Reverse Culture Shock

Emma Ice Cream Rush

Emma Ice Cream Rush

An important discussion in every Orientation session for each semester’s new group of students is how to recognise and cope with culture shock. I blogged about the very topic in 2010 (“My First Culture Shock – Africa Style”). However, with our current groups nearly finished with their semester abroad, the other side of the coin is more relevant – “reverse” culture shock. In Orientation, I tell the students that everyone experiences culture shock differently. Some may feel overwhelming waves of newness around every corner in the first week, then feel completely at ease the rest of the semester, whilst others may not feel like anything is different until weeks into their international experience when something small (like trying a British marshmallow for the first time) may set it off. However, some students may not experience culture shock at all – until they touch down back in the States four months later. Seeing one’s home country through different eyes for the first time is a strange (and often unexpected) experience.

Stepping off the plane, into the airport, and back into the “normal” world would seemingly be a simple matter. But suddenly being surrounded by the native accent may be jarring. Cars look enormous. Free refills are a reason to get excited, and not just assumed. The clothes dryer works so quickly! People wear sneakers when they’re not at the gym. You can say “pants” without embarrassment. Don’t forget to tip! The shock of being shocked by “home comforts” can be more disjointing than being in an entirely new situation.

So how to prepare students for the possibility? Ideally, start the discussion early and ensure students are aware this may happen to them at the end of the semester. Friends and family will want to know they enjoyed the experience, but sharing a 64GB memory card’s worth of photos may be a bit more than anyone except Mom can handle. Memories that are hugely important to a student and their study abroad cohort will seem unimportant or boring to those who “weren’t there.”

Students should be reminded that the only people who can truly relate to their experience are the other members of their programme – and other study abroaders! Some universities have positions for study abroad alumni to promote programmes across campus or in study abroad fairs. This is a fantastic way to meet others in the same situation and students will have an audience keen to hear all about study abroad! Also, lead your students to resources for them to continue their international education – such as Fulbright, Peace Corps, BUNAC, or postgraduate opportunities. Even before going abroad again, encourage your students to take lessons learned whilst studying abroad into day-to-day life. Whether it’s mustering up the courage to go into that tiny Korean café and order an unrecognisable menu item or making the decision to take a Russian 101 language class as an elective, the confidence and adventurousness gained through study abroad can manifest itself in a myriad of ways back home. But hey, who doesn’t miss free coffee refills?!?

Foggy Day in London Town

Wintery London--in March!

Wintery London--in March!

Michael Buble sings, ‘A foggy day in London Town. Had me low, had me down. I viewed the morning with such alarm. The British Museum had lost its charm. How long I wondered, could this thing last…’ (See the video here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wn3oE7Tc4fo) He must have been singing about a winter like the one that we’re all currently suffering through in London. The weathermen will tell you the jet stream normally over the Northern Scottish Islands and Norway have made their way south to cover London. I don’t know what it is, but it’s cold…and mean…and gray!

So how does this affect a semester abroad? In two main ways. Firstly, it can affect student’s moods. Not so surprisingly, weather can have a very big role in one’s mood. (You can read more on this in Dr Grohol’s article here -http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/11/09/weather-can-change-your-mood/). Most interestingly in fact, is that ‘rising temperatures lower anxiety…’. When students are already outside their comfort zones, with smaller and more limited social circles to support themselves, and experiencing new activities, a heightened anxiety level can make things tricky. As on-site directors it is really important to test the temperature of students’ moods and make sure that they are continuing to be happy. Reach out on a regular basis to students making sure they’re ‘ok’.

These measurements change the way you manage your semester, and this is the second point. The semester has more triage measures than a typical programme. For example, a day trip to Kenilworth castle with our students recently became more of a flying visit due to torrential freezing rain and winds. It makes you think on your feet! It makes local knowledge all the more valuable when weather is unpredictable.

We also send out a weekly Olive Branch email to all our students suggesting cheap and fun things to do around London, the UK and Europe. We give them travel advice and safety suggestions as well as recipes to try and YouTube videos to watch. The past month, our Olive Branch has been full of things to do in doors, or around London but inside. It’s important to give students options which can keep them happy.

What would you do in these situations? Do you have any additional thoughts about student activities in poor weather?

