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Navigating cultures Venturing across cultures can be nerve-racking, but Skiddies aren't staying home
Staff of life Meet the staff that students lean on every day

 

Navigating Cultures
Can Americans get comfortable in the world? Skidmore's working on it, one student at a time.
by Kathryn Gallien



When wealthy Americans, partly inspired by Mark Twain’s travel writings, first adopted the British tradition of the Grand Tour—visiting European capitals and Mediterranean antiquities—it was a chance to broaden their horizons while still validating their Western cultural heritage. Educational travel outside one’s cultural comfort zone took hold after World War II, with the faculty and student exchange program sponsored by US Senator William Fulbright. Seeking “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby to increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship,” the Fulbright program each year has sent about 1,000 new college graduates to parts known and unknown for a year or two of research. And across America colleges and universities have offered more and more study-abroad options. Yet today, despite all the news about our “ever-shrinking world” and the need for easing the “clash of cultures,” only 1 percent of US college students engage in study outside the country.

Katherine Martinelli ’05
Major: History and Asian studies
• Skidmore and New York State Independent College
Consortium for Study in India, fall 2004

“Indian people are of two minds about the growth in outsourced Western jobs. They like the economic boom. But while everyone’s clamoring for English language education, what about getting regular education up to par and improving the
literacy rate?”


Like many of its peers, Skidmore is responding by heightening its emphasis on global awareness and cross-cultural experiences. The college’s new strategic plan notes that all students should “understand that no one’s worldview is universal…other people may have profoundly different perspectives and values.” (In fact, along with sending more Americans abroad, Skidmore is committed to bringing more foreign students to campus: financial aid is now available to applicants from overseas, and exchange programs are in place or being discussed with several nations. But already nearly three times as many foreigners study in this country as Americans who study abroad.) American colleges are also working to blend international learning into their on-campus curricula, “so that study abroad truly enhances students’ overall academic careers,” says Cori Filson, Skidmore’s director of international programs.

Skidmore’s first international offerings were in Spain and France. Joan Berenguer, director of Skidmore’s program in Spain, launched that venture twenty-five years ago with four students in Barcelona. Now in Madrid and Alcalá de Henares, it served twenty-five students last year. These days, participants are pretty savvy and practical: they understand that “study abroad contributes in enhancing their résumés,” she notes.

At Skidmore most study abroad occurs in the spring term; but even this fall a record-high 159 students are overseas, including thirty-six starting their freshman year with a semester in London. Along with the nine one-semester or yearlong programs run by Skidmore (in Spain, France, England, China, and India), students can enroll in some 130 others throughout the world. Short-term sojourns during holidays or summers are popular too. Last year, for example, Africa scholar Chris Whann and anthropologist Gerry Erchak, as members of Skidmore’s international-affairs faculty, led a seminar called “Chocolate and Gold: Politics and Culture in Ghana,” which included a ten-day study tour. According to a 2004 report by the Institute of International Education, American students are going abroad in larger numbers but for shorter periods; fewer than 10 percent go for the full year. And that’s too bad, according to German scholar Mary Elizabeth O’Brien, who directs Skidmore’s international-studies major. “After three to four months there’s an incredible leap in language ability,” she says, “and emotionally you’re much more connected to the community.”

Being there
Even short term, there’s probably no better way to connect with a community than in a “homestay.” In Madrid, says Licelot Eralte-Mercer ’06, “I chose to fully immerse myself in Spanish culture by living with a host family rather than in an apartment with other students.” Mary DeBree ’06 especially enjoyed her Bolivian midday siestas, when everyone came home “for three hours of eating and rest before returning to work and classes. I absolutely loved coming back to the house and having lunch with my host family.”

Mary DeBree ’06
Major: Government and Spanish
• Institute for the International Education of Students
program in Santiago, Chile, fall 2004
• School for International Training program in LaPaz, Bolivia, spring 2005




“Herding cows and planting onions with a Bolivian family was physically challenging, but it was also an intellectual challenge to consider one’s own role in sustainable development.”



