below:
Before using the term Intercultural competence, first it must be acknowledged that it is not possible to become completely competent in someone else’s culture. Instead, focus on the lifelong learning that begins with understanding of one’s own cultural positionality. So what is intercultural competence? It’s a set of cognitive, affective and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts. (Bennett, 2008) Put simply, it’s understanding other cultures and knowing how to adapt to different scenarios given an understanding of cultures different than your own.
Although there are other theories surrounding intercultural competence, Milton Bennett’s is one of the most used. You can familiarize yourself with the 6 stages of intercultural competence by reviewing this article.
Cultural Humility is an approach originating in healthcare to engage with others that requires self-reflection and self-critique, includes the desire to fix power imbalances where none ought to exist, and involves aspiring to develop partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). Consider how colonialism plays into study away – as someone living within a culture different from your own, how can you learn from the people around you, and acknowledge them as the experts on their culture? Know that you can’t know everything about your host culture, and that’s okay! That’s part of the learning process. You don’t need to be an expert; you’re a learner.
Explained in this video through a Social Work lens, Cultural Humility is about…
- Being curious
- Being genuine
- Being vulnerable
- Addressing and redress structural inequalities
- Understanding people are experts on their own culture (not others’)
- A lifetime commitment
- Working collaboratively
- Amplifying voices of marginalized people
- Avoiding assumptions
- Intentional personal reflection
- Addressing power dynamics between people in intercultural settings
- Acknowledging privilege
Juliana Mosley’s TED Talk about Cultural Humility is a great way to learn about this.
Described by Ellie, a student who studied in Spain, “cultural humility, opposed to competence or knowledge, enforces the idea that we constantly learn, re-learn, grow, and change. It’s okay to not know, and we forever must be putting in the work to contribute to the world that is constantly morphing around us…. learned quickly from changing my attitude from ‘I need to know everything right now to do this’ to ‘Actually, I don’t know right now, and that’s okay. But I am here. Ready to learn and to put in the work.’” Ellie calls this process the “art of not knowing.”
It is quite likely that your body will need time to adjust to its new environment. If possible, try to take it easy when you first arrive (i.e. start a sleep schedule, drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods that you’re used to, engage in your normal self-care practices).
If you haven’t already, be sure to review your health insurance plan when you first arrive. You don’t want your first time navigating the policy to be the moment that you need it. Locate your emergency health facilities close to you and/or that come recommended by your program.
During orientation and throughout your pre-departure phase, we hope you created a self-care plan. This includes activities that generally help you to stay healthy and safe. Review this plan upon arrival and be VERY INTENTIONAL about creating good habits within the first portion of your program. Habits (good and bad) are more likely to continue if they are started early.
Many students experience mental health issues for the first time or in more severe ways while they are abroad. Although this is normal, it can be quite challenging since you don’t have your normal support system. This is the time to really lean into that self-care plan, reach out for help, and locate positive resources.
- Resilient Traveling: Stress Management & Enhancing your Experience Abroad (University of Michigan)
- Resources from PLU Counseling, Health and Wellness Services
Journal Prompt Ideas
As you prepare to study abroad, you’re probably already aware that you’re on the brink of a life-changing experience. From the moment you take off, you’ll visit many places and see many wonderful things, but without a doubt, the greatest journey takes place internally—we know it, and our alumni tell us all the time.
To help you process your experience, we recommend that you start a blog or keep a journal of your time abroad. Keeping a record of your cross-cultural experiences encourages you to think about, interpret, and analyze cross-cultural situations. Learning how to do this is one of study abroad’s most valuable lessons, so take advantage of the opportunity!
Here are eight tips for getting the most out of recording your cross-cultural experience.
1. Begin right away. Before you leave, record what you want to get out of your experience academically, socially, and personally. What do you expect to encounter? What concerns do you have?
2. Observe and interpret. Record day-to-day observations on your experiences and surroundings, from dinner conversations to people you see on the street. These details of daily life abroad are full of meaning. How do they represent different mindsets?
3. Respond to classroom lectures, discussions, and assignments. By documenting your impressions and interpretations of your academic environment, you are actively using classroom material to enhance your cultural experience in another country and vice versa. It’s one of the benefits of studying abroad versus just traveling abroad.
4. Experiment! Assign yourself different personal research exercises. For example, interview five or six “locals,” or take time to sit and observe how people interact in cafés, theaters, or public places.
5. Record your reactions. Ethnocentric moments are your reactions, based on your own cultural assumptions, to local situations and events. Recording an experience at the post office or a restaurant will help you to analyze your own cultural values. Re-reading them later in your stay can demonstrate how much you’ve grown and also be the source of a good laugh.
