For my French study abroad semester, orientation was 2 weeks long and is finally nearing its end. It’s been an exhausting time, though nowhere near as intense as the orientation in Yokoze, Japan for the fall. Comparing the two, as well as my internship program in Mongolia, brings about some interesting reflections about what constitutes a “good” study abroad program. Namely, I feel that integration into the community for students is key to developing a truly fulfilling experience.
To reduce culture shock and humanize the other culture more, study abroad programs should, during their orientations, choose programs that integrate the individuals as much as possible into their communities.
Mongolia: As the program I participated in consisted of independent internships in Asia, I had absolutely no orientation or community integration whatsoever. My school just gave me the grant money and said “go.” This made it exceedingly difficult the first couple of days. Despite the efforts I made to reach out to Mongolians, the friends I made were primarily Peace Corps members at the beginning. I made more Mongolian friends through local events, my job, and attending art/dance classes. Gradually, my circle expanded to include a more diverse crowd, but I still find myself wishing I’d better experienced Mongolian society.
Japan: As much as we disliked it at the time, Middlebury did a very good job at integrating the students into the community. By engaging in highly intensive, immersive activities such as rice cutting and “welcome parties” in Yokoze, Tottori, and even just the whereabouts of Mitaka, I felt like I gained significant exposure to Japanese society and had access to it whenever I wanted. We also had to participate in a course called “Community Engagement,” which I felt allowed for a more authentic experience. The extracurriculars offered at ICU were very accessible as well, and students could easily get involved with other 4 year student circles.
France: The orientation consisted primarily of museums and slideshows on what to expect. There was one night where we had a party with Wellesley alumna and I met some French people. But personally, I wish that we had the chance to participate in activities where we actively had to interact with Parisians or other French people. I also wish the infosessions weren’t so extensive as I feel it’s probably better to just dive head-first into academics and living instead of dragging out the suspense. For extracurriculars, we will have to see, but so far I feel as though the French system is generally much harder to penetrate than that of Japan.
Furthermore, exchange student integration into the community empowers both the students and the locals by facilitating the creation of positive relationships. If interactive activities are built into a study abroad program, then this eases pressure on both the travelers and the citizens of the host country by providing a forum for communication. The complaint is often that “neither one wants to make the first move,” so everyone just ends up staying in their own circles. Why not facilitate the process?