Study abroad offers new cultural experiences; lifelong memories

WASHINGTON, D.C.–American University students and alumni interviewed this week described their study abroad program as an opportunity for them to experience new cultures first hand and understand the dynamics and lifestyles of different groups of people. 

Sara E. Dumont, executive director of AU’s study abroad program, stated that with over 130 programs available at the university, it’s ranked #2 for study abroad participation among research universities. And, she said, 70 percent of AU students will have a study abroad experience by the time they graduate.

Dumont said the office’s most important consideration is the academic side of the program but noted “most of our students will experience some level of culture shock – in fact, they should, and we tell them that if they don’t, they can’t really be trying to engage with another culture!”

Many students including Mikita Hill-Cashaw, who went to Brazil, said they sought a study abroad experience for the cultural exposure rather than the academic component.

“It’s like while you’re here we’re friends and we’re family, and you can depend on me and we can do things together, and I’ll do things for you and we can have like this nice mutual relationship, even though I had no idea who they were,” Hill-Cashaw said about Brazilians.

Not all experiences offered a huge culture shock, however.

Ambar Pardilla, 21, recently returned from a semester in London and said that although there were subtle differences and nuances in British culture, it wasn’t too much of a change, and she was able to adapt pretty quickly to the lifestyle. 

In terms of preparing for the change in culture and lifestyle, students took different approaches.

Pardilla and 25-year-old Abby Osamwonyi said that students research the country they will be visiting often to avoid any culturally inappropriate actions.

AU itself also offers a series of resources that aims to prepare students for their experience.

Students reflect on study abroad. By Ana Salazar.

. Dumont said that the Study Abroad office has detailed brochures for each program they offer, in addition to general information sessions, one-one-one advising with AU Abroad advisors, a pre-departure orientation and an on-site orientation. 

But Hill-Cashaw handled her preparation differently.

“I was kind of radical in that I didn’t, I just kind of went,” Hill-Cashaw remembered. “I didn’t want to do any kind of research, I didn’t wanna have any preconceived notions of what the country might be like.”

Many of the students interviewed said that one of the most valuable take-aways from study abroad was understanding that cultures and people aren’t as simple as a Google search or a travel guide and that they never would have been able to understand the culture without experiencing it first hand. 

“All of my host families were different, and their dynamics were different, and the way they interacted with me and each other was very different, so it’s less about ‘These are Brazilians, Brazilians are one specific way. I’m an American, I’m this one specific way’ and it’s more about how are these people individually within their culture and within the broader spectrum of like humanity,” Hill-Cashaw said.

“It’s kind of cool.”