6. Break norms, customs, and traditions. You should also record how people respond to you. You may feel misunderstood, uncertain as to how to respond or relate, or lost because people do things differently. By imagining how others might interpret your actions differently, you will begin to understand different points of view.
7. Use your blog or journal creatively. Include photos, sketches, song lyrics, poems, or other creative projects. You may also wish to write in the local language. Keeping a vocabulary section will also help you remember the new slang terms and expressions you have learned.
8. Critique your blog or journal. How did your perspectives change? What did you choose to write about, and how did this change? How did you see yourself growing?
Text and information from IES Abroad
You may be planning to organize your own travel around your host country and/or neighboring countries while you’re away. When you do, think about the reasoning behind the decisions you make while organizing your travel. When booking a place to stay, are you able to choose a locally owned hostel/hotel/AirBnb? Why choose certain destinations over others? What’s the impact of tourism on the place you’re going to visit? Think about what you want to get out of your trip, and how you can be intentional in how you travel and why you go places. Another thing to keep in mind is how the culture may be different. After your trip, think about what you experienced and what you noticed while you were there. What cultural differences did you notice, between your home culture and the place where you’re studying? Why might those cultural differences exist? Personal travel is fun and exciting and you can get the most of your experience by putting some intentional thought into how you plan it.
“Responsible Tourism is about “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit.” Responsible Tourism requires that operators, hoteliers, governments, local people and tourists take responsibility, take action to make tourism more sustainable.”
Three Pillars of Responsible Tourism
- Environmental – Use resources sustainably, and reduce waste and overconsumption
- Economic – Maximise local economic benefits ensuring that communities are involved in, and benefit from, tourism. Wherever possible use tourism to assist in poverty reduction.
- Socio/Cultural – Be sensitive to the host culture, maintaining and encouraging social and cultural diversity.
What can you do as a study away student to travel more responsibly and sustainably? Ask yourself when choosing activities, making purchases, engaging with locals, etc. – “how do my decisions impact the local community using these three lenses?”
Learn about Ethical Photography here.
Study away can be an isolating experience for students. Sometimes it can be challenging to get adjusted to being in a new environment, make friends and feel comfortable and get a sense of community while you’re away from campus. This challenge is normal, and it’s good to utilize mental health resources available to you. Look into which apps/platforms you want to use to stay connected with your friends and family at home. Consider journaling or blogging as a way to reflect on what you’re experiencing while keeping loved ones at home up to date on your adventures. Think about your use of social media – when you use it, does it make you feel more or less connected? If you’re in a language immersion program, how can you find a balance between staying connected with people back home (who may not speak the target language you’re learning) and staying committed to being immersed in the language you’re learning? Take a moment also to think about how you could work towards an equilibrium between talking with people from home and actively engaging with your host community. Find what works for you and continually take intentional moments to pause and check in to see how you’re doing and what you might need at that moment.
Social media can be a great way to stay connected with friends and family back home, as well as keeping in touch with new friends after your program ends.
Don’t forget to take lots of pictures to share once you return. Whether it be your morning coffee, a historical site, or a picturesque Instagram moment featuring yourself; try to take a lot of pictures of what you are doing while abroad.
The Wang Center loves to see what students are up to during their programs. Tag pictures and posts with #lutesaway. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Blogging while abroad is a great way to journal and share your experiences with your friends and family. Rather than updating all your friends and family members one-on-one, you can post an entry for the day/week/month and let them view it as they have time. The Wang Center also welcomes blog postings and occasionally shares student work via social media or the website. Contact the Study Away Advisor, Holly, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in having your blog featured by the Wang Center.
Tips for Study Away!
Before you go…
- Research the culture, history, and language of the place you plan to visit.
- Open your mind to new things and experiences.
While are you are away…
- Keep a journal. This will help you reflect and look back on your experiences, and it’s a good way to cool down after a long day.
- Take a BREAK from your phone. Learn how to read a physical map instead of depending on your GPS. Set a daily screen-time limit.
- Observe, listen, and try to be objective. Recognize that the filter of your own culture will always influence how you see the world.
- Attend local events not typically attended by tourists. Ask your host family/local friends about which ones to go to.
- Make an effort to learn the local language, even if that’s not why you are there.
After you return…
- You may experience “reverse culture shock.” Try to stay in contact with the friends you met while you were away.
- Find ways to continue developing skills you started building while you were away.
- Give yourself time to reflect on your experiences. Read that journal!