Kim Maxcy ’06 had three different homestays during her field study with the Vermont-based School for International Training (SIT) in Durban, South Africa—each with working-class people of color, two of them Zulu families. She fondly remembers “playing outside with my 10-year-old host sister and the neighborhood kids, making dinner with my host mom, and hanging out with my host dad and brother.” She also recalls being stared at, and admits, “I have never been so aware of my skin color or felt so vulnerable because of it.”

Anthropology major Erin DeCou ’05, in SIT’s Tibetan studies program in northern India, got to know refugees and former political prisoners. “It was tragic—they have family back in Tibet. I was really moved,” she says. Yet she also talks of their resilient spirit and evenings spent laughing and playing games. After living with refugees in a tiny cement-block house, DeCou was hit hard by reverse culture shock when she came home: in the US there was “so much wealth, I felt wasteful.”

Through such first-hand experiences, says O’Brien, students “test the validity of what they read in books” and “learn the small things that make people unique.”

DeCou, who returned to northern India on her own last January to independently research Buddhist-Muslim relations, wishes that more students would push themselves beyond “safe” trips. She says, “Students should go beyond Europe,” which “doesn’t challenge them to get out of their own worldview.”

Indeed, Skidmore's long-range plan articulates the hope that study-abroad destinations “such as Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America” might become “as common as Paris or London.” Skidmore is unusual in operating its own programs in both China and India, according to philosopher Joel Smith, an India scholar. But the majority of Skidmore travelers opt for Great Britain, France, Spain, and Italy, followed by Australia and New Zealand. And while non-Western offerings are growing, nearly two-thirds of all American students abroad still choose Europe. “Students are quite conservative about this,” says Spanish professor Paty Rubio, who recently chaired a Skidmore committee examining student engagement with international diversity. Their unease, she maintains,“has something to do with our curriculum, which is mostly Western-oriented” and lacking in African and Mideast studies. Also, no Middle Eastern countries are currently on Skidmore’s approved-programs list, though students can petition for exceptions. “Certainly if there is a State Department warning on a country, we don’t let students go there,” says Filson.

But Rubio allows, “You don’t need to go to the Middle East when the Middle East is in Spain, in London—these are multi-ethnic societies.” Matt Cronin ’06, who spent last spring at Oxford University, says, “Going abroad—being dropped off in a foreign land, oftentimes without a single friend—may sound terrifying, but it can be one of the most gratifying and fulfilling experiences of your life.” In responding to unfamiliar people and cultures, he observes, “you also learn about yourself.” As Rubio says, “You have to question your assumptions.”

Meara McNally ’05 recalls how anxious she felt when she landed in China and it suddenly hit her that no one was speaking English. “The language was difficult. Everything was difficult.” She was homesick. But McNally and three other Skidmore students worked through it and relished their “tiny little victories”—like getting a cab driver to laugh at a joke they told in Chinese, or cobbling together an informal Thanksgiving dinner from chicken, fried rice, and McDonald’s apple pies. She says, “It’s important to get out of the Skidmore bubble and change your perspective.” Even seasoned traveler Andrea Wong ’06 (she has lived in Hong Kong, Toronto, Singapore, and New York City) admits she “flipped out” for a few days after arriving in Madrid and realizing, “I just dropped myself willingly into a country in which I don’t speak the language at all.” Despite—and because of—the challenges, virtually every participant agrees that study abroad is an invaluable, transformational experience.

Some do, some don’t
“I think it should be mandatory,” says Caitlin Givens ’05, who began her Skidmore career in the London first-year program, later spent a semester in Costa Rica, and joined the study trip to Ghana last spring. “It opens your eyes to how others live.” Right now she’s overseas again, in grad school at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Caitlin Givens ’05
Major (self-determined): Sustainable human development
• Skidmore’s freshman program in London, fall 2001
• San Jose International Center for Sustainable
Human Development in Costa Rica, spring 2004
• Skidmore travel seminar “Chocolate and Gold: Politics and Culture in Ghana, West Africa,” spring 2005


“Costa Ricans know everything about the US, and European students know more about the US than we do. It’s frightening, and it’s embarrassing.”



