Cultural Immersion – The Essence Of Study Abroad

Defining the most important part of studying abroad – cultural immersion

Cultural Immersion Chinese Mask Study AbroadCultural immersion – what every study abroad advisor will tell you is the most essential part of going abroad, and what many students say justifies the cost and time spent studying in another country. I’ve realized that to most students, myself included, phrases like “cultural immersion” and “global education” seem pretty vague. I’ve decided to expand on the whole concept in this post, as it’s much easier for students to take part in the most important aspect of their study abroad experience once they actually know what it is.

The Problem

Unfortunately, many students are no longer embracing this aspect of studying abroad, whether it’s because they don’t understand it, or because of a number of other reasons. If you haven’t read Justin Pope’s “American students abroad pushed out of ‘bubbles’“, I definitely suggest taking a look.

One of the main points of the article is that as A) more and more American students are studying abroad (which is great), and B) rapid improvement in technology makes communicating with friends and family back in the U.S. infinitely easier (also a positive thing!), “it’s become easier to head off on what’s supposed to be a voyage of discovery and fail to immerse oneself in the local culture.”

This is obviously more prevalent in places like London, Barcelona, and Rome which have been hotspots for study abroad programs for the past 20 years, and have also been the biggest benefactors of globalization. The point isn’t that culture doesn’t exist in those places anymore; it’s more so that you’re no longer forced to immerse yourself in it.

What Is Cultural Immersion

There is an intangible value which comes from acclimating in a new place, integrating into the community, interacting with local people, and understanding the way others live – that’s a very simple and hopefully easy to understand definition of cultural immersion.

Cultural immersion is really just a matter of getting out of your dorm room and expat environment and into the world around you. Integrating yourself into a culture doesn’t take a lot of work, but you have to actively participate. More than likely, you chose a particular location abroad because it interested you more than any other. Get excited about exploring all of these things that you think are going to interest you.

How To Immerse Yourself In The Local Culture

When I studied abroad in Scotland, Holy Cross required us to complete an Independent Cultural Immersion Project which we were actually graded on. I’m not saying you need to necessarily make it into a project, but the basic ideas and guidelines behind it, which I’ll go into below, are a great place to start.

Taken directly from the Holy Cross study abroad office website, the ICIP “offers students a unique extracurricular or co-curricular opportunity to immerse themselves in an aspect of the local community that matters deeply to them. The purpose of the project is to encourage students to develop a personal interest or passion and, thereby come to better understand their host country. The ICIP thus provides a concrete structure in which dedicated engagement with the project can deeply enrich a student’s experience abroad.”

The ICIP will likely fall into one of three general categories:

  • A Study Abroad Internship, in virtually any field which provides a productive and enriching experience.
  • A Community Based Learning Project where you regularly volunteer at a special charity or at a university, church-affiliated or secular agency devoted to community service.
  • Follow Your Passion and develop a hobby or pursuit that is of real interest to you.

My Cultural Immersion Examples

I chose the last option, and spent my year following my passion – the sport of golf (which was pretty appropriate seeing as St. Andrews is considered to be the home of the game).

I set personal goals, which included continuously improving my scores and learning more about the rules of the game, but more importantly, I took time to learn how the game of golf had influenced the town of St. Andrews. I went to the British Golf museum, talked with caddies, groundskeepers, and course staff, interviewed local store and restaurant owners, and made every effort to play with locals.

I didn’t have to take part in an actual ICIP while studying abroad in Beijing, China, although CET did a great job planning events and trips which exposed us to Chinese culture and history and helped us to understand Chinese life.

These included historical trips, like our weekend in Xi’an, language activities, like speaking with old people in a park, and cultural activities, like going to see Beijing Opera. Over the course of the past year, I’ve seen many international schools in China that follow the same type of program.

If you’re an active participant in the everyday life of the community and your school (joining clubs, attending community events, playing local sports, going to the bars, clubs, and pubs, and of course traveling), as opposed to being a passive observer who sits in their room, it’s almost impossible not to get deep into a culture.

If you have any other questions or comments please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!

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This post was sponsored by Yew Chung International School Shanghai, which instructs students using a bilingual and bi-cultural teaching model, and offers unique travel immersion trips through their World Classroom and Experiencing China programs.