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Exploring identity through education abroad

Internationalising the campus has been a top priority at the University of Kentucky for several years, as it has for so many institutions of higher education. Educators across the globe agree that developing an international perspective is essential to students’ educational goals and their potential to become thoughtful, contributing members of our interconnected society.

Can participation in a study-abroad programme help internationalise your students and campus? Can a five-week programme really impact on the daily lives of students? Does a brief immersion experience offer enough time to influence the worldview of a student and of those with whom she or he comes into contact?

For the past two years the University of Kentucky and the German Fulbright Commission have run a programme that they believe does just that, for 25 German students and 20 American students from under-served populations.

The Institute of International Education recently awarded the University of Kentucky and the German Fulbright Commission the 2012 Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education, for their twin programmes of Discover USA and Discover Germany.

These exchange programmes provide an opportunity for students from under-represented populations to explore their own sense of identity through an international experience.

The key to the programme’s success lies in the friendships forged during the intensive, five-week sessions. Both programmes are carefully constructed to foster strong bonds between the participants and their fellow students at the host university, as well as within the cohorts themselves.

The German participants join Kentucky students during an activity-packed, campus-wide freshman orientation week, live in residence halls, attend classes, interact with students in classes, and visit the homes of their newfound American friends. Their presence is a centrepiece of Kentucky students’ introduction to campus and to the idea of the university as a global gateway.

Similarly, the US students travel to Freie Universität – Berlin where they attend seminars, interact with German students and, during excursions and free time, are usually accompanied by German peers. Through these encounters, students learn to look beyond stereotypes, to see a diverse and welcoming community that is curious about their backgrounds and eager to learn from them.

Many benefits for students

Another aspect of the programme’s success lies in the profound realisations about self, identity and community that many of the participants experience while abroad.

Due to the immigrant and first-generation college background of the German participants, many of them express the impression of not feeling accepted or welcomed in Germany – of not ‘feeling German enough’.

However, on the University of Kentucky campus they are in fact seen as German, and not as Arabic or Turkish or African. After the first week of the programme in 2011, for example, a Kazakhstan-born participant exclaimed: “I have never felt so German!”

In defining themselves for others, the students explore how they sometimes allow others’ perceptions to demarcate their own sense of self, and how they might reinvent themselves in a new place.

In the words of one of the Ghana-born German students: “I wonder how a country with so many different cultures, races and regional and social disparities can exist and become a great nation.” Though she was talking about the United States, she then realised she was also talking about Germany, Ghana and overarching concepts of nation and difference.

Of course, this high level of interaction has benefits for not only the programme cohort but the hosting campus as well.

For instance, the University of Kentucky is located in the heartland of the United States. A significant number of our students are first-generation college students who have never travelled outside of the state, much less outside of the country.

This programme offers many young people their first opportunity to really get to know a person from another culture – to see the world through new eyes. The diverse background of all involved shatters stereotypes of what a ‘typical’ German or American is like.

Cohorts from both programmes return to their home campuses with a renewed sense of community, eager to share their experience and exchange new ideas with others in a more substantial and self-aware manner.

Their study-abroad experience, alongside their own personal circumstances, have helped make them keen observers of how citizenship, identity and nationality are defined and how cultural, racial, ethnic and religious diversity is experienced in other countries.

Significantly impacting one’s life during a five-week study-abroad programme may be a lofty goal, and one whose success is difficult to express in purely quantitative terms. However, our annual assessment of these programmes has shown that the vast majority of participants do plan to study abroad again (92% of German respondents, for example).

All reported being surprised by how many preconceived notions about their hosts turned out to be wrong, and the majority of participants agreed that the programme was successful in promoting reflection on personal identity as well as fostering personal growth.

Another measure of the programme’s impact can be witnessed on the final morning on campus, as 25 German students bid a tearful farewell to their newly discovered American friends. The scene plays out like a movie, as the bus pulls away from the kerb and several University of Kentucky students jog alongside, waving goodbye.

At moments such as these, it is rewarding to understand the impact of the programme, and impossible to deny that five weeks can, in fact, be life-changing for all involved.

* Andrea O’Leary is director of Discover USA at the University of Kentucky.
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