“Study” Abroad? Do We Have To?

Hitting the Books--Abroad

Hitting the Books--Abroad

How much is too much academic work on a study abroad program? What is the true value of travel and culture while abroad? Does it outweigh the value of classroom work?

This is a growing area of contention amongst our students this semester and an ongoing debate amongst the study abroad community. Faculty and staff alike walk a fine line between lessening the work load while abroad and just offering a gut course (or a bird course if you’re from Canada). I have had a multitude of students this semester complain about the workload. In fact one student even stated during an open forum discussion that ‘you shouldn’t have to work as hard as you do at home, during your semester abroad.’

But is that true? And, more importantly, should it be true? Firstly, let us consider the issue of how much work students should be expected to complete during a semester away and the solutions that some of our partners have used for their students. Most programs either send faculty from home campus, hire local adjunct faculty or directly enroll (or through exchange) and have their students take classes at local universities. Typically home campus faculty tend to assign slightly less reading and homework, with fewer examinations or papers and then grade slightly more leniently. Why would they do such a thing? Especially when they have spent their entire working life working in the pursuit of knowledge as well as passing on that knowledge to attentive students.

The answer lies in the non-classroom learning conundrum. One of the more rewarding aspects of studying abroad is that the city, country, continent where one studies can also act as a classroom. Architecture classes can roam the streets of Barcelona taking in some of Gaudi’s masterpieces. Politics students can visit Parliament in London and watch the debates in action. History students can visit the Roman Forum in Rome and arts students the Musee d’Orsay in France (which I would argue is much more fun than the Louvre! :) ). Most visiting faculty understand the academic value of slightly lessening the standard quantity of coursework to give way for students to learn in a different way.

This is typically understood and abided by across the board. However, there are two growing trends that buck this mentality and are substantially different in their own thinking. The first is that despite students studying abroad and being able to take in learning through experiences where they are studying, the quantity of work should remain on par with what is demanded at home campus. This tends to create a very difficult situation as most students expect slightly less work while away. But more so, the students are distracted by much more while abroad. For example, the discount airfares in London alone make it affordable (and almost mandatory) for many students to travel on the occasional weekend trip. Who could pass up a 1pence airplane ticket to Florence?! Not to mention the experiences opened up to them in the city; with free entrance to some of the most venerable and awe-inspiring museums and galleries in the world. And does this not have its own value?

This brings us to the second line of thinking, whereby faculty lessen the workload to the point of almost non-existence. Many US students also feel that for example the UK system, which is built upon a more substantial independent study component, means dramatically less work (though by the end of the semester most of my students wish they had studied more to prepare for essays and exams at the end of term). One hopes that this ‘less is more’ mentality is to foster not only academic independence but a personal growth amongst students studying abroad. One could argue that part of the value of study abroad cannot be measured by grades but rather by seeing the personal growth of the students throughout the program.

When American students arrive abroad their naivety is often astounding. But to meet them again at the end of the semester, and see how worldly they’ve become after their trips to Prague, Dublin and Lisbon, is an absolute treat. Their sense of maturity, independence and self assurance is encouraging. This personal growth is truly one of the most valued assets to studying abroad and something that should not be stifled.

Programs should work to promote both personal and academic achievement while abroad. There is no reason to choose one or the other. A course can be academically challenging without pressuring students to their breaking point. And likewise, courses should not be so simplified and easily graded that students feel that they return home with nothing more than an album full of trip photos.

The important and definitely difficult task for study abroad faculty and administrators is to walk a fine line between the two. Promote self growth AND academic achievement. How does your program achieve this? Do your students get all ‘A’s’ or ‘C’s'? Do they need more ‘culture time’?

Young Americans Converge on London!

London Weekend: Wet but Wonderful!

