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A Letter from Dean Edwards

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Dear student-about-to go-abroad,

Congratulations on making the excellent decision to pursue an international experience as part of your Yale undergraduate education.  As the global community battles with the challenges we now recognize as critical – climate change, pandemics, social injustice – I know you face complex choices about the focus of your education. I continue to believe, and the research supports my thinking, that the experience of living in a different society can be a powerful tool  for developing your interpersonal skills and your understanding of yourself and of others. And as you face all the anticipated and unanticipated decision points and opportunities that are in your future, self-knowledge and empathy will be key.

Getting the most out of a period spent abroad will need some preparatory work and some adjustment of expectations. We ask you to continue on your own the pre-departure orientation that you begin when you go through the work of applying for the opportunity you choose to deepen and bring intention to this experience. The reward will be that you build skills and attitudes that will continue to serve you long after you leave Yale.

Here are some strategies for successful experience abroad that, based on our work with generations of students, we think will serve you well:

Commit to this experience

Set goals for your learning abroad. Write those goals down and refer to them regularly – changing and adjusting them, of course, when the unexpected happens. Set limits on the comforting activities of home – talking to family and friends at home, spending time on social media – be curious about everything you encounter, and be energetic about talking to people locally exploring all aspects of the community which is hosting you. 

Cultivate humility

For young Americans, humility is the best underpinning for tranquil travel. Difficult encounters are easier to manage if not taken personally. It’s smart to understand the issues before you go, and to do the work of understanding how the community which hosts you may be thinking about the US as a political and economic power Peace Corps supervisors, corporate bosses and faculty colleagues at universities abroad tell us that our students sometimes behave as if they believed that all the answers are to be found in the US, and that their own excellent education means that they understand what needs to be done better than local people. Even if you believe that, it’s a good idea not to act as if you did. Listening to what people have to say, and assuming that there are reasons why people do things the way they do, can go a long way towards creating good relationships across cultures.

Accept the legitimacy of cultural difference

As we have begun to talk more freely about the harmful ways in which systems of communication and social action can affect members of our society, we have become ready to call out the speech and behaviors of people whose values we see as conflicting with our own. While this can be a productive and healthy way to move away from discriminatory and harmful speech and behaviors in our own society, it can be problematic when we are abroad. Watching throughout my long and well-travelled career the shifts in attitudes within the US and in other societies, I would suggest that the role of “sojourner” – someone living temporarily in a community away from home - is one to be taken seriously: is this your society to fix, your problem to resolve? Observe, note, discuss with others, think about the contexts of troubling behaviors and speech. Think about how you would respond if a foreign visitor to New Haven called out your accustomed behaviors before you transfer your own expectations of what is appropriate to a cultural context in which you are the visitor. Then you will be ready for a culturally sensitive and socially wise response.

Be in the moment

Highly structured lives of the kind we live seem to produce a combination of orientation towards the future (where will I be next?) combined with a fascination with our own past (blog, vlog, memoir, Instagram, capture it all) which works against a satisfying relationship with the present. The ethos encourages us to accumulate experiences as if they were material possessions, rather than fully living them.  The emphasis id on short and immediate experience, and for people traveling abroad for extended periods there can be a sense of being trapped in a challenging moment, when nostalgia for the familiar can make the time away suddenly seem unbearably long. It can be helpful to bear in mind that while for a moment you may not be able to face the next however many weeks, you can make it through the next hour, and the next day. Time spent abroad is a wonderful opportunity to learn to be in the present, an ability of tremendous value. I once asked a student who had been in Cameroon for the semester what was the most useful thing she had learned, and her answer was “how to sit on the threshold of a hut.” It took me a while to understand what she meant, but I think it was a profound observation. She was learning how to be present, fully engaged, without a restless need to act.

Be in the place you are in

Along with being in the present is being in the present you are actually in: multi-tasking is the enemy of observation, and it can effectively prevent what we think of as an immersion experience. The more I am on the internet, the less I am in my local community, and the more my thoughts are with people and events beyond the local, the less I understand the nuances of my immediate environment. I was most recently struck with this in Paris, a city I know very well and love to revisit with a critical and appreciative eye. This time I was conducting an evaluation during the day – and then going back to my hotel room to do my Yale workday on my laptop, and never really being in Paris at all. It was an impoverished experience, and I recommend setting strict limits on this. A memorable case of this was a Yale student on a program in Spain who broke the language pledge each morning to talk to his girlfriend by videocam on his laptop for half an hour in a shuttered classroom. According to the Resident Director of the program, his Spanish improved at a glacial rate and he never seemed to know quite where he was. Good to set limits, with intention and clarity.

