Did You Change Abroad, or Did Abroad Change You?

by Elizabeth Whiting | 10/9/19 1:50am

Studying abroad has morphed into a sort of gilded item on the college bucket list. Students have many reasons for studying abroad. Some seek travel, exploration, a change of scenery or maybe just an escape from a particularly cold season in Hanover.

Anthropology professor Sienna Radha Craig acknowledges that students are driven by many factors when deciding if and where to study abroad. Craig is the faculty director for the Anthropology Foreign Study Program in Auckland, New Zealand and she said that she considers students’ motivations when shaping the course of a study abroad trip. 

“The first goal is to try to understand and unpack individual students’ motivations for studying abroad. Why go halfway around the world to study?” Craig remarked.

Craig said that the central theme of the Anthropology FSP is settler colonialism and how it has impacted the everyday lives of the Māori people of New Zealand. She also related it back to our lives as Americans.

“Settler colonialism is also part of our inheritance here in America; we are also a settler colonial society,” Craig said.

Grounding the goal of a study abroad experience in understanding both the experience of another culture and how its history impacts the quotidian lives of its people allows students to relate their own lives to the stories of those around them. Craig encourages students to foster relationships with the University of Auckland students and professors with whom Dartmouth students take classes. Dartmouth students are also taught by Māori professors who are passionate about the history, culture and politics of New Zealand and the Māori people.

Sirey Zhang ’20 said he decided to apply to the program in preparation for his thesis, which addresses how colonialism has shaped the culture and delivery of women’s and children’s health in Tanzania. Zhang said he felt the classes enabled the program’s participants to become more informed travelers.

“I decided to participate in the Anthropology FSP prior to embarking on my six months in Tanzania to get a baseline understanding of how colonialism and capitalism have shaped the daily lives of people around the world,” Zhang said. 

Zhang approached the program with a careful investment in understanding the lives of the local Māori people as well as the politics of greater New Zealand. Zhang said the trip made him “hyper-aware” of settler colonialism, the culture the Māori people and racial and socioeconomic issues — both in the context of New Zealand, and also how the issues arose within his life. Zhang said he felt that, with the care that the College put into the program, the students were able to experience the culture of New Zealand with open minds. 

“We took a lot of time to look up the things that were sacred or profane,” Zhang said. 

Zhang said he ended up understanding more about Māori politics than the white New Zealand families they stayed with in the second portion of the trip during homestays. Zhang credited this to his classes, which he said provided him with knowledge he might not have picked up organically.

“Without the context it’s hard to get anything. I could live there for 10 years and not know anything,” Zhang said.

Many other study abroad programs face the similar challenge of providing students with an immersive cultural experience. Margaret Hubble ’21 participated in the Astronomy FSP in Cape Town, South Africa. She laughed as a result of one my own initial misunderstandings about their trip to an observatory.

“We were observing the sky, not the people” Hubble said. 

Though obviously a joke, this misunderstanding may have actually proven to be true. Participants Nicole Tiao ’20 and Jackson Rich ’21 both described spending time with mostly Dartmouth students, excluding some nights out in Cape Town and interactions with two South African astronomers. Whereas in Auckland, Dartmouth students take classes taught by Māori professors alongside students from the University of Auckland, in Cape Town, Dartmouth professors exclusively taught the Dartmouth students on the Astronomy FSP. The students also live in a seperate apartments for international and exchange students. As a result, interactions between local students and Dartmouth students were limited. 

“We didn’t really interact with those kids. We said hi but we mostly spent time with Dartmouth kids,” Hubble said. 

In addition to studying astronomy in Cape Town, Tiao said she also studied abroad in Beijing for the FSP. She participated in the Astronomy FSP primarily to complete her course work in addition to participating in observations but said she went to Beijing to experience the place and learn the language. 

“That trip was really hard and it was the first place [where I]really wrestled with my Chinese-American identity; it’s really thrown into your face,” Tiao said. 

For Tiao, most of her learning of the culture came through mundane conversations and everyday interactions with locals. This was in contrast to her experience in Cape Town, where Tiao said she felt that Dartmouth students did not have to interact as much with the culture or people without seeking it out. In Beijing, she and her Dartmouth peers found it unavoidable. 

Tiao recalled that her experience in Beijing challenged her to confront her own identity, whereas Cape Town offered her little to grapple with.

“Cape Town was very fun and just that. Nothing changed,” Tiao said. 

Tiao also reflected on how her background may have played a part in providing her with a more personal and immersive experience in Beijing than in Cape Town.

“I always felt like a foreigner in Cape Town, but I could blend in in Beijing like I couldn’t before,” Tiao noted.  

Of course, the experience of every student studying abroad vastly differs case by case, with each student carrying their own history, background and opinions.

Sophia Miller ’22 studied Arabic in Morocco as part of the Language Study Abroad during the summer after her freshman year. She lived in a homestay with her 1-year-old host brother, a 10-year-old sister, 11-year-old host brother and a 14-year-old host sister. 

“I tried to make an effort to spend a lot of time at home with my host family,” Miller said. 

Miller said that her conversations with her host family and the excursions she took with her 14-year-old host sister Yasmine taught her most about the culture and lives of the people in Morocco. 

However, she said that Dartmouth culture still permeated her experience in Morocco and the dynamics of the group.

“It was weird to be away but not totally away,” Miller said. 

Each program comes with its own unique structure, place, goals and people. Many of the most memorable experiences students described were not planned or put into an itinerary. Tiao observed that merely looking at a culture does little good if you neglect to look at yourself. Students often return from studying abroad feeling “changed,” but the onus lies on the student to bring personal curiosity and commitment to their trip — pursuing interaction beyond what Dartmouth plans, and a willingness and desire to see themselves differently.