“Cork.” “Norwich.” “Manchester.” “Glasgow.” “Sheffield.” These are not the normal responses you expect to hear from young Americans when asked “Where are you from?” Unless it’s London Weekend! This March, we welcomed over 30 Illini (that’s students of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the uninitiated) to the UK’s capital city for 3 days of fun and culture. The students are able to take advantage of as much or as little of the activities as they wish, with everything from travel to hotels covered for them. Besides the obvious benefit of seeing London and getting to experience a different part of the UK than their host university’s town, the most important aspect of the weekend is encouraging Illini spread out across England, Scotland, and the Republic of Ireland to get to know each other, and have ready-made contacts when they travel around the British Isles. Activities are arranged to offer both fun (the wonderfully silly West End musical Rock of Ages) to delving deeper into London’s history and culture (questions on the Scavenger Hunt include “What does the Cockney phrase ‘bees and honey’ mean?” and “Name two famous literary minds who lived in Bloomsbury”), plus lots of opportunity for bonding over delicious meals. I think Emily and I enjoy the meals and entertainment as much as the students! The students get to know each other by staying in dorm-style hotel rooms, taking a private guided coach tour of London, visiting the Tower of London and enjoying a comedy night. Watching students who didn’t know each other in Illinois become friendly in London, having come from the various corners of the British Isles, is a wonderful sight.

Illinois’ British Exchange Program is quite different to most of the “island” programmes I work with day-to-day in London, in that students are directly enrolled into British (or Irish!) universities, meaning they are living and learning with British and other international students. This programme is a spectacular opportunity to become more familiar with British culture and become closely acquainted with cities that London-based students may not know about, much less plan to visit. At our Saturday night pre-comedy pub dinner, I sat across from a student from Glasgow. I told her I was making my first visit to that city this summer and asked what I should see. She excitedly started listing museums and music venues, telling me that even in a whole semester, she knows she won’t be able to get to everything there is to see in Glasgow! This student’s perspective is making me rethink all of those trips I took to Edinburgh, missing Glasgow.

Both “island” and direct enrolment study abroad programmes have their merits. In our island programmes, such as Binghamton, Bucknell, and Dominican, the students become extremely familiar with London and the many cultural opportunities within the capital, taking courses and living exclusively within their home campus group. Illinois’ BEP programme, however, sees students directly integrated into British and Irish residence halls and lectures. This approach may appeal to the more independent students, who are comfortable away from the safety net of home familiarities, like fellow Illini.

Regardless of where in the British Isles they are spending a semester, I am happy to be part of the London Weekend to see Illini getting to know each other! Do you find students thrive best in an island or direct enrolment programme?

Britain’s Historical Mysteries

Sun, Students, Stonehenge!

Sun, Students, Stonehenge!

At 8.30 on Thursday, our seven Dominican University students, Emma and I took the long bus route to Bath via Stonehenge. The day started slowly with the majority finding time to catch up on lost sleep during the two hour drive to our primary destination.

Before we clambered off the bus to explore Stonehenge, we (including our intrigued driver) were treated to an informative presentation by Ernie on the historical significance and numerous theories which surround the creation and maintenance of the ancient structure. Thanks to intensive research work undertaken by archaeologists, geologists and theologians, the ambiguity of Stonehenge has been reduced significantly. As a result, the most credible theory explains the site to be of religious significance, having served as a centre of healing. However, due to the lack of written historical record, we may never know the true service that 4,000-5,000 year old monument served.

With some students having previously visited the World Heritage landmark – and a steadfast refusal of others to accept Stonehenge as the product of anything more than magic – it wasn’t an unqualified success, but it certainly educated us in the verses of British cultural and historical significance. Bizarrely, the beautifully clear day was, for once, considered more of a hindrance than a help as it denied us the opportunity to see the full glistening effect of the inner bluestones which form part of the horseshoe-shaped structure.

Back onboard the bus and Bath-bound, Carla provided us with a brief history of the region and offered some insight into the city. Unfortunately, we were still none-the-wiser as to what Bath chairs were?! Google can solve that problem, though!

Having pulled in alongside Bath Abbey a little earlier than scheduled at 12.30, we immediately headed to the Roman Baths to begin our visit and allow Emma to commence an arduous day of Christmas shopping. The green-tinged water of the main bath (caused by a growth of algae) may not have been particularly appealing but standing on the terrace, it was easy to imagine the baths teeming with people millennia ago, particularly when there were hired hands kitted out in full Roman attire to help spark the imagination.

Following the fascinating self-guided audio tour of the baths, three of our party enjoyed a visit to the Fashion Museum which houses wedding dresses through the ages – always a winner with the female contingent! For the rest, it offered over two hours of shopping and free-time to explore what the city had to offer. With much of the group going their separate ways, we all experienced our own aspect of Bath which included the sampling of the famous Bath buns.

