Intercultural Corner Episode 1

Collage of study abroad experiences and a variety of people

What Do We Miss Learning When We're Abroad?

When COVID-19 hit our shores earlier this year, people knew immediately and intuitively that higher education would have to be very, very different. One aspect that had to be transformed most urgently was our education abroad program.

This is the inaugural episode of Intercultural Corner, the podcast from Global initiatives on the campus at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. On today’s program we’ll start to explore that “special sauce” that makes traveling so exciting for people who like to learn about the world around them. What is that special something that makes learning happen when we go to new places, meet new people, experience new things?


Dave: When COVID19 hit our shores earlier this year, people knew immediately and intuitively that higher education would have to be very, very different. One aspect that had to be transformed most urgently was our education abroad program. Students expecting to spend a semester exploring the world found themselves newly trapped in their bedrooms, isolated when they most wanted to connect. At this moment, when the world feels so much smaller and interconnected, but also bigger and more divided, how do we make Intercultural learning happen?

This is Intercultural Corner, the podcast from Global initiatives on the campus at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. I’m Dave McAvoy, our Global Learning Coordinator, and here in the very first episode I'll chat with some of our education abroad staff to share some stories that will begin to dig into this question of what intercultural learning is, why it matters so much, especially during this global crisis. On today’s program we’ll start to explore that “special sauce” that makes traveling so exciting for people who like to learn about the world around them. What is that special something that makes learning happen when we go to new places, meet new people, experience new things; new things which at best we read about or watch a video on YouTube about. How do we manage to take something intangible but also potentially life changing away with us when we return to the places we call home, a building block for the life we will create for ourselves and those around us?

Now I’m mixing my metaphors an awful lot but I think that also gets at just how difficult it is to isolate what exactly intercultural learning is. Let’s start something a little bit simpler. Since most of us have been stuck in the house for six months now, we haven't had a chance to travel a great deal. And all of us are in education, so what do you miss learning most?

Let's start with Ryan Dye, our Director of Education Abroad. What do you miss most Ryan?

Ryan: Dave, I miss so much about travel.

Dave: What specifically? What’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Ryan: Well what I miss most I would say is learning how to navigate a new city.

Dave: I think that's great, cities are the first thing we always think about when we think about traveling. We think about the big cities, the great cities of the world. So what is it about cities specifically that draws you? Because obviously Oxford-- not a huge city, so what is it about cities elsewhere?

Ryan: I grew up in a small town and there's an adrenaline rush about going to a big city that is really powerful for me. When I go to a new international city it's especially powerful. Cities are such wonderfully complex ecosystems. And I love getting into a city and on that first day taking a walk. There's so many different neighborhoods in a large international city, each neighborhood has a unique cultural personality. Getting into that city on day one with a map in hand and trying to get a feel for the place by walking around is just a tremendous rush, the sights and the sounds and the smells of the new cities. And try to figure out what it's about, getting lost trying to find your way back home.

Dave: I love that you mention getting lost because for me that's something that I find very anxiety-producing when I'm at home, right? But when I'm abroad, getting lost I feel like is a big part of it. Where it's like, where am I? I have no idea but you know what? I have no idea where I am anyways so that’s just a part of the experience.

Ryan: I 100% agree with you. I have a terrible sense of direction, about the times I've gotten lost. I did my undergraduate at Notre Dame and people joke that I went to school at Notre Dame because they have a golden dome so I could never lose my way. But when I'm abroad in the new city I love getting lost. For some reason I feel bolder, I feel more confident. I just feel like this is part of the experience, right? You know, getting into this new place and you're trying to figure out the culture and I think that getting lost is a part of that.

Is there a city that you enjoy getting lost in the most?

Well I'd say that one of my first experiences getting lost was in Dublin as a graduate student. Dublin is divided by the river Liffey and you have the touristy South Dublin with all the Tony shops and my hostel in North Dublin, a very different place, much grittier. I remember taking a walk from South Dublin, where everything is very nice and shiny and sharp into North Dublin. I just felt like I've learned volumes about the torture anglo-Irish relationships and about race and class in modern Dublin. (Something) that I could not appreciate just from my textbooks and so I just felt like okay this is actually how you learn about a new culture and a new place. It's about getting out there and getting in it and really just getting your mind and your senses to that new place.

Dave: I love it. Thank you so much Ryan.

