U. study abroad offers valuable experiences

Students at Rutgers University are fortunate to have numerous opportunities to travel abroad, whether for extended periods of study, or shorter service-learning based trips. As leaders of such trips, we have seen firsthand how interactions with people of different cultures and ethnicities allows our students the opportunity to see the world and its contents, while enabling them to develop additional sets of values and views they can use throughout their lives. These positive effects, however, can be lessened, and miscommunication and conflict can arise, when students are not adequately prepared. With spring break travel around the corner, we offer this five-point list based on our own experiences that we hope will help students be better equipped for the challenges and opportunities offered through international travel.

  1. Learning exchange. First and foremost, it should be made clear that study abroad and service-learning programs are not unidirectional. That is, students should not participate in these experiences expecting to ‘change lives,’ but rather expecting to engage in a learning exchange wherein they will learn as much (if not more) from their hosts as they contribute.
  2. Cultural competency. Cultural understanding is not innate or intuitive to those outside of that culture and must be learned — even a brief training on cultural sensitivity can help avoid cultural misunderstandings that result in insult or conflict. Although we do not suggest that a brief training will lead to full cultural competency in that (or any other) culture, we hope it will encourage our students to look more deeply at, and be more sensitive to, people that differ in ethnicity, religion or values from that of their own, and we encourage others leading such trips to arrange pre-departure cultural sensitivity trainings and/or coursework.
  3. Communication. It is often the case that there will be communication barriers between students and the people of the culture they are traveling to ‘serve.’ Although verbal communication barriers are partly resolved through able translators — an integral part of these groups — issues also arise during non-verbal communication. Here, the saying “It is not what we say but how say it”, is key. We must be aware of how we convey information non-verbally to avoid the appearance of bias in our expressions, which can interfere with the essential purposes of these trips. Understanding some basic dos and don’ts of a particular culture is imperative in this case. For example, recognizing particular cultural beliefs about modesty and dress is important so as not to offend others or create discomfort to our students.
  4. Recognizing prejudice. We all have culturally specific biases and prejudice, and students must learn to recognize and examine theirs. Although most prejudice is based on fear and ignorance, it is still imperative that we personally acknowledge it so as to mitigate unintended expressions of such biases, which in turn create otherwise avoidable conflict. One example of this is learning culturally specific ways to decline offers of food and other invitations without being offensive.
  5. Using technology wisely. Although we each have ‘no technology’ policies in the classroom, we cannot expect — nor would we want — students should leave their cameras and phones behind while on their study abroad or service learning trips. In fact, technology can be a useful way to help students reflect on their experiences. However, the use of technology on these trips becomes an issue when students are more focused on documenting their experience via Instagram and Facebook than actually being present in the moment. The effects are two-fold: first, it prevents students from fully engaging with their host community, and, second, photos taken of people in other countries without their permission demonstrates a lack of respect and the kind of cultural ‘othering’ that goes against the core objectives of such travel experiences — to become more culturally competent students and global citizens.

We encourage students to seriously engage with the suggestions we have offered here and take the initiative to learn more about the cultures of the places they will be visiting. In so doing, students will not only be more respectful and reflective members of their host communities, but they will also get the most out of their experiences.

Dr. Tefera Gezmu is an Assistant Professor in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Dr. Gwendolyn Beetham is the Global Village Director in the Douglass Residential College.

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