Study abroad safety

In an eye-opening commentary piece, Simon Marginson, a professor at the University of Melbourne, addresses the increasing trend and increasingly negative response to some international students.  Overall, Marginson addresses a lot of the challenges associated with studying abroad. The biggest issue tends to be the lack of awareness of the surrounding culture and customs that leads students to these unfortunate settings.  However, instead of dwelling on the negative, I’d prefer to reflect back on my experiences in the UCs’ study abroad system both outside and inside the US.

In my first short-term study abroad in Rome, an outside group setup the UC students in apartment style housing, had us travel across town to class, and have some organized activities.  The remainder of our time was spent doing whatever we pleased.  We did have an RA (Resident Advisor) who had already been living in Rome for the last 6 months, but she was also American.  While she could help us with certain basic questions like how to setup a phone, she lacked the deeper cultural understanding to help us navigate awkward social situations, like putting our feet up on the cafe chairs to only then be yelled at for the “unacceptable” behavior.  While for me the program wasn’t terrible, future permutations of the course lacked the foresight to change their outside class time schedule to address the events of the World Cup.  I mean, really, who wants to go to a cooking class when Italy, the country you are currently living in, is in the Finals?  That’d be like planning a full-day lecture on the 4th of July in the US.  The decision making reflects the lack of true cultural awareness by the staff operating the program itself.

As a study abroad student in Bologna, Italy, I was truly blessed with one of the best groups of people at our study center.  Before I even got there, I had 50+ pages of reading to do to learn about things tipping, local restaurant options, how cell phones work, what types of living situations are available, best time to find an apartment, etc.  Upon arrival, I found that Peggy Kidney, the heart and head of the center, had the  place setup for utter efficiency and knew the value of her role and staffed her other team members with a similar mindset.  Students had access to a UC staff member 24/7 for emergencies.  Given the lack of internet access, the center provided wireless and computer access so we weren’t completely isolated from the world.  She even had a full setup that documented how courses transferred back to our home campuses, with reviews from students every year so we could figure out what would meet our requirements and allow us to enjoy the material.  At the time, my main gripe about this was that it also created this Californian community that tended to stick to spending time with just other Californians.  As an immersion experience, I expected more from my peers.  However, it was that same network that helped me survive the rougher spots of homesickness or who just simply understood the utter excitement upon finding peanut butter.  For the international students coming to UC Berkeley, I’ve only seen the ad hoc adoption by the students to create this community.  For student who live in the International House, events and trips are frequently planned to help them explore California and US culture. However, the International House does not provide the academic and emergency support that I experienced when abroad. Furthermore, many students don’t live there; according to the 2009 Graduate Student statistics, about 20% of incoming students are international.  Unlike my program, many of them don’t have a personal resource to ask “can I ask for an extension on an assignment?” or “how do I write a paper and create citations” or “can I take books home from the library?”   So, I can understand how international students get themselves into trouble.  Lord knows that my decision to walk through a city at 2am in full Halloween garb in a country that doesn’t celebrate Halloween was not one of my more immersive moments.  But, if academic institutions aren’t willing to invest in study centers like what I had, how can we expect any change to occur?  Students often times don’t know that they are getting themselves in trouble or standing out like a sore thumb unless a local can help them.  Words can’t begin to describe the help I got from my Italian boyfriend and his family and I know I’ve offered similar cultural navigation assistance to my boyfriend when here in the States.  As a librarian, I now encounter many students who need that same sort of help.  At a community college, helping students learn how to search and enroll in classes is part of the gig, but you know that the assistance you provide, even just listening, means so much that the individual will remember you, wait in line to just get your help, come back to the library when you have your shift, because that assistance was the special bond they needed to connect to this community.  One of the greater efforts I’ve seen has been the work done by Golden Gate University’s Library staff.  In their The Update newsletter, they not only promote library services and library orientations, but also promote the community by coordinating events to explore the local area and advertise other local events, such as movie screenings, kite festivals, etc.  Given my endless fascination and my constant need to consider these factors, I want to know what other people are doing to address this issue, as international education is only increasing on both sides of our borders.  What do you to provide as outreach and support to your international students?  Is it effective?  What have you learned are items to address for international students? What have international students taught you?

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