In the past five years, the number of Skidmore students going abroad has risen 60 percent. And since the college now charges all study-abroad students its regular tuition and fees—including any discounts from financial aid—theoretically all Skidmorites can afford to go abroad. But should they? No, says Filson, the international study director. Not all students are ready for off-campus study, she argues, and besides, not all have the required 3.0 grade-point average. Also, while there are technically no restrictions as to academic major, courses overseas often fit more easily into art history or anthropology than, say, American studies or physics. It can be tough for science students to work time abroad into their schedules, though some can do wildlife management in Kenya, rain-forest studies in Australia, or tropical ecology in Costa Rica through the Massachusetts-based School for Field Studies.

Not surprisingly in an ever more global economy, foreign study for business majors is booming. This fall about twenty are in Europe and Asia. Ben Garton ’07, who figures he will “one day work in Japan or with Japanese companies as an American corporate liaison,” is at Sophia University in Tokyo, while Andrew Heitner ’07 chose Osaka’s Kansai Gaidai University for its classes in the Japanese way of business. Last spring Andrew Souza ’06 studied in Rome. The management courses were difficult, he says, but living in Italy and studying collaboratively with students from around the world left him “much more interested in foreign affairs.” He adds, “It was a great learning experience to see how people work and how our work ethic compares to theirs.”

Joel Smith says, “We always have a wide span of majors in the India program.” This fall: English, studio art, international affairs, music, and religion. As it happens, the group is four women and one man—a fairly typical imbalance seen in study abroad nationally and at Skidmore. But male or female, business or biology, “generally when students come back to campus, they are more interested in their academic pursuits,” according to Smith. “They become better students.”

It’s true, says DeCou, who preregistered for upcoming Skidmore courses from a cybercafé in Kathmandu, largely choosing subjects inspired by her travels. “Classes are more interesting when you come back; you’re more engaged.”

Post-9/11 perils
DeCou had originally signed up for the SIT program in Nepal, but ongoing violence there forced her to change to Tibetan studies in India. “My parents were really nervous,” she admits. “My mom worried, but she’s always let me go where I wanted to go.” She e-mailed and called home a lot.

While she was in Madrid, Eralte-Mercer says, her parents had few serious concerns. But she also called home regularly. Cell phones have become lifelines: while they’re not required, says Filson, “we highly, highly recommend them.” What is required is registering with the US embassy upon arrival and keeping program staff fully apprised of any travel. “In this world,” she explains, “we can no longer say to a parent, ‘I don’t know where your child is.’”

With heightened concerns about terrorism, international-study administrators deal more than ever with liability and safety issues. Yet the number of American students going abroad has increased—up 8.5 percent in 2002–03. And a 2003 task-force report from the Association of International Educators declared, “We desperately need to understand other countries and other cultures—friend and foe alike.” In no uncertain terms, the report pinpointed the high stakes: “We strongly believe that the events of September 11, 2001, constituted a wake-up call—a warning that America’s ignorance of the world is now a national liability.”

It was certainly a wake-up call for the pioneer participants in Skidmore’s new freshman program in London. Caitlin Givens recalls they really felt the gravity of the disaster “when we went to a huge memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.” Sarah Goodwin, the London faculty leader that year, promptly changed the focus of their English course from the British landscape to European media representations of the 9/11 aftermath.

Skidmore’s India program was cut short in that fall of 2001. As Filson recalls, “our big concern was that this was a traveling program,” and the group was in the Himalayas just as the US military was gearing up for attacks in Afghanistan. After a flurry of e-mail and phone calls, the decision was made to bring participants home. The following year no India term was offered, because of a State Department warning about India-Pakistan conflicts. But when it resumed in 2003, New Yorker Katherine Martinelli ’05 was ready and eager. “I had no concerns about travel,” she says. “My parents didn’t either.”

It wasn’t so easy for Smith. He reflects, “After 9/11 we weren’t sure whether it was safer to leave the students in India or bring them back through New York City.” Faculty colleague Paty Rubio argues, “You’re not safe anywhere, but we can’t live in fear. We’re all citizens of the world, for better or worse.”

