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Conference Prepares Students for Studying Abroad

Gasson and Fulton were occupied with faculty and administrators Feb. 12 from various schools in the Boston area as they discussed the best practices for promoting intercultural skill development among students in their study abroad endeavors.

The Boston Intercultural Skills Conference was a daylong event based on a similar forum hosted by Wake Forest University. With the assistance of other Boston schools and Boston College departments, the Office of International Programs began planning over the summer to organize this conference, which is the first of its kind to be held in New England.

It consisted of two keynote addresses and breakout sessions after each one. The first of the two speakers was Steven Duke, the assistant vice president for global strategy and international initiatives at the University of Nebraska, who opened with a discussion about the importance of enhancing intercultural learning in study abroad programs. He explained that through the most current research and personal experience, teachers can learn about how to give their students the most educational, immersive experience possible as they travel. Duke had helped to initiate the conference that takes place at Wake Forest every year, which is one of the reasons that the OIP decided he would be an ideal speaker.

“You are learning things and seeing things through a different pair of eyes, and it hurts.”

-Kathleen Bailey, BC political science professor

The second keynote speaker, Matthew L. Goode of the BC Center for Teaching Excellence, asked the audience to consider the importance of student reflection as a part of these programs. Several panelists shared personal anecdotes about strategies that have inspired productive reflections from their own students.

In one of the breakout sessions, BC political science professor Kathleen Bailey described her experience leading a summer course called “Kuwait: Politics & Oil in the Gulf.” She focused on the role that culture shock plays in an American college student’s trip to a foreign country such as Kuwait.

“They all tell me they are not going to experience any culture shock at all,” she said, prompting a laugh.

Bailey then explained that she prepares them for the difference in cultural behavior but that she is careful not to talk about it too much, for fear of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, she has learned that it is a careful balance. The surprise of different customs, such as gender segregation, is inevitably confusing to students every year when she conducts the program. Bailey explained that at first the students tell her that their heads hurt because they are having such trouble figuring the culture out.

“You are learning things and seeing things through a different pair of eyes,” Bailey said. “And it hurts.”

Yet, she has seen a pattern in which the students grow accustomed to the differences in social norms after several weeks.

Lynne Anderson, the director of the Program for English Language Learners at BC, also spoke about her background leading the creative writing workshop “Food Writing in Paris.” Before discussing her experience bringing students abroad to France, she explained that teachers can learn a lot by looking at the international students here on the BC campus.

While she recognized the comfort of traveling with peers from their home country, she talked about how pushing these students to immerse themselves further can be extremely beneficial.

“There is a fine balance between support and autonomy,” Anderson said.

Other breakout sessions included “Navigating the Faculty-Student Relationship Abroad,” “Integrating Short-Term Programs into Undergraduate Curricula,” and “Utilizing Technology In and Out of the Classroom.” Although the speakers on each panel were mostly members of the BC community, there were several educators representing other universities, including Brandeis and Yale.

The conference was a collaborative event that allowed for the sharing of teaching perspectives from different institutions. They focused on the various factors that come together in a student’s experience studying abroad, including relationships, sightseeing, and levels of cultural immersion. An overarching theme throughout the day was the essential need for an open mind that is willing to learn. The more open a student is to learning about and embracing the cultural differences of the country they are visiting, the better the experience is in the end. This was made evident to each of these professors in the students’ reflections.

“The purpose of study abroad is to suspend judgment,” Bailey said.

Erin Shevlin, the summer and internships program manager in the OIP, thought the event was successful.

“Attendees seemed to appreciate the balance of knowledge-sharing provided in the keynote addresses with the more informal, discussion-based breakout sessions,” she said. “The opportunity to connect with colleagues doing similar work at other local institutions was a big strength of the event.”

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

February 14, 2016

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