Suspend judgment

Open-mindedness has to be the best attitude for productive time abroad. One of the characteristics of moving from one culture to another is irritation with what appear to be the absurdities of local practice (from paying for coffee in an Italian airport and sorting out bus fares, all the way to dress codes and gender relations). This extends to the absurdities of host families, employers, foreign faculty, and all bureaucrats. But of course these are not absurdities, but cultural differences – to be observed, examined, understood, and ultimately even appreciated. Experience with travel doesn’t prevent the initial sense of annoyance, but it does teach that travel is happier and more productive when we suspend judgment, conscientiously and systematically. Better to wait to see the whole picture before writing things off. American students in Australia and New Zealand used to complain bitterly about their peers’ refusal to use clothes dryers – but now we have a much better sense of why it is good not only to save the high energy costs but also to use less energy.

Reassess your views on material poverty

For students going to a developing country for the first time, the encounter with societies where most people have so much less in the way of material goods than we have in the US can be hard. But poverty has many different shapes, and not all of them are miserable; the virtues of living lightly on the planet are once again becoming apparent, as we consider the globally-warmed future. Students who return from extended periods in the developing world, particularly in Africa, find themselves deeply disturbed by what can be seen as the excess of our supermarkets and stores and even our own refrigerators. Time abroad can be a chance to rethink our own relationship with the material world: what is necessary, what has real value? Recognition of the range of cultural attitudes towards these complicated issues is core to an understanding of attitudes towards Americans abroad.

Embrace unfamiliar opportunities

A principle that has served me, and many students with whom I’ve talked over the years, is that of accepting while abroad all (non-sketchy) invitations, of going to improbable events, and of making an effort to become interested in absolutely everything. Boredom comes from not having hooks on which to hang things, and hooks are constructed from experience and preparation, and the work of undertaking the unfamiliar is rewarded many times over by the growing sense of how things fit together. Street music, local team sports, family visits, religious services, fish markets, political rallies, yard work – I’ve been fascinated by all of them, to my own astonishment. It is surely a mistake to sit on the veranda while the society goes its way without your participation.

Learn to be alone

It often seems that there is a stigma attached in our contemporary society to being alone – that the ideal is always to be the center of a laughing group, actual or virtual, of age-mates. Being with other sojourners is a kind of insulation abroad, but it makes it harder to see things. I describe the process of choosing to be alone while abroad as creative loneliness – it sharpens my senses and deepens my experience in valuable ways, and makes the times when I am socially engaged feel less mundane. There’s usually a lot more walking and a lot more use of public transportation involved in being abroad than there is in the US, and those are great times to observe (especially without headphones). I was pretty much raised on the London underground, so it’s true I have a lot of practice, but this holds true most places I’ve been. Take the bus, not the local equivalent of Uber.

Be an ethnographer

Cultivating the habit of observation of the ordinary is one of the most productive ways of changing our own behavior when abroad. Apart from anything else, it helps throw our own assumptions into relief, and helps us understand how many things we take for granted that are a part of our own local and national culture. I’ve found it extremely useful to write down a brief account of interactions or behaviors I find puzzling, and then ask someone local for help in decoding what I’ve seen – this can produce really fascinating conversations. Done in the context of journal writing, it can also form a record that can be very interesting indeed a few years into the future when the details of your experience are beginning to blur.

Reflect on your experience and write about your reflection

All the research indicates that reflection on experience abroad is one of the most important elements in making that experience worthwhile. It is perfectly possible to spend months abroad without breaking out of a little expatriate community (listen to Sylvia Poggoli on “Study Abroad Students Gone Wild” on the NPR  website) and to avoid having anything remotely significant happen towards the development of global competence. I hate keeping a journal, but I’ve gritted my teeth and done it abroad and I’ve been glad that I did.

So: travel safely and happily, and return with new perspectives and amazing stories,

Jane Edwards
Dean of International and Professional Experience

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