Ugly Americans?
How are American visitors perceived and treated in other countries? In London after 9/11, Givens says, “initially support for Americans was strong. Everyone was always asking, ‘Is your family OK?’” But once the US began bombing in Afghanistan, she felt it all quickly change and even recalls bar fights on campus over US policy.

International-affairs director O’Brien knows that students abroad are often “asked to defend this country’s positions. But as students, they don’t have to; they’re not State Department employees.” Of course, she adds, “Some countries—like Kenya and Ghana—see us as a benevolent power and want to keep on good terms with us.” Just ask Nolan Crohn ’07, who took last spring’s “Chocolate and Gold” seminar. He says, “I had no thoughts of terrorism in Ghana. They want us there. They are very pro-American.”

Nolan Crohn ’07
Major: Environmental studies
Minor: Anthropology
• Skidmore travel seminar “Chocolate and Gold: Politics and Culture in Ghana, West Africa,” spring 2005

“We all felt a quiet welcoming. Ghanaians love Americans. Everyone wants to get a visa to go to America to work. I wasn’t prepared for the number of poor kids we saw.”

 

In any case, most students jump at the chance to dispel notions of “the ugly American.” And Skidmore’s pretravel orientation addresses the notion of students as ambassadors. Classicist Michael Arnush, who has led two summer study trips to Greece, briefs students on “Greek expectations about behavior, drugs and alcohol, and antiquities. For drugs, Greek law would have you in jail for fifteen years. Greeks drink wine but they don’t get drunk. We tell them to be respectful. And don’t touch the antiquities.”

Martinelli says the women in the India program avoided challenging Indian gender roles and conventions. “We tried to act appropriately. None of us wore revealing clothing.” In fact, they dressed in shalwar kameez (pants, blouse, scarf) for everyday wear and sari for special occasions. Most students cringe when they see other Americans behaving badly. In Beijing, McNally remembers “being around kids who acted stupid and loud. I wanted to tell them to calm down.” As in India, there’s little chance of a white American blending in there: “Everyone always looks at you. And they want to practice their English on you.”

Others want to practice political debate. Paris program director Alain Matthey de l’Étang says his students have “been subject to harsh questions and arguments, especially in recent years, about American international politics and about the way Americans perceive the French.” Students discover that many foreigners have a higher geopolitical literacy than Americans, along with greater stamina for debate. When she lived in Chile, where discussions about US global politics are common, Mary DeBree says, “My host dad would cut out any articles on political issues that mentioned the US, put them on my pillow every morning, and then expect a discussion that night.” DeBree found taxi drivers to be remarkably reliable barometers of feelings toward the US. In Bolivia she found fairly negative reactions to the US-led war in Iraq but at the same time interest and curiosity about the US itself, where many Bolivians go for work. She’s had few negative experiences. “I think it all depends on how you present yourself as an American.”

The internationally savvy Andrea Wong says, “I never debate American foreign policy.” Anyway, she adds, people who meet her “usually want to discuss sightseeing around Hong Kong, or the political and economic rise of China. And I’m fine talking about that.”

Matt Cronin remembers being cautioned to watch out for anti-Americanism in Oxford and around Europe. He never found it. “As long as you’re respectful, engaging, and kind, people will treat you well, regardless of your nationality,” he says. And, he asserts, “You shouldn’t need a moral obligation as your country’s unofficial ambassador to be a decent human being.”
Despite steady growth in recent decades, the fraction of American college students who go abroad remains around 1 percent. The 2003 International Educators report called for the US to set a goal of 20 percent by 2010. Skidmore is well ahead of the curve, with 40 percent currently and a goal of 60 percent by 2015.

That should go a long way toward building the skills and values of global citizenship in college grads. But will it make the kind of difference sought by Senator Fulbright in the aftermath of World War II? “That’s still our overarching hope—that what we do will help bring a little more peace and understanding in the world,” says Cori Filson. And O’Brien notes that good will is earned “one handshake at a time.”

Peace and friendship may be elusive goals, admits Arnush, but certainly “preparing students to be global citizens is pragmatic and desirable. We want our students to be knowledgeable, reasoned participants in a global dialogue and to be compassionate about the needs and aspirations of cultures other than our own.”