Known to be one of the most picturesque and quaint cities of England, it certainly proved to be so on a sunny autumn afternoon. Nobody warned me about the shop names though which definitely proved to be one of the highlights! Notable commendations go to athletics shop Running Bath (see what they did there?) and Ben’s Pancakes (for personal reasons!), but ultimately the award for best named shop goes to Knob Connections. I didn’t dare check what they were selling.

As a robotic Father Christmas waved us off from the roof of the nearby shopping complex, our gleeful shoppers compared their haul of bargains which had included a day of indulgence for our spa treatment visitors! Fortunately, successfully evading the traffic ensured we enjoyed a positive end to successful trip.

Embracing London’s Literary History

Literary London Lives!

Literary London Lives!

On a cold and windy autumn day in London – you’ll need to start getting used to these if you haven’t already – seven study-abroad students from Dominican University and I attended a historical and cultural walk. Inspired by the impact of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens on London, we were guided along an ambiguous path, tracing the steps of both themselves and their characters.

The group met our tour guide at The Monument to the Great Fire of London, where our incredibly passionate and theatrical tour began – a theme that set a precedent for the rest of the day. Although the walk was specifically tailored to the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, whose history is undeniably entwined with the shaping of London, it also taught little-known facts to tourists and gave an insight to local culture.

Having learnt that The Monument height, when toppled, would draw a line to the point at which the Great Fire of London broke out, we walked over London Bridge to Hay’s Galleria and onwards to the original archway of London Bridge. Prior to its relocation, this composed one of the most significant pieces of the capital’s landscape and was surreal to see it now cemented in a nondescript and underwhelming location. Having been encouraged to touch the historical wall, an impromptu visit to the pub was welcomed as a typically British experience for the students – a cup of tea as the drizzle continues on a grey London day.

Despite several Nancy references falling on deaf ears, our guide was apparently none-the-wiser and continued her specific Dickens references which perhaps weren’t suited to her American audience, or indeed to me! Regardless, we picked up many interesting stories and anecdotes from the day, including learning of Ryan’s uncomfortable night on the damp and dingy Golden Hinde which brought a smile to a few more faces than he would probably care for!

Remember the passion I mentioned earlier? Well, it didn’t just apply to theatre but London itself. “Sorry, I just hate that…I don’t like looking at it.” Cue bemusement amongst the group, particularly as this had interrupted an explanation of Southwark. It materialised she was glaring at The Shard, London’s latest, but by no means the last, high-rise structure. Despite the numerous perplexing moments, we learnt many interesting facts about the nation’s capital, including the meaning behind Samuel Johnson’s famous “a tavern chair is the throne of human felicity” quote. Indeed, sitting in the former room of the literary pioneer was something that will not be hastily forgotten.

The theatrical students in the group then made light work of a Shakespeare quiz – interspersed with some shameless name-dropping by our host – before we culminated our tour outside the Globe theatre. All in all, we enjoyed the day in spite of the elements and it was definitely, if nothing else, a unique experience!

Relationship Building With Your Students

Exhiliration at the Top!

Exhiliration at the Top!

It’s Autumn in London, so you know what that means for Academic Solutions! Going on Study Tour with our Dominican University students! This amazing 8-day trip is a unique part of their programme and introduces the students to parts of Britain they may never have visited independently, or even known about. Watching the students realise that the walls they are standing next to in York were built by Romans, or gazing up at the sky through the demolished medieval Fountains Abbey, or even getting to buy them their first deep-fried Mars Bars are some beautiful reminders of how study abroad can change lives and expand minds.

The benefits of Study Tour are two-fold- not only do the students have opportunity to delve deeper into British history, but I also got to know the students on a more personal level. Spending hours on trains is a great opportunity to enjoy conversations with students. I enjoy hearing more about their personal interests and can often suggest places or resources for them to check out. Discussing Oliver Cromwell with a History student over a plate of haggis and encouraging a Theatre student to return to Edinburgh for the annual Fringe Festival were some particular highlights. The most fulfilling moment, however, was watching everyone reach the peak of Arthur’s Seat, then looking over Edinburgh from the top of this extinct volcano, proud of their achievement. In between all the gathering of contacts and learning of history, this bracing hike was literally a breath (or gust!) of fresh air.