Alright let's follow up now with Karla Guinigundo, our Director of Global Partnerships and Scholarship. Karla how about you? What do you miss most?

Karla: Well this question reminded me of something that happened quite a few years ago. I was asked by someone in Indonesia if it was true that you can purchase a gun at Starbucks in the United States.

Dave: Oh my goodness purchase a gun at Starbucks. That would be something!

Karla: And so you can imagine, I was pretty shocked with the question. But what followed this was a really great discussion about how gun ownership is a reality in the United States for many Americans. But there are things like laws, background checks, and waiting periods that go along with that purchase process to ensure that it really isn't as easy as just walking into a Starbucks-- Though that might have been the impression from the outside.

Conversations like that are what I miss that put me into a position to really learn how Americans are being perceived abroad and to be able to discuss other perceptions about life in the United States. You do learn so much about the people in the place that you're visiting while you're traveling. But travel can also be a very powerful catalyst for self-reflection and then the opportunity to sort of turn that lens on ourselves and think about our own culture and values.

Dave: No, I love that. I mean it’s almost the flipside of what Ryan was talking about. Right, where you can go to a new place and be fully immersed in this place and just dive deep into its own value and history. But then you can also turn that around as a mirror onto yourself. This is the prospective that the rest of the world has about us.

Karla: It's always telling when you interact with people who are surprised or shocked to learn something different about the United States that they hadn't understood or perceived before.

Dave: It's a big hot button one (topic) so that makes a lot of sense. Thank you so much Karla.

Alright, let's turn to Kevin Fitzgerald, ourStudy Abroad Advisor. So Kevin, what do you miss most?

Kevin: Well you know when I was asked this question, I was really just thinking about my own life. How we rushed through the days and then we all just turned inward. We think about how big our problems are and unique and insurmountable --we just think we're kind of all alone in the world but it's really when we travel abroad that we meet so many others. Remind us to take a deep breath, relax and just live in the moment.

Dave: That's a good message for this moment as well. Especially where there are so many stressors around. So tell me a little bit more about how that works when you're abroad.

Kevin: So I was thinking about this one example I had recently. This past November I was in Madrid, which has been in the news so much lately with all the pandemic --that it really keeps this little transaction kind of more poignant. But there I was like freshly landed in Madrid, waiting for my hotel to have my room open up and I could smell the fresh bread smell coming from down the street. So I walked in and without even like a hello or welcome they just turned around and pointed and told me to sit down. As they were pulling fresh bread out of the oven they threw a little piece at me right there and then, without even asking for payment or what I wanted. They just knew that it was early in the morning and I looked like a weary traveler, and here was a gift and a welcome. Being in the presence of that welcoming spirit abroad is needed to continuously teach us that each of our moments are really precious and we need to take a break from our day-to-day and hold on to that.

Dave: I really love that because one of the things that I assume we'll be talking about in the future episode is mindfulness. It’s a super duper important thing for any kind of Intercultural relationship and having that moment just sit there and be present in that moment --to smell the bread and acknowledge people nodding and smiling at you. That seems like that first crucial moment for really, really engaging.

Kevin: Absolutely, it's humanity at its simplest, right? There's no need for words or didn't need to be money, there didn't need to be anything complicated. It just needs to be a welcoming spirit and that simplicity that really helps us understand our Intercultural-ness and our shared Humanity with one another.

Dave:That's beautiful, thank you so much Kevin. Alright next up is Peter Maribei, our Associate Director of Education Abroad. What is it that you missed the most? Peter: One of the things I enjoy when I'm traveling is that it's just an opportunity to find out what is the next happening thing or the next happening place. Just because people in the travel and hospitality industry seem to be in touch with trends. Because of who they're in touch with and the kind of people that they serve in their business.

Dave: I love that you're mentioning industry because obviously there's this whole industry of people who are there to give us the best possible experiences when we travel. And it's supposed to be invisible, right? We are not supposed to notice it or remember that. But it's a hugely important part of the experience. So tell me a little bit more about that.

