Culture Shock Gives Way to Personal Growth, Say Study-Abroad Veterans

Posted October 14th, 2010 at 3:13 pm.

Bryn Mawr College President Jane McAuliffe recently hosted a “study-abroad showcase” in which three seniors shared the experiences of their junior year abroad. The president opened the meeting, speaking of her deep interest in enhancing global networks within the Bryn Mawr community. Spending an academic semester or more in another country, she said, is a remarkably effective catalyst for intellectual and social growth.

First to speak about her experience abroad was Christina Wagner, a Bryn Mawr student who majors in history at Haverford College. Wagner studied in Prague, Czech Republic, at the Collegium Hieronymi Pragnesis Independent Educational Center. She explained that when she began the process of looking into study-abroad options, she wanted to go to the United Kingdom, but eventually decided that she wanted to push herself further by studying in a non-English-speaking country. As someone who had never been out of the United States, she found the prospect of going to a non-Western European country intimidating, yet exciting.

Fourteen people were enrolled in Wagner’s program, which began with a two-week orientation in which the students took intensive Czech language classes for three hours per day, five days a week. Although Wagner admitted that this was challenging, she confessed that learning the language was invaluable to her time in the Prague, as it helped her become more independent and confident about maneuvering within the city. Her proudest moment, she said, was when she ordered medication at a pharmacy. Although this may seem like a trivial task, requesting something as important as medicine in a newly learned language was a great feat that reaffirmed her sense of autonomy.

A television screenshot of Kuang, right, and a fellow CIEE student as finalists in Radio Taiwan International's 2010 Mandarin Speech Contest for Foreigners

A television screenshot of Kuang, right, and a fellow CIEE student as finalists in Radio Taiwan International's 2010 Mandarin Speech Contest for Foreigners

Cynthia Kuang, an East Asian Studies major, was next to present. Kuang spent her semester abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, at National Chengchi University through the Council on International Educational Exchange’s Intensive Chinese Language and Culture Program. With thirteen people in her program, Kuange took three classes, one of which was intensive Chinese offered three hours a day, five days per week. Kuange lived with three Taiwanese roommates, which she found to be a helpful and positive experience that enabled her to further immerse herself in the Chinese language.

While Kuang took full advantage of the activities the program had to offer, including excursions to museums, temples, national parks, and tea houses, she also became involved in activities outside the program. Some of these included teaching conversational English at the affiliated high school of the host university, as well as working as a private English tutor. Despite the occasional culture shock (she cited squatting toilets as an example), humid weather, and mini-earthquakes, she fell in love with the area and even took up an internship at National Taiwan University for the following summer.

Describing her study abroad in Senegal was Saskia Guerrier, an anthropology major and Africana studies minor. Originally from Haiti, Saskia chose to travel to Senegal because of her academic interests and her background in the French language. Only five people — two Bryn Mawr students and three University of Pennsylvania students — were enrolled in her program. Guerrier began the program with a one- month orientation in Dakar, where she stayed with a host family and studied an indigenous language, Wolof, at the Baobab Center.

After her orientation, Guerrier started classes in St. Louis at the Université Gaston Berge, where, though she was in a single room, she lived among and took classes with Senegalese students. She fondly spoke of the Senegalese outlook on life, saying that we in America are constantly in a rush, while the Senegalese tend to enjoy taking their time for the sake of simply enjoying time. Though Guerrier did have to get used to walking to class among the goats and other livestock that roamed the St. Louis campus, she appreciated learning about African culture through experience, instead of only discussing it the classroom.

Students begin their applications for study abroad during their sophomore year. They must consider the kind of environment they want to be immersed in, whether they speak the native language, and how the studies will apply to their majors. While people do end up in a multitude of different places that all have vastly different cultures, most end up with feelings of cultural, academic, and social fulfillment and find their experiences abroad to be a priceless part of their Bryn Mawr education.

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, President McAuliffe will sponsor a similar dessert presentation featuring students who have completed international internships.

—Sarah Henkind ’11

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