Observing the students on Study Tour, or any longer trip, is a fantastic way to see their relationships with each other, see the dynamics at work and be an available resource. It is a reminder why chaperoning trips is more than just a pleasant perk for staff- it’s very important in developing stronger relationships with the students, a great benefit of a smaller programme.

How do you find accompanying students on trips helps your relations with students?

The Small Name Factor: Secret to Great Internships?

When I begin reading applications from interns-to-be, there are invariably requests to work for the BBC, Prime Minister David Cameron, the British Museum and HSBC. Students often have a belief that “bigger is better” and hope to add an instantly recognisable name to their CV with their international internship. As with so many aspects of study abroad, it all comes down to expectations, which must certainly be taken into account when a “name-brand” placement is hoped for. But how does a student’s actual day-to-day experience in an established setting like this compare to their tasks with a less-recognisable organisation?

I believe students in smaller offices invariably have a fuller and more enriching experience than those in larger organisations. Whether it’s a charity in which the student and director are working one-on-one on projects, or an entrepreneurial firm where the student’s skills from business classes can have real world implications, interns in these placements gain proper work experience, beyond the stereotypical tea-making and copier-wrangling skills that interns can be stuck with when they are seen as just a nameless extra pair of hands in a more corporate setting.

While the perception may be that the British Museum is the placement to get, a placement at a smaller museum can end up being much more valuable on professional and personal levels. In a museum with only a few galleries, the curator and other members of staff can get to know the intern on an individual basis, rather than the student just being another nameless face in an army of eager tea-fetchers. In small galleries and museums, student interns are able to gain expertise across the entire collection, rather than just knowing the front desk or gift shop well. More opportunities exist for interacting with visitors and making a direct connection with guests, in addition to growing the student’s personal knowledge of the collection.

Even with finance internships, where having a big name like Lloyds or Barclays on a CV can seem like a huge boost, students will gain greater skills working in the finance department of a smaller company, rather than refining their data entry skills for weeks on end.

In the realm of political internships, I have personal experience of how working for a smaller party is more beneficial. I was the sole intern in the Scottish National Party’s Westminster Whip’s office, where I was given meaningful tasks like researching policies, directly briefing MPs and composing Early Day Motions. The Office Manager was just as likely to go on the tea run as I was. Every one of the party’s five Westminster MPs knew me and took an interest in my learning. I even chatted with the party’s leader, the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond. And my friend working for the party of government? Stuffing envelopes and handing out leaflets. This is not to say that those working for Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs will have a meaningless experience. But working for a more well known MP does mean competing with other interns and work experience students for the meatier tasks and being given more trivial work the rest of the time.

These examples can be transferred to any field an intern may wish to join. In any smaller company, more support will be given to the intern when there is a small team of employees who know the student and are interested in helping them learn through the experience and expand their skill sets. A small organisation can mean greater autonomy, allowing a student to provide more input, take on more responsibility and become a valued member of staff, even in a short time period.

While expectations must be considered, it is also important to note that students do not always include the “big names” on their applications fully expecting a placement there, but rather as an example of the field they would like to experience. David Cameron’s name may be written down simply because they lack familiarity with other MPs or smaller parties beyond the big three. Similarly, the National and the Tate are the first art museums that spring to mind when one thinks London. When presented with an alternative placement in the same realm, students happily accept.

How possible is it to prepare students in pre-departure meetings and when discussing potential placements for the potential disparity in name recognition versus actual experience? Should home campuses help adjust student expectations prior to the application stage? Or is it the provider’s role to discuss the merits of smaller organisations with the student?

A Tale of Three Cities


This past Friday, Emma and I met the Binghamton-in-London programme students and faculty to embark on a two day trip full of history, culture and, hopefully, a little fun. We boarded our coach to escape the blustery English weather, and hit the road, heading towards our first destination, Warwick Castle.

