Intercultural Corner Episode 2

Ancient city of Patan in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

What Does It Mean to be 'Immersed' in Culture?


In this episode of Intercultural Corner, host Dave McAvoy explores what it means to be immersed in a culture. Whether it is feeling lost in Dublin or a moment of unspoken peace in Madrid, the common thread is how comfortable—or not—we are made to feel when we are trying to learn about a new place. Guests include Karla Guinigundo, Director of Global Partnerships, and Mark Walsh Professor of Kinesiology Nutrition and Health who will discuss what makes his immersive programs in Nepal and Iceland so effective.


Dave: When we chatted last week with the Education Abroad staff, one thing that came up again and again in different ways was the feelings that we get when we are dipped into a different culture. Whether it was feeling lost in Dublin or a moment of unspoken peace in Madrid. The common thread is how comfortable-- or not we are made to feel when we are trying to learn about a new place.

This is Intercultural Corner the podcast from Global Initiatives on the campus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I'm David McAvoy our Global Learning coordinator and in this episode I'm sitting here with Karla Guinigundo, Director of Global Partnerships and Scholarships and we'll explore what it means to be immersed in a culture. What it can do? And whether that's even desirable. We’ll also chat with Mark Walsh Professor of Kinesiology Nutrition and Health to discuss what makes his immersive programs in Nepal and Iceland so effective. Now first of all it's probably useful to state the obvious and point out that the word immersion is a metaphor, you can probably tell I am a former English Professor. So it's about essentially being dunked in the deep end of a pool. So what do you think this has to do with studying abroad or travel generally? Karla what do you think?

Karla: When I think of immersion you know it really conjures up images of being uncomfortable. A situation where you need to adapt how you normally do things in order to adjust to the environment that you're in. And so me, it’s the initiation of the self-reflection process that is something that we always strive for in education abroad and international education programs which help students to really think about themselves in a different way. But for me the term immersion really is cliche phrases to get out of your comfort zone but it really is that. Pushing yourself to think about things differently and do things differently than you normally would.

Dave: You know it's funny because usually when you hear immersion-- You think this is this comfortable enveloping experience and underwater. There is this kind of discomfort because you're in a totally different kind of environment. And you really have to adapt, it is the sink or swim mentality that really gets at something super crucial about what immersion is.

You and I were talking about this informally a couple of months ago and it was largely in the context of virtual global learning. Both you and I are big proponents of virtual global learning. We are designing a new virtual program called Miami Connect, which is going live this winter that provides a lot of really hands-on access that students can have over fully online courses. But we have disagreed a little bit about whether virtual Global Learning could be described as immersive or not. I'm wondering if you could discuss what it is that you think is different about being in the place versus this kind of odd as an immersive experience.

Karla: I guess my reaction to that had been that I wouldn't call the Virtual Global experience an immersive experience because you can end it at any time. If you get enough, you can step back, you can turn off that computer and you can go do something that's comforting to you. I think the difference between, you know it's not that these virtual experiences aren't going to be valuable, but I when I am thinking about immersion-- I'm thinking about an environment in which you don't have any choice but to adapt. There’s value added to the learning process because of that. I'm interested to hear what Mark has to say on this from leading some of these programs in person.

Dave: What do you say Mark? What is your thought about this idea of being immersed? What is it that makes an immersive experience for you?

Mark: Well listening to Karla she uses a little bit different wording than I do. But it sounds like very much on the same page. I usually use that coin phrase taking them out of their comfort zone. So I try to take the students out of their comfort zone on several different levels. So for instance, since you mention my Nepal trip, I take them out of their comfort zone physiologically, linguistically, cultural. There's research that shows if you take a group of students and they have to endure something together, that’s when they grow. A part of it makes them uncomfortable and they really have to-- I'm not trying to punish them, but they struggle on their way through and that is a part of how we learn.

Now with regard to your second question about being there versus online. I believe I am on exactly the same page Karla is, and that is-- I studied abroad while I studied abroad for 8 years in Germany. When I took my German course there, I'd leave and the rest of day I would hear German and I have to speak German. I have to interact in German. Whereas when I'm here (in the US) taking a course for an hour and the rest of the day I listen to American Music. And do my conversing in American so if you're there you're forced to deal with whatever's there your entire day, whereas if you're online or doing some distance thing like you can turn it on and off you please. So I feel like it's less of a struggle because when you had it up to here and I know the people that are just listening to this can't see, but my hand is up on my forehead. When we had it up to here- you can't just turn it off if you're there. I think that is one of the added values to actually being there.

Karla: I was going to say, I think it’s not specific to non-US environments because you can certainly have an immersive experience in the United States. Other areas of the United States and cultures but I think it's the time frame and your inability to remove yourself from it that is what crosses that line into immersion. Exactly how long does that take I have no idea? But you can’t put a time on it, I think it does need to be a significant amount of time, like Mark said where you have that opportunity to struggle. You worked through the struggle and then you've learned from it.

Dave: I think this hinges on a really interesting idea-- that word endurance that uses Mark. You are enduring this experience. And enduring is a nice pun because it is something that happens to you, you are enduring this kind of struggle. But also it's an enduring experience in a sense that it is transformative and it changes you and it sticks with you a little bit more as a result of that kind of struggle. And I think there's something that's really central to this idea: immersion is the sensory aspect of it. Right? You're there, you're listening to it, you're smelling it, your tasting it. There is no escape from that kind of sensory experience of it, absolutely!