Peter: So there was one time I was traveling and I was passing through London Heathrow. You know I was expecting that there's going to be a long line at security checks and I was quite pleasantly surprised-- This is one of the world's busiest airports. I was through security like in less than 5 minutes. As I was going to the lounge, there was a station with Emojis, like smiling faces and sad faces indicating what was your experience like and you just punched the button and just went through. I didn't think much about it until later I was reading an article, maybe in the airline and it was talking about a company called ‘Happy or Not’. They developed this technology to enable airports and any other kind of business to receive instant feedback from customers. Whether they were satisfied with their service or not. Whether they were meeting their goals and so it was quite fascinating. I recalled when I was sitting at the airport they had a dashboard showing how well the airport was doing in terms of cleanliness in the restrooms, the speed and the courtesy of workers, the security checks, and the different areas. So out of a score of possible five, you can see on the dashboard 4.8, 4.9, 4.83. It was really fascinating because I had just been thinking about how to improve and how to deliver service and here was an example of something. And then I went on to research and see who came up with this. I tell you, it was so interesting I had to write an article about it.

Dave: This is fascinating! What I love is that that brings up this issue of data, as a really important part of what we do. This is another thing that I assume will come up in a future episode, how we collect data to determine what people are getting out of a travel experience. And the very simplicity of ‘happy or not’, right? That makes it really fun and exciting. Thanks Peter!

And last but not least, Annalee Jones, Global Program Coordinator. What is it that you miss the most?

Annalee: So there are two examples that come to mind that at first might be kind of simple, but they can actually be really great learning experiences.

Dave: Okay what are you thinking?

Annalee: So two of my favorite learning experiences when traveling anywhere in the world involves staying in a hostel and going to the local grocery store.

Dave: Okay, that’s really interesting because I feel like the more potentially mundane parts of travel. The hostel is just where you have to put your head down at the end of the night and the grocery store is just because you need food. So what is strikes you so much about those two things.

When you're staying in a hostel, you can meet people from all over the world and despite the transient nature of a hostel it's like an immediate community of travelers. And you can all have the shared experience of exploring a new location but with completely different perspectives. My favorite hostel that I ever stayed in, is in Tel Aviv, Israel because there was this really strong sense of community. Which was really great because I was there during 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I was going to say, Tel Aviv is not always known by outsiders as a place that has community. So talk to me about that? How do you mean?

I mean, there were sirens going off from the Iron Dome because missiles were flying around. All of us staying at the hostel, we came together to discuss what was going on and it was really insightful to me to hear perspectives of this conflict from all around the world that deferred-- sometimes very differently from what the dominant perspectives in the United States.v

David: That is fascinating! What about grocery stores? You also mention grocery stores?

Annalee: Okay, so I know this is pretty simple but I find it to be such an adventure when you're in another country because you never know what cultural difference you might run into. For example, when you go to France you need to weigh and label your produce before going to the checkout. And it is a really impact learning experience to be embarrassed American when you're checking out with a long line behind you --and the cashier asked you to run back to the produce section to weigh your fruit.

Dave: I love that, I mean it’s those tiny details that reveal so much and it creates this feeling of discomfort which is sort of necessary. You have to be just a little bit uncomfortable to feel embarrassed or feel lost or whatever.

Like you said, something that is so mundane when you're at home while you are in another country it’s exciting, it’s adventure. It’s also sometimes what is really difficult. But you really learn how many different ways there are for people to create their systems and their norms-- but that these differences aren't better or worse, they're just different.

Yeah absolutely! And if I’m thinking about my own experience it's very much related to sitting down at a restaurant for the first time in a new culture. You get a sense of their value, just by how everything is organized, how long it takes for a server to come to you, how you need to call the server, how you order, how long a meal takes, who you're having them with. So it is a very very different thing to have dinner at 10 pm in Spain, then it is to have it the average dinner time in the US. It is a different thing to be surrounded by your extended family in Italy, then it is potentially be eating on the go in the US. It’s more the norm here. You get a sense of the values of the culture from this very small detail about how you sit at the dinner table --which is really useful for me personally.

So we heard a lot of stories today and all of them are really fantastic. All the different aspects of learning abroad from the adrenaline rush of immersion in a new place to mindfully accepting the moment. From exploring the new aspects of the industry that help us travel to better understanding to how the rest of the world sees us. We’ll look at all of that in more detail in the next episodes to come. Next episode by co-host, Jazz Spinola will be talking to some Miami students about their experiences traveling abroad and what they most miss learning.

For now many, many thanks to Ryan Dye, Karla Guinigundo, Kevin Fitzgerald, Peter Maribei, and Annalee Jones for sharing their stories. And special thanks to Jessica Yeung for producing this segment. This has been the Intercultural Corner. Talk to you soon.

Intercultural Corner Podcasts on SoundCloud