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Transforming Study Abroad: A HandbookNeriko Musha Doerr’s recent monograph Transforming Study Abroad gives a thought-provoking and insightful look into the practice of study abroad, and discusses how employing theoretical frameworks that elucidate global power structures can deepen experiences and give new meaning to buzzwords like “global citizen” and “cultural competence.”

What is your personal experience with study abroad? Do you think these experiences influenced your academic pursuits?

I have studied abroad three times. The first time was in the UK when I was eleven. Four weeks of homestay, alone, with little knowledge of English: I remember lying in bed thinking, “what have I gotten myself into?” I ended up loving it, however. So, when I was in high school, I applied and became a Rotary Club International Youth Exchange student to Aotearoa/New Zealand for a year. This was my second study abroad experience. I felt like a “cultural ambassador,” which got me interested in thinking about the “inter-cultural experience.” Because of that, I studied cultural anthropology and sociology in college. My third study abroad experience was coming to the United States to attend graduate school and get my PhD. in cultural anthropology (degree-seeking study abroad). These three study-abroad experiences were all very different from each other and taught me different things. The third one, I feel, was the most important because it exposed me to many critical theories that were not so commonly taught in the graduate school I had been attending previously in Japan. It made me revisit my own past study abroad experiences.

Since then, I have had several more study-abroad-like experiences. Doing anthropological fieldwork is a lot like studying abroad, especially when you do it in a community that is new to you. I have done two 9-month-long fieldworks in Aotearoa/New Zealand, which were great learning experiences. Theoretically also, in the 1990s when I was in graduate school, assumptions behind doing ethnographic fieldwork were being challenged in anthropology, and what I learned then helps me think more critically about study abroad practices now. Also, in the last 7 years, I have been doing “participant observation” (i.e., fieldwork) of study abroad trips, which is almost like studying abroad myself. So far, I have gone to three two-week-long study-abroad trips—Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Peru—all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Every study abroad experience is different. On every trip you encounter different people and different things. You equip yourself with a few theoretical frameworks and then go on these study-abroad trips, and then you experience things that cannot be explained by these theories. So, you come home and search for theoretical frameworks that can explain these new experiences. Sometimes you can’t find any and you have to come up with new ones on your own. It is a continuous cycle of experiences and searches for theoretical frameworks to understand those experiences. So yes, my study abroad experiences have strongly influenced my academic interests, and the connection between the two continues to get deeper and more intertwined.

How does your book differ from other handbooks on study abroad, many of which are about “making the most,” “surviving,” and “discovering yourself” during study abroad experiences?

I did think about making the title of this book, “8 ways to make your study abroad trip fun” (but my teen-age son stopped me saying that it sounds too much like cheap click-bait!). Here, I meant fun not in a “haha” way but in a learning backstories kind of way. I always enjoy learning about how things come to be the way they are now, And I wanted to share that enjoyment by using some tricks (i.e., theoretical frameworks) I learned in anthropology. So, this book could have been named “A Handbook on Getting to Backstories like a Pro.”

Take the concept of “culture,” for instance. In study abroad, the term “culture” is used a lot. But the problem with the concept of “culture” is that it stops people from asking “why.” When I ask someone why they do things and if that person said “because that’s our culture,” the explanation stops there. But all “culture” changes (even what is considered “tradition”), and what we see as “culture” now is a result of a series of changes, all of which happen for various reasons. My mentor from graduate school, Benedict Anderson, argued that nationalism (and the feeling that a nation shares a “culture”) started because of printing technologies: newspaper printing allowed readers to imagine a shared life and destiny by reading articles on what is happening within their national borders. Ramen noodles, what is now considered “Japanese food” (though has a Chinese origin), came to Japan because of U.S. aid: fearing that the post-WWII poverty may turn the Japanese into communists, the U.S. provided flour to feed the impoverished, war-torn Japanese, which ended up taking the form of Chinese noodles, because the Japanese staple at the time was rice, not wheat. That is, the Cold War made ramen noodles “Japanese.” I love learning about such unexpected connections.

Learning about these backstories of “culture” helps me deepen my understanding of how people live—eat, think, do things—differently. But, when it comes to wealth disparity, it becomes more serious. When students from developed countries go to developing countries, the common reaction is to be grateful about their own lives: “how lucky we are [compared to them.]” But like the “cultural difference,” the wealth disparity is not a matter of luck. There are historical reasons, often through unbalanced trade regulations, military interventions, political alliances, colonialism, etc. for these disparities. For example, what is happening in Guatemala now cannot be understood fully without thinking about the CIA-led coup d’état of the democratically-elected president of Guatemala in the 1950s at the height of Cold War. Knowing about this history makes our understanding of Guatemalan life a little stronger; not knowing about these things risks dangerous misunderstanding of current Guatemalan situations.