One thing I want to turn to right now is my own experience from this. I'm a Shakespearean scholar by trade, at the beginning of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew he has this really interesting moment where a character named Lucento, who is a young student, a nobleman who decided to study abroad. He's taking a study abroad trip essentially and he’s leaving Pisa to go to Padua for one specific reason. ‘For I have Pisa left and am Padua come, as he that leaves A shallow plash to plunge him in the deep And with satiety seeks to quench his thirst’. He very literally wants to leave this shallow Pond and dive deep to immerse himself into another culture. One thing that I think that happens to Lucento that happens to a lot of our students when they're on this kind of study abroad trips is that he's immediately distracted. He ends up getting distracted by a girl, he spends all his time with his own country people. It's a transformative experience for him, he finds a wife. But he doesn't actually have the kind of learning that you went there for in the first place and I think that the research on study abroad seems to bear this out in a really interesting way.

I think unanimously everybody declares that this idea of immersion is just a good, important and necessary thing and yet it doesn't always seem to work. Scholars like McVanderburgh and others have pointed out that this is part of what they call the Relativist Paradigm for Global Learning, simply being in a new place and experiencing those experiences is enough to make an impact. We need to adopt a constructive paradigm one that allows students to immerse themselves in a new culture, but also be facilitated in a way that will allow them to understand how cultures are produced. So I'm wondering if Mark, you can speak to this a little bit. How do you say facilitate your students? Because I think that this is something that you really excel at. How do you facilitate your students in their learning to really be able to understand the experience that they're immersed in.

Mark: Well, I agree like if you just set somebody somewhere, they might have a great adventure but if you target some things intentionally add some components that may be of more complete learning experience. So one thing I do that may not be a part of my official class but we have a bunch of meetings before the semester the session starts. Everybody gives a presentation on some aspect of life in the place we're going. So when we go to Nepal, they will present the caste system because it still exists. They will present about Buddhism and Hinduism because in Nepal most of the people are Hindu but on the Northern Edge where we go in the Himalayas there’s a lot more Buddhist than Hindu. Hindu and Buddhist, two religions that co-exist better than most. Then they'll talk about farming at altitude and we'll all have some kind of baseline knowledge about the situation before we get there. Education and Healthcare are some other topics we hit.

And then when we are there, we meet some locals and they guide us through the Himalayas. So we are basically living with about 15 locals that represents usually 6-7 of the indigenous groups of Nepal. You really can't live with people seeing them breakfast, lunch and dinner-- the whole day, without learning about them. Now that's kind of any kind of your first example of just dropping somebody there and letting them have an experience. But because we give them some previous knowledge beforehand and then they journal every day about things that are differences they're noticing between our culture and whatever culture we’re in.

We'll have group discussions usually three or four times a day, discussing all those differences that they're noticing so maybe putting them in context. One example is the caste system, we don't have a trip go by without somebody coming to me and say ‘Mark, man you got to put an end to this, it isn’t right’. When we’re there as an observer, we can't change somebody's culture but putting in contacts and saying this is how they grew up and the history of it. It may help students understand the culture they’re in, rather than just labeling and saying okay this is a bad part of their culture. This is a good part of the culture. Understanding the background to it. There are some parts that we’ll label as bad like the caste system.

From the Westen point of view, it isn't a good thing. Just to go by example, we could step in and stop something at the moment. That person they’ll have a lot of difficulties once we leave. So we're probably better off kind of observing but just taking all those differences and putting them in context and discussing them. I think it helps the students understand them relative to our culture. And have a better understanding of not only the culture they are in but the culture that we came from at the same time. I mean you learn about somebody else, you learn a lot about yourself at the same time. so just putting that framework around, instead of it being just random experiences, giving them some intentional discussion with a little better understanding. I think that's one of the things I do.

Dave: Absolutely! What I love about that, is that it leans into discomfort right? It’s the sense of as opposed to an older version of this immersion model. Where it's just sink or swim, throw them in, where students might be more inclined to look for the things that are familiar to them and see the things that are common to their normal experience. I don't know, this is actually about adaptation and flexibility. It's really about leaning into the discomfort of difference. What is it that you find different? Let's talk about that. Let’s actually learn about that difference. Because that is in many ways a value add in of a Global Education.

Karla: You mention theoretical models, I always think of Bennett’s developmental scale with Intercultural sensitivity and sort of helping students move along that continuum to present them with these opportunities to spur curiosity. To ask questions. To reflect on that. You know the ideal outcome which is the development of empathy, wanting students to be able to not feel sorry for someone if they don't think something is right but to understand why that is in order to appreciate that person's lived experience in that environment.

Dave: There is so much that you just said that we don’t have to cover in this episode. We should really make space to cover in future episodes. As we consider how to create a learning experience based at least partly on Milton Bennet’s model that you cited. The research shows a lot of us, both professionals in the field and faculty design programs we sometimes leave it at the very abstract metaphoric level of immersion without taking the next step of what that really means and how to get there. Immersion is about creating a sometime necessarily uncomfortable experience partly because the empathy we all want our student to aspire to is so difficult. It’s hard and uncomfortable to adjust to a new lived experience of the world that you never encounter. We will explore more depth on how to manage that discomfort so learning can still happen.

Next Episode, my co-host Jazz Spinola will be talking to some Miami students about their experiences traveling abroad and how they feel they were helped to become immersed in a new place. For now many, many, many thanks to Karla Guinigundo and professor Mark Walsh for sharing their time, their stories, and their perspectives. And special thanks to Jessica Yeung for producing this segment. This has been the Intercultural corner. Talk to you soon!

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