Warwick is a beautiful town full of little shops, fine restaurants and old architecture. But its crowning jewel is the castle. It is a beautiful old building with everything from a peacock garden to a protecting wall. However, in the past couple of years the castle has been sold to Madame Tussaud’s. This capitalistic-wax-toting-minx has converted the castle into an over rehearsed Disney-esque experience. While it is assuredly perfect for children and the like, this ‘showmanship’ has alienated those who have often visited the castle in the past, to glimpse into its deep English heritage. This leads to the deeper question about England’s protection of its buildings and legacy. As someone who personally lives in a 600 year old property, and has painstakingly (and expensively) taken care of windows, lathe and plaster, and timber beams, I can honestly say that maintaining history can be difficult. But shouldn’t it be mandatory?!

Once we left Warwick, we stopped for the night in Stratford-upon-Avon. This town is steeped in tradition. From the sagging Tudor buildings to its Shakespearean theatres, Stratford has excelled at preserving its past without commercializing its streets and sites. With a group of 32 students, we trudged to the newly re-opened Swan theatre to sit through a long version of Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. However, much to both my and the students surprise, the show was amazing! Acting was superb; shock and awe; excitement and bereavement. Again, history translated to the present while still holding true to the past. The theatre was packed, and though I can only speak for myself, the show was a huge success. I mean, how often do a group of 32 students enjoy a Shakespeare production?!?!

The following morning we pushed off again, this time to Oxford. Here is a city with old and new and even newer beginnings. The university is untrackably old, with scholars debating its exact origination date. But the city bustles with new shops, restaurants, markets and the ever youthful and renewing student body. With painfully stereotypical ‘Oxford’ attire in tow, we headed back to London. Truthfully, this was probably one of the best visits to all three cities.

The trip made me ask many questions about history, its preservation and where do we go from here? Is the future going to mean that our past must be commercialized to exist? Or is this the very thing that we must protect our heritage from?

When in London…

Emily Loving London

Emily Loving London

I’ve been in London for three weeks now and have completely fallen in love. At first, I will admit that I was completely overwhelmed. This city is huge, moves quickly and is absolutely freezing! Throw in the winding streets and six way intersections, and I began my trip very disoriented and utterly lost.

My love affair with London began a few days after I arrived. Class was cut very short and the sun shining (a rare occurrence!) so I set out to explore my new city and finally get my bearings. Wandering through the city, from the string quartet performing in Covent Garden, to eclectic Soho, to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, I could barely contain myself I was so excited. I walked along the Thames only to find Parliament and Big Ben (which is actually not the tower, but the bell inside) and Westminster Abbey. At the Abbey I paused for a bit, and was flooded with thoughts of the Royal Wedding that will occur in April. When I saw a sign for Buckingham Palace I couldn’t resist, so I walked along St. James Park. The golden gates to the palace were shining in the sunlight; it was magical. I ended my journey at a small café near Trafalgar Square called Notes, which has only been around for a few months. It has delicious sandwiches, coffee, and also sells music. I had, in short, the perfect day.

The best thing about London, as far as I can tell, is that there is something exciting and unexpected around each corner. I don’t know what my journey will bring, but I will be lucky if it is half as exciting as my first walk through London.

London is actually my second time studying abroad. This past summer I was lucky enough to spend five weeks in Florence, Italy – it was an incredible trip. Now that I’ve been in London for almost a month, I’ve started to think about what makes a study abroad experience. With an exciting city at our fingertips, how can we, American students, make the most of our time in London? How can we leave feeling as though we have gotten the absolute most out of our time here?

In Italy I tried my hardest to be independent and break away from the 60 plus students from UNC who were there with me. I met Italian people, went to local hangouts rather than the American-filled nightclubs and ate true Italian food. I wanted a truly Italian experience, and that’s what I got. I experienced so much on that trip that I couldn’t have if I was constantly in a pack of American study abroaders.

Similarly, while here I want to live life as a Londoner! This, however, takes effort. It is especially hard to break away from the American student scene when you are not enrolled in a London university (like my program with UNC), because classes would be a great place to meet local Londoners. Fortunately, our program allows us to be members of the University of London Student Union. It’s a great place to meet other students: in the gym, at the café, or the bar (yes, there is a bar in the student union!). Also, those of us who have internships have had great opportunities to meet all sorts of people.

Break away from your friends from home and explore on your own, try a new restaurant, go somewhere new at night. Study abroad truly is what YOU make of it.