In short, this handbook introduces concepts that students can use to understand their study abroad experiences, and it is written for study abroad practitioners to help their students do so. I believe theoretical frameworks are tools for all of us to use in order to understand our lives, and, if improvement is needed, to change our social arrangements for the better. Study abroad is a rare occasion in students’ lives where they are encouraged to pay attention to their daily lives (often via the notion of immersion). This handbook provides, I hope, some tools to help them do so in deep, meaningful ways.

You discuss introducing students to critical theories in order to contextualize differences. Can you provide a few examples of ways study abroad practitioners might do this?

I suggest in the book that study abroad practitioners ask certain types of questions that push students to think differently. For example, practitioners can ask students questions about “global citizens” and “intercultural competence.” These terms are buzzwords in current higher education, and study abroad is often considered as the best way to become “global citizens” or obtain “intercultural competence.” Practitioners can discuss with students why studying abroad is considered the best way to reach these goals. I’m guessing the answers would be something about a border-crossing experience, immersion to different ways of life, being surrounded by a new language, etc. Then, the practitioners can ask students if there are people who have had similar experiences without studying abroad. Students may answer, or practitioners can suggest, people like immigrants, refugees, or people who moved from one region to another, including from urban area to suburb or from one ethnic community to another. Practitioners can then ask if all of these people are considered “global citizens,” if their knowledge and skills are called “intercultural competence,” and, if they are college students, how these aspects of their lives are treated on campus. If they are not called “global citizens” and their skills are not marked as “intercultural competence,” the practitioners can ask students to think about why that is the case and what its consequences are. This can be connected to theoretical notions like Regimes of Mobility (people’s global mobility is treated differently depending on their race and class, suggested by Nina Glick Schillar and Salazar) and globalism (globalization as an ideology). Discussions like this would help students understand what it means to participate in study abroad, what discourses study abroad encourage or hide, what other ways similar skills can be gained, who may already have such skills but do not realize it, why that is the case, and what the effects are.

Another example of what study abroad practitioners can do is an activity that I do in class. They can ask students to think of one new thing they have done in the past 24 hours—new people they talked to, new food that they ate, a new shop they went to, a new TV show they saw, etc. Then, ask them to write about that new thing in one paragraph using several key terms (the list I made with study abroad keywords, such as “transformational,” “life-changing,” “inspiring,” “adventure,” “experiential learning,” etc. is in the book). The results usually read like a parody of study abroad testimonials. The point of the activity, however, is not to poke fun but to suggest two things.

First, available vocabulary shapes how we perceive what we do, which even push us to do certain things: study abroad vocabulary guides our experiences and perceptions to sound like an exciting adventure. Using study abroad vocabulary makes even our mundane practices seem like amazing life-changing experiences. Being aware of this can push students to use different kinds of vocabulary, and to free students to create a different kind of study abroad experience. Secondly, self-transformative experiences happen all the time if we pay attention to them the way we do with our study abroad experiences: there are many occasions students are asked to reflect on their experiences and report their findings. It is not to devalue study abroad experiences but to appreciate our daily mundane lives with more reflection.

These are specific examples, but the framework itself can be expanded and applied to various things once the students get the idea. For example, the understanding that the label of “global citizen” is used selectively depending on people’s backgrounds or circumstances can be applied to think about the label, “volunteers,” and ask questions like: Who are considered volunteers and who are not? If you help your nephew for free, are you a volunteer? If you help your neighbour for free, are you a volunteer? If you help the same neighbour but through church, are you a volunteer? If you tutor a child from a low socioeconomic community in the next town, are you a volunteer? If that child happens to be your friend’s brother, are you a volunteer? Why? Why not? What does the difference in answers tell us? How does the notion of race, class, and difference explain them? The activity to use study abroad vocabulary to see its effects can be applied with the vocabulary of different things—such as reporting on a crime scene, business commentary, etc. That is, doing these exercises pushes students to start asking similar types of questions about many other things around them.

What do you hope readers get out of this book?

I hope readers will find useful concepts and strategies to think about not only study abroad experiences, but their own daily lives. Some concepts are like colored-glasses—they make you look at the world differently. That was what happened to me when I first learned about the theories that I introduce in this book. Wanting to share that experience is the drive behind writing this book.

Neriko Musha Doerr is an Assistant Professor at Ramapo College. Her publications include The Meaningful Inconsistencies: Bicultural Nationhood, Free Market, and Schooling in Aotearoa/New Zealand (Berghahn, 2009), The Romance of Crossing Borders: Studying and Volunteering Abroad (Berghahn, 2017, with Hannah Taïeb).