When a student studies abroad, there is an assumption that interaction with their new community and cultural immersion will just…happen. While every student who studies abroad does experience some type of immersion, true cultural immersion requires that students ‘get off the veranda.’ For a great definition of what true cultural immersion can be, see this article by Karen Rodriguez from TransitionsAbroad.com.
This phrase, ‘getting off the veranda’, comes from an article written by Anthony C. Ogden comparing today’s study abroad student with colonials from history. Ogden points out that many colonials maintained their distance from their colonized communities “interacting only as needed and often in an objective and disassociated manner” (The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student). Many travelers, whether vacationers, business travelers or study abroad students, don’t leave the Sheraton or Four Seasons enough or at all, says David Livermore in his article The Right Sort of Travel Can Boost your Career. Even worse, some travelers can’t turn off Facebook or stop texting Mom and boyfriend/girlfriend long enough to truly immerse themselves and build intercultural skills. I am hesitant to compare study abroad with colonialism, but there are certainly similar attitudes and experiences that students can have if they aren’t careful to step off the veranda. (And if program administrators aren’t careful to design programming that allows for true immersion.)
Ogden explains that while he is supportive of the growth of programs and students abroad, students can not be allowed to “observe their host community from a safe and unchallenging distance”. This safe and unchallenging distance is called the veranda. One reason that students are prone to staying on the veranda is that study abroad programs have become increasingly personalized to the student’s wants and needs (just like higher education in general, perhaps). Students have become the customer, study abroad is the product they’re buying, and study abroad educators and program administrators and advisors are expected to provide them with excellent customer service. Students are used to picking and choosing exactly what they want to participate in and study abroad is no different. Students pick which courses they take, if they want an internship or not (how many days a week they want to work), will they perform research or not, will they travel or not, do they want classwork in the the local language or not….And lost in all of those choices is the real reason for why they are abroad: not to control or customize an experience based on what they like, but to immerse themselves in a culture different from their own (different from their normal wants and likes). Students are used to choosing which parts of education they want to participate in, and whether or not they engage in experiences that promote true cultural immersion (or not) becomes yet another choice over their 4-year college experience. This customization and control allows for the experience to stay student-centered, rather than location-centered.
Study abroad experiences can then turn into a glorified vacation if the experience lacks true cultural immersion. I have seen this with friends’ study abroad experiences and I have also witnessed this when speaking with study abroad returners about their experiences. Some students can even identify certain study abroad programs and locations that can act as ‘vacation centers’ and pass that information onto prospective students looking for programs. Program locations then become attractive to students looking for an experience that is heavy on fun and travel, and light on true cultural immersion. There is even a satire going around social media right now that captures these students and experiences in a Tumblr called Gurl Goes to Africa. This site essentially trolls the Internet for and accepts submissions of photos, videos, and blogs from white study abroad students’ experiences in Africa. And while the students who have taken the photos or written the blogs believe their photos really capture a deep immersive experience, Gurl Goes to Africa points out that their day trip to a that idyllic village in Africa only provided the student with a photo and nothing else. Another excellent explanation of this can be found in The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys).
This is dangerous for the obvious reason that the study abroad student leaves their experience with the same level of understanding of their host location and culture as they did when arrived. But Sasha Gronsdahl explains other harmful effects of these experiences in her blog “White Girl Goes to Africa: Am I anything more than a cliche?” She points out that some abroad experiences, especially in developing countries, are not about anything other than ourselves. We gain the resume-building experiences and never reflect on why mostly Westerners are in the financial and ‘knowledge’ position to travel to developing communities. Most importantly, Sasha writes:
“The second argument is that volunteers don’t build formative relationships with people in their host countries, and thus the “Other” remains just that: a group of people who are different, unknowable, and strange, open to our interventions because they are not really fully developed like us. That’s why we can pick up cute African babies for pictures in ways we would never do with children at home. We expect the people we visit to speak English to us and we fail to learn their language; we spend our time with other expats and remain separate from the local community at large. In the workplace, we exercise our privilege without recognizing it: we perhaps make demands on our host organization’s time and resources while our local colleagues have no equivalent access. Our voices are always the ones heard at meetings.”
Now, I am a study abroad and travel advocate. I believe a day trip across town and a year-long study abroad experience can hold similar values. However, study abroad programs must push students off of that veranda so that students can get to know their locations and host communities deeper than a tourist would. Students must be open to experiences that will get them into their host communities and program leaders must design activities and lessons that allow students to think critically not only about their host communities, but also think critically about their home cultures and why they studied abroad.